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Expert advice: Is it safe to fly while pregnant?

Monica Tan
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Excess baggage: When is it OK to fly while carrying a bub? Image: Getty
"It is very important that women check with their airline to make sure that they are happy to carry them."
Monica Tan

It's natural for women to get nervous about flying while pregnant, but is it actually dangerous?

We talk to Dr Gino Pecoraro, from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) and find out what mums-to-be need worry about — and what they don't when heading for the runway. Plus, we get the official word from Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger on the issue.

What the doctor says

How far into the pregnancy is it still OK to fly?

Dr Gino Pecoraro: We generally recommend that pregnant women don't fly internationally after 28 to 32 weeks, although for flights within Australia, most carriers will carry them until 36 weeks. It is very important that women check with their airline to make sure that they are happy to carry them and what sort of documentation they might need from their obstetrician.

There are some airports and countries where it is not advised that pregnant women travel. This is frequently related to inability to purchase travel insurance which covers the possibility of premature delivery.

Do going through airport metal detectors affect the pregnancy?

Dr P: Metal detectors in airports do not emit ionising radiation, but rather a low frequency electromagnetic field similar to that which is produced by many home appliances. This low-level exposure is considered safe for pregnant women.

And what about cabin pressure?

Dr P: Large planes all have pressurised cabins meaning that the oxygen tension in the air breathed is similar to that found in higher altitude communities. This is thought to be completely safe unless a woman is suffering from severe anaemia, sickle cell disease where the blood cells change shape at low oxygen tension or placental insufficiency where the placenta is struggling to extract the oxygen from the mothers inspired air to supply the baby. Smaller planes without pressurised cabins pose a higher risk.

What is the best way to deal with morning sickness while flying?

Dr P: Morning sickness and nausea can be a perennial problem both on the ground and in the air. Frequent small carbohydrate rich meals are thought to help, as well as maintaining hydration and, if necessary, taking approved anti-nausea medication as prescribed by your obstetrician.

What are your tips to ensure the health of a mother and an unborn baby while flying?

Dr P: A pregnant woman is at greater risk of deep vein thrombosis compared to non-pregnant passengers and so it is recommended she maintains hydration as well as exercising her calves during a long haul flight. It may be recommended by her doctor that she use anti-embolic stockings or even anticoagulant medications if she has an underlying procoagulant tendency or has had deep vein thrombosis in the past. This is best decided after discussion with her obstetrician.

Obviously avoiding alcohol which promotes dehydration is important. Remember, no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been demonstrated and so at the moment, Australian recommendations are that pregnant women avoid alcohol altogether.

And the best advice I can give women intending to travel when they are pregnant is to discuss their plans with their obstetrician. As always it is important to weigh up risk versus benefit. How important is the trip being considered? Can it be taken early on in the pregnancy or delayed till after the baby is born? Where is she going, and how has the pregnancy progressed to date? If travel is non-vital and can be safely delayed, it may well be worthwhile considering doing this.

What the airlines say

Here's a look at what three of Australia's most popular airlines say about mums-to-be flying on board their flights:

Qantas

For flights that are four hours or more, pregnant women can travel up to the end of the 36th week for single pregnancies and the end of the 32nd week for multiple pregnancies (e.g. twins).For flights that are less than four hours they can travel up to the end of the 40th week for single pregnancies and the end of the 36th week for multiple pregnancies. Medical clearance is required if they are having complications with your pregnancy and it is not a routine pregnancy.

After 28 weeks, mothers-to-be need to carry a certificate or letter from a registered medical practitioner or registered midwife confirming:

  • - the estimated date of delivery;
  • - whether it is a single or multiple pregnancy;
  • - that the pregnancy is a routine pregnancy and that there are no complications with the pregnancy.

The certificate or letter must be available on request and be carried with them at the airport and during the flight in their cabin baggage.

Click here for more info from Qantas.

Jetstar

Jetstar allow flying up to the start of 36th week of a normal pregnancy. Those who are 28 weeks pregnant would need to seek medical clearance prior to flying. For women experiencing complications or are expecting multiple births Jetstar recommend that they speak to their doctor before booking.

Click here for more info. from Jetstar.

Tiger Airways

Pregnant women must have completed their journey in full by the end of the 34th week of pregnancy. Flying is not permitted from the beginning of the 35th week onwards. A medical certificate is required to confirm that the passenger is fit to travel between the beginning of the 30th week and the end of the 34th week.

Click here for more info from Tiger.

Have you flown while pregnant? Were they any issues? Tell us your experiences below.

Related video: Woman in labour turns back Jetstar flight

User comments
My husband and I decided to fly to Cairns for 5 days as a last holiday before our first baby was due to arrive. I was 31 weeks pregnant and with only a 3 hour flight and 9 weeks to go didn't think that they would be any concerns with flying. After about 2 hours into the flight and after a visit to the bathroom, I knew that something was not quite right. I told my Husband I was concerned about the baby. He told me to relax and that we would be landing soon. About 20 minutes later my water broke on the plane whilst in my seat, I was not sure at the time what was happening, but knew that this wasn't normal. I became anxious but did not want to alarm anyone apart from my Husband and remained very calm until we landed and were of the plane. Making our way to Cairns Base Hospital were they confirmed that my water had broke and that I would be having my baby in Cairns. After many tears and 2 weeks later I delivered a little baby boy. 6 weeks later we finally arrived home to Melbourne.
Last year my husband and I booked a Jetstar flight (Syd-Adel) at 31wks pregnant. Cleared by my doctor, fit, healthy and a frequent flyer I had no concerns about the short flight. We paid for front-row seats as thought it would make my trip more comfortable and enable increased blood-flow. Having read ALL the T&C's when booking the seat I deemed myself 100% capable of meeting all requirements (inc. lifting). There was NO mention you could not book the seat if pregnant. Cleared when I checked in and also when boarding I took my seat. It was then I was approached and asked to move as I could not occupy an emergency seat if over 6mths pregnant and I should have seen this in the T&C's when booking the seat. My points noted above fell on deaf ears and I was forced to squish into a window seat one row behind my husband, unable to get out and very upset. What should have been a routine flight turned into one of the most emotionally humiliating and frustrating experiences I have encountered.

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