Flying during pregnancy

Flying during pregnancy: how high is the risk?

Jennifer Weitbrecht
16.11.2020
6 minutes

Many parents-to-be would like to enjoy one last holiday for two before the birth of their child. Relax one last time before the whole world turns upside down and everything revolves around the little creature for the near future.

Whether it’s a last holiday before the birth, visiting relatives and friends or a business trip, most expectant mothers probably ask themselves: “Does flying during pregnancy harm my baby and what should I be aware of?

What are the risks of flying during pregnancy?

First of all, we can give green light for aviation enthusiasts: Flying during pregnancy is less problematic than often feared. Provided that the pregnancy has gone smoothly so far and both the expectant mother and the unborn child are healthy, there is not much to stop you travelling by air during your pregnancy. Of course there are some remaining risks that should be considered:

Increased risk of thrombosis when flying during pregnancy

Let’s start right away with what is probably the most important factor: the increased risk of thrombosis due to prolonged sitting, especially on long-haul flights, is no secret. A pregnancy further increases the risk of thrombosis. If both factors are combined, it is advisable to take precautionary measures:

High altitude radiation – a danger for the unborn child?

Everyone knows that X-rays during pregnancy can affect the unborn child, but the possible effects of cosmic radiation during pregnancy are less well known.

Every passenger is exposed to increased cosmic radiation when flying. The longer the flight and the higher the flight altitude, the greater the exposure. The flight route also has an influence: the closer the route passes the poles, the greater the radiation.

Especially in the early weeks of pregnancy, radiation is dangerous for the unborn child, as it can cause malformations. But why is this so? From the 5th week, the foetus’ organs develop – a particularly sensitive phase in the embryonic developmental period. Long-haul flights should therefore be avoided in the first trimester. At a later stage of development, the risk of malformations and miscarriage is significantly lower.

One more sentence to soothe you: Of course, the cosmic radiation exposure in the air is generally higher than on the ground, but even on the ground the radiation sometimes varies greatly from region to region, so that in some regions the exposure on the ground is even higher than in the air.

Lower oxygen content in the aircraft

The higher you fly, the further the oxygen content of the air decreases. A lower oxygen content can generally increase the risk of miscarriage, especially in the first 3 months of pregnancy.

We can also reassure you here: At normal cruising altitude, the difference in the oxygen content of the air is too small to pose a serious risk. This is true at least for normal pregnancies without complications. If there is already an undersupply of oxygen to the baby in the womb, air travel can actually worsen the situation in the worst case.

Flying during pregnancy

Flying during pregnancy – risks and regulations per trimester

How safe flying is during pregnancy also depends on the individual case. If the pregnancy is inconspicuous and both mother and child are doing well, you can fly from the second and up into the third trimester without any particularly high risk – especially on short-haul flights.

It’s best to find out about the applicable regulations from the airlines in question as early as possible, as these can vary. Who wants to stand at the airport desk and be sent away again when they are very pregnant?

1st trisemester (week of pregnancy 1 to 12)

The embryo is particularly sensitive during the first three months of pregnancy as the organs develop. The risk of miscarriage is highest during this period. If air travel is not absolutely necessary, you should refrain from flying in the first 12 weeks, especially from long-haul flights.

2nd trisemester (week of pregnancy 13 to 24)

As soon as the second trimester of pregnancy is reached, i.e. around the 13th week of pregnancy, the risk of malformations and miscarriage is reduced many times over. If you are planning to fly during pregnancy, now would be the best time: morning sickness and fatigue have subsided, the critical phase of organ development is over, premature birth can be ruled out and the pregnancy belly does not yet bother you too much.

3rd trimester (week of pregnancy 25 to 40)

The third trimester begins with the 25th week of pregnancy. Some airlines now require a gynaecologist’s certificate confirming that the pregnant woman is fit to fly. From the 36th week onwards, most airlines exclude carriage, and in the case of a twin or multiple pregnancy in some cases from the 29th week onwards.

One of the reasons is the possible risk of premature birth. But who really wants to experience this above the clouds, with sub-optimal medical care? For this reason, flying should not be attempted from about week 28 onwards.

Flying with a certificate from the gynaecologist

If flying cannot be avoided in the last trimester, a certificate from the gynaecologist is required. Forms can be found on the websites of most airlines. Please note: The date on the certificate should not be older than two weeks when checking in at the airport. The certificate contains the following information:

You not only have to present the doctor’s certificate, but also the maternal passport at check-in. Afterwards you should store both safely in your hand luggage.

Flying during pregnancy

Tips for flying during pregnancy

One final important tip: the seat belt on the plane should always be fastened under the belly so that the unborn child remains unharmed even in turbulence.

What to do when flying is your job?

In aviation, strict rules apply to pregnant cabin attendants and pilots: They are released from their duties as soon as their pregnancy is announced.

If female pilots wish to continue flying, an exception can be made up to the 26th week of pregnancy if the pregnancy is going smoothly and it is clarified with the gynaecologist. You can find out more about possible exceptions from your employer.

When flying should be avoided at all costs during pregnancy

As already mentioned, flying during pregnancy is not a problem for a healthy mother and child. However, the situation is different if there are already problems.

In these cases, flying during pregnancy should be avoided:

by Jennifer Weitbrecht

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