Is air travel safe for an infant?

Answer From Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.

Typically, air travel is appropriate for most healthy, full-term infants. However, before you fly with your baby, consider:

  • Your baby's age and health. Your baby's health care provider likely will discourage unnecessary air travel shortly after birth. Newborns have developing immune systems and air travel increases their risk of catching an infectious disease, including coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

    When compared with older children, babies under age 1 might be at increased risk of severe illness with COVID-19. If you travel with an infant, take steps to keep yourself and your baby safe. Get all eligible family members, including children, vaccinated to reduce the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. Also, wear a well-fitted, high-filtration face mask — such as N95 — in the airport and on the airplane, frequently wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, and avoid contact with obviously ill travelers. If your newborn is sick, don't fly unless your child's health care provider says it's OK.

  • Your baby's ears. Changing cabin pressure during a flight causes temporary changes in middle ear pressure. This can trigger ear pain. To help relieve the discomfort in your baby's ears, offer your baby a breast, bottle or pacifier to suck on during takeoff and the initial descent. It might help to try to time feedings so that your baby is hungry during these times. If your baby has had ear surgery or an ear infection two weeks before your flight date, ask a health care provider if it's safe to fly.

    Also, airplane cabin noise levels are loud, especially during takeoff. Consider using cotton balls, noise-canceling headphones or small earplugs to limit your baby's exposure to this noise. This may help make it easier for your baby to sleep.

  • Your baby's breathing. During flight, air pressure in an aircraft cabin is lower than air pressure on land. This temporary change in oxygen level doesn't seem to pose problems for otherwise healthy babies. However, if your baby was born prematurely, has chronic heart or lung problems, or has upper or lower respiratory symptoms, talk to your baby's health care provider before flying.
  • Your baby's safety seat. Most infant car seats are certified for air travel. Although airlines typically allow infants to ride on a caregiver's lap during flight, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that infants ride in properly secured safety seats. If you choose not to purchase a ticket for your infant, ask about open seats when you board the plane, in case one can be assigned to your infant.

Don't be tempted to give your baby an over-the-counter medication, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others), to encourage sleep during the flight. The practice isn't recommended, and sometimes the medication can have the opposite effect.

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Feb. 25, 2022 See more Expert Answers