Q&A: Is air travel safe for infants?
I have a 2-week-old baby and I need to travel by air, but am discouraged by family and friends. They are concerned that air travel would damage my baby's eardrums due to the change in cabin pressure. Is air travel safe for infants?
While there are several health and safety considerations that new parents should take into account before booking their first flight with a newborn, let’s start by addressing the concern you’ve raised regarding eardrums. While I don’t know of any significant risk of formal damage to the eardrum, it is true that some infants and young children (and even some adults) experience varying degrees of discomfort when flying due to the changing pressure on their eardrums. While there’s no foolproof way to predict which infants will have more trouble than others other than based on past flight experience(s), I can tell you it often helps to rub babies’ ears and/or allow them to suck (on breast, bottle, or pacifier) during initial ascent and descent when changing pressure is most likely to have an impact.
While allowing babies to suck during pressure changes is commonly recommended, it’s also important to take into account safety when traveling with an infant on an airplane. The fact of the matter is that infants are much safer when secured in rear-facing infant car seats throughout the flight—including during takeoff and landing. This certainly makes breastfeeding during these times more challenging. While airlines currently allow children under the age of 2 to fly free of charge as “lap children” and the FAA does not require the use of a car seat on commercial flights, holding a child on your lap is simply not the safest way for infants or toddlers to travel. That’s why those of us trained in child passenger safety support the FAA’s strong recommendation for parents to secure infants in car seats not just in the car, but also when flying. While this usually requires parents buy an extra airline ticket for their infant, it’s a good idea to call the airline to see if there are any discounts for infant and/or ask what the airline’s policy is when it comes to allowing you to use an empty seat (if there is one).
The other aspect commonly discussed with regard to infant health and safety during air travel is the exposure to the re-circulated air on airplanes. Not only does this raise concerns of increased exposure to germs of all the other passengers on the plane, but so does simply being around a lot more people in crowded spaces (which certainly includes airports and airplanes). In hopes of keeping them from getting sick at a time when their immune systems aren’t yet fully up to speed, it is therefore commonly recommended to avoid flying with newborns unless it’s absolutely necessary.
And finally, in the spirit of reality parenting, I want to also point out that it is an entirely different process traveling with a newborn than it was when you flew solo—from carry-on considerations such as diapers, wipes, and changes of clothing to scheduling considerations. For more on these practical aspects regarding flying with a newborn, feel free to check out the “Flying the Family Friendly Skies” chapter of my book, Heading Home with Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality.