The Added Dangers of Flying in Airplanes for Babies and Toddlers

Small two year old baby girl sleep in a bassinet on a airplane

You have a new baby, and maybe you’re eager to take him or her on a flight to meet the grandparents … or you want to take your infant on a faraway vacation with you.

New research shows it may be best to wait until your child is a little older, and if you do choose to take a small infant or toddler on a flight, it’s wise to buy the child his or her own seat ticket.

Until recently, safety considerations for young babies flying in airplanes had centered around what to do in the event of a crash; but now, researchers have begun paying more attention to in-flight medical emergencies, sleeping positions, injuries from in-flight turbulence and other dangers.

A study by medical researchers in Cleveland, OH, examined records of more than 80,000 in-flight medical emergencies handled by one large provider of ground-based medical support for airline crews in flight. The emergencies occurred over a two-and-a-half-year period ending in June, 2013. Just over 9 percent of the emergencies involved children. Many of these cases were infections, fevers, neurologic conditions like seizures, and respiratory problems like asthma. Ten of these children died; five of them were babies with no prior known medical condition.

In four of the infant deaths, parents described the incidents in similar terms as when a baby dies from SIDS: the babies went to sleep, and when the parents awoke, the babies were cold and unresponsive.

When the researchers reviewed the data, they found that the dead infants had two things in common: they were sitting on a parent’s lap, and they were on a long flight.

This, then, caused the research team to conclude that just like pediatricians recommend that babies not share beds or couches with others due to SIDS risk, they shouldn’t share an airline seat, either, because of the same hazard: a parent could move and either smother the baby’s nose or face, or accidentally squeeze the child too tightly (this latter event can occur whether the baby is on the parent’s lap or is sitting next to the parent on the same seat).

In view of these findings, the study’s authors have joined with the National Transportation Safety Board in urging parents of children under two years to buy a separate seat for their infant, and to bring on the plane a back-facing car seat. This also eliminates the small, but real danger of your infant being hurt during unexpected air turbulence; no matter how well mom or dad may be holding their little one, if there is a sudden, strong jolt, a baby runs the risk of being thrown into the air, even landing several rows over.

Health experts point to another possible danger for babies inside airplanes, which may contribute to some infant deaths: the air inside an airplane cabin doesn’t have quite as much oxygen as the air that we breathe at sea level. At sea level, air has 21 percent oxygen content, whereas the air inside an airplane at high altitude has only 15 percent oxygen.

Previous studies which had used labs to simulate conditions inside an airplane cabin had found that healthy 3-month-old infants had lower oxygen saturation levels inside the lab than they did in normal environments. “Oxygen saturation” refers to the level of oxygen present in a person’s blood. The babies also had more breathing pattern variations when they were inside the lab; but these studies did not conclude that high altitude is associated with SIDS.

Other than the inherent dangers of co-sleeping with a small infant, and a slight reduction in the baby’s oxygen intake while flying, there are other important matters for parents to think about, if they do choose to bring their baby on a plane:

  • Bring any medications that your baby or toddler uses in your carry-on luggage; many medical emergencies stem from parents storing those medicines in their check-in luggage
  • Aviation safety experts note that it is safer for a baby to be placed by a window, as opposed to on an aisle seat. This eliminates the possibility of a passenger or even a food cart injuring an infant’s arms and fingers unintentionally
  • Parents of children with known medical conditions should of course talk to their child’s doctor before boarding a plane with their children (this includes when your child has a common cold or flu)
  • Parents of newborns may be told by their doctors to wait until their baby is at least 3 months old before boarding a plane with the infant. Because a newborn’s immune system isn’t yet fully developed, newborns run a greater risk of catching colds or other infections from exposure to more germs inside the airplane and at the airport

By Jamell Andrews