Every once in a while, I start to feel a little nostalgic for my former career as a forensic DNA analyst and feel tempted to submit an application to my local police laboratory. Just in the nick of time, I will get a phone call from an attorney somewhere that the DNA database turned up a suspect in a cold case that I had worked on and to expect a subpoena to appear in court as an expert witness. After a spending some time in the same room with an alleged serial rapist, I get a renewed appreciation for the life I have now. Then, I am suddenly very eager to return home to my little girl, whom I wish could remain ignorant of this culture of sexual violence we live in forever.
Unlike most of my former colleagues, I actually don’t mind having to travel occasionally for court appearances. It’s a nice break from potty training and temper tantrums. I get a couple of nights of uninterrupted sleep in a hotel, I get to shower and go to the bathroom by myself, dinner out with other adults and can even fit in a book or two while traveling. Pure luxury.
This last time however, was a bit of an exception. I had to fly from one end of the country to the other at 18 weeks pregnant. This wasn’t the first time I had traveled in this condition and the last time was absolutely awful in spite of being a short direct flight. I resolved to have a more comfortable experience this time, and hence, the inspiration for my first post. Obviously none of this should be taken as medical advice. This post is also written from the perspective of someone traveling within the United States, so if you are reading this from another country or traveling internationally be sure to check the airline and airport security policies of the countries you will be traveling to and from.
1. Consult with your prenatal care provider before you leave.
This goes double if you have a high risk pregnancy. If she/he tries to talk you out of going because you are close to delivery or high risk, you should probably listen. That said, air travel is usually no problem for a normal pregnancy before 34 weeks. If you are thinking of traveling internationally, be sure to let your provider know and ask if the required vaccinations are safe for pregnant women. If at all possible, try to schedule your trip during your second trimester when, hopefully, your nausea will have passed and you don’t feel like a bowling ball is resting on your bladder.
2. Check your airline policies for any travel restrictions for pregnant women.
Nobody wants to help deliver a baby on a plane, so most airlines will not allow travel close to your due date. Some will even forbid it from the beginning of your third trimester. Regardless of if and at what point in your pregnancy the airline requires it, I would recommend that you travel with a note from your prenatal care provider as soon as your pregnancy becomes obvious (hint – it is obvious when the first stranger asks when you are due and maybe a little before if people are polite where you live). Airline staff are not trained to estimate how far along your pregnancy is so you need to be prepared to prove that you fall within their guidelines. Consider how far along you will be for your return flight as well.
3. Give yourself extra time to clear security and know your rights.
I’m not writing this to start a political debate, so if that is what you want, there are several forums available for that elsewhere. That said, there is still much controversy surrounding the safety of airport body scanners for pregnant women (and anyone else for that matter). While the TSA maintains that they are safe, many scientists disagree or at least would like to see more independent safety data proving this to be true. Whatever your feelings are on the issue, you should still be aware that if you don’t want to go through the scanner, they can’t force you. Unfortunately, the alternative is to wait a few minutes longer for a same sex security screener to do a “pat down”. I decided to take this option on my last flight. I personally wasn’t satisfied with the safety data I could find to go through the scanner myself and thought at the very least taking the pat down option would be good research for this article. The security personnel were still quite respectful towards me and it took maybe ten minutes more to clear security. Be warned though, that if your concern is privacy, you are between a rock and a hard place there. While I don’t think that the woman doing my pat down had any wrong intentions, I still left the area feeling like she should have bought me dinner first. She was very thorough, especially around the breast and belly area – I presume to make sure they were in fact real. If you are okay with going through the scanner, I would still recommend giving yourself extra time just to make up for the general awkwardness that we pregnant women are blessed with.
4. Pack light.
By far the silliest warning that I had ever heard regarding pregnancy was that you shouldn’t reach your arms over your head because you could strangle the baby with its umbilical cord. Obviously this fear is completely unfounded and ridiculous. However; thanks to the added back strain and off-balance feeling that late pregnancy brings, you should still avoid lifting heavy objects overhead. For this reason, if you must bring the kitchen sink with you, either check your suitcase or ask someone to help you load it and remove it from the overhead bin. Really though, your back hurts, your feet hurt, you are swollen and self-conscious. Please don’t make things harder on yourself by lugging a bunch of heavy stuff you probably won’t even use through miles of airport.
5. Dress comfortably.
Maternity jeans suck. They suck even more during long periods of sitting. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that wearing those cute fake jeans on the plane is a good idea. You won’t look so cute when running to catch your connection with full hands and pants that you need to hike up every few steps. Jersey knit skirts, maxi dresses and slip-on shoes that leave a little room for swelling are your friends here. They pack well, you will still look great and there won’t be anything cutting into your belly or getting in the way during the two minutes you have to pee when the captain finally turns off the fasten seat belt sign. You also won’t have to worry about passing out when you bend over to tie your shoes after clearing security.
6. Drink lots of water and move around.
I know, you already have to pee all the time. But trust me, it will help keep the kankles at bay. Planes are also notoriously dehydrating and dehydration can be a contributing factor in premature labor. Thanks to the increased blood volume you are carrying around, you are also at an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is pretty serious stuff. Sitting for long periods also increases the risk so it is a good idea to get up at least every hour. If you drink enough water, you won’t forget to move around often.
7. Pick a good seat.
If at all possible, snag yourself an aisle seat, close to the bathroom (just not in the last row – those seats don’t recline and the smells that close to the restroom will probably trigger your nausea). They don’t allow lines for the bathroom at the front of the plane, but they are fair game at the back. As much as I hate that the airlines will nickel and dime you for everything including seat selection now, if you can afford it, it is worth springing for the economy seats with extra leg room or even first class. Keep in mind though, that they may not allow you to sit in an exit row for safety reasons. If you can’t stomach the extra cost, you may be surprised how much a smile and a friendly attitude along with your pregnant card will get you at the gate. I was able to snag a free first class upgrade once this way and on this trip I at least got decent aisle seats for all four legs of my trip at no extra charge.
8. Be prepared to deal with nausea.
For some, myself included, almost nothing helps with morning sickness short of staying in bed for your entire first trimester. My heart goes out to you if you fall into that category. All you can really do in that situation is snag some extra barf bags from the flight attendant or don’t go. For some, ginger chews or peppermint gum can help. Staying hydrated and not letting your stomach get empty can also mean the difference between a merely unpleasant trip and a nightmare puke-fest.
9. Plan ahead where and what you will eat and drink.
You can look at most airport directories online these days and it is a good idea to do so for any that you will be passing through. I miss at least one connection almost any time I fly somewhere thanks to delays. Because of this, I always bring extra food with me in case I don’t have time to buy anything. Gone are the days of in-flight meals and often even decent snacks. You are still however allowed to bring non-gel or liquid foods through security and you can take whatever you buy after that on the plane with you. I always bring an empty water bottle with me to fill up before getting on the plane as you are lucky to get more than a few ounces of precious fluids from the drink cart while on any flight that is less than three hours. If you do get a long layover, this is one of the few times where it is okay eat to pass the time.
I hope you have found these tips helpful, if not too long-winded. I am eager to hear about any additional tips or flying while pregnant experiences that you have had!