Is It Safe to Travel to High Altitude When Pregnant?

If you’re having a baby in the near future, you’ve probably thought about names, picked out some clothes and thought about decorating a nursery.

Welcoming a child is truly an exciting time!

But it also throws up a lot of questions which you might not have thought about before.

For example, if you want to take one last vacation before your baby arrives, you might have heard some rumors that traveling at high altitudes while pregnant can be unsafe.

In this article, we take a look at the subject, offer some tips and unpack the things to avoid in order to safely travel at high altitudes while pregnant.

Let’s begin! 👶

High Altitude Pregnancy

Is Traveling to High Altitudes Safe During Pregnancy?

Yes, traveling at high altitudes up to 8000 feet is considered safe during pregnancy, as long as the pregnancy is uncomplicated and the mother receives regular prenatal care.

You should make sure that you approach this height gradually and only stay at this height for relatively short periods of time. The WHO (World Health Organization) also recommends that women who are pregnant should avoid sleeping at altitudes above 3000m or 9800 feet.

Note that commercial planes are pressurized to keep passengers comfortable. Therefore, it should be okay for pregnant women to fly as long as your OB-GYN says that it is safe.

If you plan on flying, you can usually do so up until the end of the second trimester. But in general you should always pay a visit to your OB-GYN before traveling or flying to make sure everything is alright.

Flying While Pregnant

What Are the Risks of Going to Higher Altitudes While Pregnant?

Does altitude affect pregnancy? Some of the key issues to note include:

  • Low Oxygen Levels: Arguably, this is the biggest risk of traveling at high altitudes. At higher altitudes, there is less oxygen. Staying at these altitudes for a long time can lead to a condition known as hypoxia. During hypoxia, the body’s tissues become deprived of oxygen, which impacts their ability to function properly. This may include the unborn child. If an unborn child does not have enough oxygen it can impact his or her development.
  • An Unexpected Delivery: Another major consideration that families need to keep in mind is that a child could arrive unexpectedly early. Even though there is an anticipated due date, it is not unusual for children to be delivered a couple of weeks before or after the due date. The last thing anyone wants is to go into labor in an unfamiliar place such as on a plane or up a mountain. Planning a trip close to the due date could potentially result in a delivery that takes place in an unexpected location.

These are the two biggest reasons why it is important to plan a trip cautiously while pregnant. Even though it is important for all families to travel with caution, it is possible to safely spend time at high altitudes while carrying an unborn child.

How Can High Altitudes Impact the Baby?

Even though it is unclear exactly how higher altitudes can and will impact an unborn child, the Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine published a study which found that women who traveled at higher altitudes were more likely to go into early labor.

In addition, babies who were born to women who spent time at higher altitudes were also more likely to require supplemental oxygen after birth.

On the other hand, the study revealed that these women did not experience a higher degree of other complications. Pregnant mothers who spent time at higher altitudes were not more likely to suffer a miscarriage, develop pre-eclampsia, or develop unusual bleeding. The rates of admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) were similar between the two separate groups – those who went to higher altitudes and those who did not.

The Body Needs Time to Acclimate to Higher Altitudes

When someone spends time at higher altitudes, the body has ways to compensate for lower oxygen levels. When people spend a lot of time at higher altitudes, the body compensates for this by producing more red blood cells. More red blood cells mean that the body can transport oxygen into tissues as needed.

When a woman is pregnant, there are more demands placed on the body of the mother. The mother essentially has to supply nutrients for two people. Therefore, it is important to give the body time to acclimate to lower oxygen levels.

According to Annie Porter, MD, an OB-GYN at the University of Colorado at Anschutz, “For women who are healthy and have a pregnancy that has been free from complications, traveling up to 8000 feet above sea level is usually considered safe”.

At the same time, Dr. Porter goes on to add, “We do recommend a period of acclimating”. This means that pregnant families who are planning a trip to an elevation of 7500 feet above sea level might want to spend a day or two at 5,000 feet first. This will give the body time to acclimate and could reduce the chances of discomfort or complications during the trip.

Hiking While Pregnant

Important Mistakes to Avoid if Traveling to High Altitudes While Pregnant

If you want to travel to high altitudes during your pregnancy, you should absolutely avoid making the following mistakes: 

  • Staying sedentary, including remaining seated on a plane for an extended period of time, can lead to an increased chance of blood clotting disorders which could impact the health of the child and the mother
  • Forgetting to drink enough water during the trip, which can impact blood pressure
  • Sleeping at altitudes of more than 3000m or 9800 feet
  • Forgetting to get a release from an OB-GYN saying that you are safe to fly while pregnant, which could result in airline denying you access to the plane
  • Traveling to areas where there are certain viral and bacterial infections which could lead to serious complications
  • Forgetting to get appropriate vaccinations which protect pregnant women against diseases carried by mosquitoes

Tips for Traveling at High Altitudes While Pregnant

  • Avoid Exertion: It is important for pregnant women to avoid activities which involve too much exertion. Some of the most common activities to avoid include climbing, cycling, skiing and other heavy exercise. These activities cause a significant increase in the body’s demand for oxygen, which can be problematic at high altitudes. If the body of the mother requires more oxygen for strenuous activities, this could mean reduced oxygen for the unborn child, which might in turn lead to complications.
  • Hydrate Constantly: Remember that you are providing nutrition for two separate individuals. Therefore, it is critical to remain hydrated. Drinking enough water can increase the body’s liquid content and mitigate some of the impacts of spending time at high altitude.
  • Ascend to High Altitudes Gradually: When planning a trip at high altitude, it is important to ascend to gradually. This is important for everyone, but it is even more important for women who are pregnant. It is critical not to jump from sea level to 8000 feet right away. This could cause a feeling of short of breath, which is one of the issues related to altitude sickness.
  • Always Figure out Where Medical Care is Located: Finally, it is important to remember that the baby is in charge. This means that the child could arrive unexpectedly. It is therefore important to plan ahead as much as possible. All families who are traveling at high altitudes while pregnant need to figure out where the nearest source of medical care is located.

Finally, as stated above, it is important to visit your OB-GYN before any trip to make sure that you and your baby will be safe during and after your travels.

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