Flying With Infants

If you plan to fly with very young children, you need to be especially careful to protect her or him from the rigors of flight. If you have a new child or grandchild, and you want to include him or her in your personal air travels — or possibly you have friends with very small children, and you want to bring them all along in your airplane, there are some things you should know…

Small Things, Big Changes
A friend of mine, owner of a pristine S35 Bonanza, recently found out he was going to be a father. He and his wife were immensely proud, but after the ‘newness‘ of impending parenthood began to wear off, they started to consider some of the immense lifestyle changes that their child would bring. One worry was flying. Oh, mother- and father-to-be weren’t afraid of flying together, or flying with the baby, or any of the ‘fear of little airplanes’ that many suffer, but they were concerned about the physiological aspects flying might have on an infant. They were afraid that they would need to curtail their frequent travels-by-Bonanza, a serious drawback to an otherwise greatly anticipated event.

It so happened that I, too, had been concerned about the affect flying might have on my son where he was very small, several years ago. My wife Peggy and I adopted Alan when he was only three months old; we had already scheduled a trip to some good friends’ childrens’ high school graduation, which would be when Alan was only five months old.

One of the nice things about instructing the Bonanza and Baron crowd is that I have access to some of the finest professional minds in the country. Concerned about the physiology of infant-flying, I called a number of my ‘airplane friends‘ who could provide an expert medical opinion. After many congratulatory remarks about the adoption, I was happy to learn that each physician I contacted was enthusiastic about helping me investigate the problem. Here were their concerns and recommendations:

  1. Is the child in good general health? Flying with a head cold or earache can be uncomfortable for adults, but simply excruciating for a very small child — and very dangerous. Infants’ ear canals may not be as well formed or flexible as that of an older child, and you can’t teach a five-month-old the ‘valsalva maneuver‘ (holding your nose, closing your mouth and blowing) to relieve the pressure. The first sign of an infant’s ear problems or impaired ability to breathe is a no-go item, I was told.
  2. Make gradual changes in altitude and stay as low as safety permits. Climbing isn’t as critical as descent, as we all know, but several doctors suggested I climb at no more than 500 feet per minute, and descend even more slowly … if I could get away with it. This is to give the child’s nasal passages and ears time to equalize the pressure — no one wants a screaming child in the airplane, and we certainly didn’t want to hurt our baby! This just about rules out flight in the mountains or an IFR trip, because these operations often require fairly steep climb and descent angles, and high cruising altitudes. If terrain or weather allows shallower climbs and descents, then the child’s ears should have time to adjust.
  3. A child’s mouth action tends to keep the ear passages open. A couple doctors suggested we give the infant a pacifier or a bottle to suck on just before starting our gradual descent and to keep the baby sucking or drinking until a few minutes after level-off and during descent for landing.
  4. Protect the infant’s hearing — an infant’s ears are much more sensitive to noise. I investigated a few commercially available and homemade headset options, but decided our son would want to rip them off his head. Instead, my wife came up with an elegant solution. She found a little cloth cap at a department store, the kind with flaps that come down over the baby’s ears and cheeks, and with strings to tie around his chin. She then sewed a generous additional padding of thick cotton into the earflaps, enough that when tied down over his ears, I was comfortable that it blocked out almost all noise! She stopped short of sewing little goggles onto Alan’s ‘flying helmet,’ but after discussion with my doctor friend she agreed that this would be more than enough hearing protection for our little boy. We found on successive flights that Alan was quite happy and comfortable strapped into his car seat, wearing his ‘flying helmet‘. In subsequent years, we confirmed that there has been absolutely no adverse effect to his hearing.

One day, my friend the expectant father picked me up for a flight. My son had just turned five and I’d asked ahead of time to bring Alan along. In flight, the pilot and I talked about the preparations I’d made for flying with an infant. He later told me he and his wife had talked to their doctor and made similar preparations — now they were flying with their young son as well.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re thinking about flying with a very small child, don’t be afraid, but ask your doctor or Aviation Medical Examiner for an expert opinion on your particular child. Get the child a checkup, don’t fly high, don’t descend fast, and don’t fly at all when the child has a headcold or any ear problem. Have a pacifier or bottle for the child to suck on during descent. Take the time to protect the baby’s ears from the noise and pressure changes of flight, strap in the car seat, and enjoy!