Even after a premature baby has been discharged from the NICU, she may not be ready to go on an airplane just yet. Although today all commercial planes have pressurized cabins, believe it or not, the oxygen concentration in the air is not as high as in a typical room at sea level. For healthy people, that means that we simply need to breathe more deeply or more rapidly to get the same amount of oxygen. We do this without even thinking about it and our bodies easily make the adjustments needed.
But preemies may be different. A lot may depend on what your baby’s oxygen saturation levels were while she was in the NICU. For a baby whose oxygen saturation was measuring close to 100 percent, a plane ride may not be a problem. But for a baby whose oxygen saturation levels were even a little lower–90-95 percent, for example—the drop in oxygen concentration may be a cause for concern.
Flying on an airplane also increases the chances that your baby may catch a cold or other respiratory tract infection. Planes carry many people in an enclosed compartment. And they actually recycle all or part of the air circulating in the cabin. This has led to a greater transmission of infections among all passengers. Of course all babies are vulnerable to these illnesses, but preemies are at an increased risk—especially during their first winter.
If you were thinking about taking your preemie on an airplane, make sure you talk to your baby’s health care provider. Many neonatologists actually advise parents not to take babies on airplanes for several months after leaving the NICU. Your baby’s health care provider knows her breathing and medical history and is the best person to help you make the decision whether traveling by plane is a good idea.