How Old Does a Baby Have to Be to Fly?

Although babies can fly soon after birth, parents should consider various health and safety concerns first.

The truth is that flying with an infant can be a breeze—if your baby sleeps or coos happily the whole way. But the experience can also be closer to a nightmare if your baby ends up crying the entire time, turbulence makes holding them a challenge, or they have a diaper blowout mid-flight. And you might not know which way it will go until you're 30,000 feet up in the air.

But having a newborn doesn't necessarily need to hinder your travel plans. Whether you're visiting grandma or going on vacation, there are some factors to consider before bringing a baby on an airplane. Here's how old a baby needs to be to fly, with tips for making the plane ride go smoothly.

baby and airplane

How Old Does a Baby Need to Be to Fly?

Most pediatricians believe that a 4- to 6-week-old baby can handle airplane flights. But this guidance only refers to babies with no health complications who get the go-ahead from a pediatrician. Premature infants, as well as those with respiratory or other health issues, may fare better on the ground. (What's more, doctors may recommend a longer rest period for new parents who had delivery complications or C-sections).

It's also smart to check your airline's policies on newborn travel. They might have a minimum age requirement, ranging from 2 days old to 2 weeks old. In some cases, newborns won't be granted permission to fly without a doctor's note. You might also need proof of your baby's age. (If official government paperwork hasn't arrived, you could possibly use vaccination or hospital forms.) International travel isn't possible until your baby receives an official passport.

If you're feeling queasy about the idea of spending a whole lot of money on an airline ticket for a baby, ask your airline for a discounted fare. Many airlines offer discounts of up to 50% for children under age 2. Also, if there's an open seat on the plane at the time of boarding, you may be able to use it for your baby.

Considerations for Newborn Air Travel

Although air travel is generally safe for newborns, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents consider the following factors before booking their flight.

Germs and illness

While some older planes use recirculated air, which means that if one person has a cold, their germs are broadcast throughout the plane by the ventilation system, most commercial aircraft use sophisticated methods to refresh the air. Advanced airflow management techniques, including air filtration, ventilation, controlling the movement of the air downwards (rather than side-to-side), and drawing in fresh air from outside, all contribute to reducing the transmission of airborne illnesses between passengers.

In fact, in a 2021 letter published in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease the authors wrote that "the air quality within modern commercial aircraft is enhanced by frequent air changes, with a complete air change every 2 to 4 minutes." The consensus among the authors was that there is a low risk of getting sick from other passengers, particularly those sitting more than a few rows away.

Other research has also found a low risk of transmission of airborne illnesses (specifically COVID-19) on airplanes: "Altogether, high airflow and use of HEPA filters onboard planes make it unlikely to catch the virus from someone who is not in the immediate vicinity."

However, if someone sitting nearby is sick, your baby could be exposed. That's not typically a problem for healthy adults, whose mature immune systems can more easily fight off germs. But an infant's immune system is no match for some of the viruses and bacteria that may be floating around on airplanes and in airports. If you do fly, make sure to wash your hands regularly, and avoid sitting near sick passengers.

Air pressure and ears

Ordinary cabin pressurization can cause intense pain in infants' ears. This can be helped, somewhat, by having the baby suck or drink during ascent and descent, says Dr. Berger. Offer your baby your breast, a bottle, or pacifier during take off and landing to help.

Breathing problems

Since airplanes have lower air pressure, some babies may have trouble breathing—especially if they were born premature or have heart, lung, or respiratory issues. If your baby fits the bill, talk to your doctor for more information about when it's safe for them to fly.

Fussy behavior

The unfamiliar setting of an airplane with its smells, sounds, and lights, as well as painful ear pressure, may lead to screaming, crying, and general fussiness. Make sure you're prepared to handle the worst.

Changing diapers

Most commercial airplanes have changing tables in at least one of their restrooms. However, not all do, such as smaller planes for shorter flights. Either way, you can't always get up to change your baby's diaper when needed, particularly during takeoff, landing, and times of turbulence.

And as new parents know, you can't always predict when you'll need to change a baby's diaper. So, be sure to change them right before boarding. And bring extra diapers and changes of clothes—you just might need them.

Where Should My Baby Sit?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it's ideal to opt for window seats for babies. Aisle and middle seats put them at greater risk of items falling on them from the baggage compartments above, getting knocked into by people or carts rolling through the aisle, or hot drinks spilling on them (that are passed over them to people sitting closer to the window).

Sometimes, people purchase a separate seat for their baby or end up with an extra seat they can use, but often parents have their baby in their arms, sitting on their lap, or in a baby carrier (nevertheless, airlines do require your child be added to your ticket even if they will be in your lap for the entire flight). This option makes sense because it can save you money—and provides comfort to your baby during the flight. Also, holding them provides easy access for breastfeeding (yes, you can breastfeed on a plane) or bottle-feeding.

However, there are some safety concerns about holding a baby on your lap while you fly. While the expense is a big consideration, if possible, it's recommended for your baby to sit in their own seat in a car seat approved for air travel.

Do they need their own seat?

Airlines allow babies and young children to ride on a parent's lap for no fee, but that's not the safest place for them if the plane hits turbulence, has to make an emergency landing, or if you're trying to sleep. The FAA strongly recommends that parents secure children in an appropriate restraint, if possible. Most car seats fit the bill (though not all are approved for use during air travel).

Before you fly, check your car seat for a label that identifies it as certified for use in planes. If there is no label, look at the seat's instructions or contact the manufacturer. A car seat should fit into most airplane seats if the car seat is no wider than 16 inches. If you have questions about whether your car seat will fit, call the airline and ask or check their website.

The risks of holding a baby on your lap in-flight

While in-flight deaths in healthy children are exceedingly rare, a 2014 study found a pattern among children who died during air travel during the study period. The study tracked recorded incidents of thousands of medical emergencies on airlines from 2010 to 2013. During that period, there were 10 pediatric deaths. Several were healthy children under the age of 2 who were sitting in an adult's lap during a commercial airline flight.

While this study is the first of its kind, research suggests that lap infants were at a greater risk of dying than those in their own seat, possibly due to in-flight environmental factors, such as sharing a seat with an adult and potentially dangerous co-sleeping arrangements, says Alexandre Rotta, M.D., lead researcher on the study, a pediatrician, and professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.

More research is needed to explain these deaths but it is possible that lower oxygen levels on planes could harm infants' immature respiratory systems. "What was unexpected was the number of healthy lap infants who ended up dead. It's a rare event but this is clearly a pattern," says Dr. Rotta. The study authors also noted that there could be another factor that is causing these deaths that has yet to be identified.

The Bottom Line

Once your baby is cleared for air travel by their pediatrician, it is relatively safe to fly with them. Often, flights with little ones go better than expected. That said, many a baby put their parents through the wringer while they fly. But even if your baby cries, spits up, or badly needs a diaper change or a bath, know that many people on board are sending you positive vibes. Just about every other parent has been there. So, you got this—and soon enough, you'll get where you're going and be back on land.

Updated by Nicole Harris
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