I flown countless times over the years, and I always know, in the back of my mind, that it’s important to stay hydrated on a plane. I also know that it’s much easier to get dehydrated when breastfeeding, so you need to be more aware that you’re drinking enough fluids if you fly while breastfeeding. I know all these things – and yet I have never really given them much thought while actually on a plane. That is, until a recent experience that scared the life out of me, and left me knowing that I would never, ever let myself get dehydrated on a plane ever again.
I wanted to talk a little bit today about why it’s so easy to get dehydrated when flying, why you especially need to stay hydrated when flying while breastfeeding, and from my own experience, what can happen if you ignore the warning signs and don’t drink enough.
Why is it so easy to get dehydrated on a plane, and why is this made worse when breastfeeding?
Lack of humidity in the cabin is to blame for the extremely dry air you’ll find on a plane; while most people find 30-60% humidity comfortable, cabin air is anywhere from 10-20%. This low humidity means that moisture evaporates from the body more quickly, and this can lead to dehydration. If you’ve ever woken up from a few hours sleep on a plane to a scratchy throat and a dry mouth, you’ll know the feeling.
On shorter flights, you often won’t feel the effects of the lower humidity until you’re off the plane, but on a long haul flight, at some point you’ll probably begin to feel the effects, from feeling very thirsty, to a dull headache, and an overall feeling of fatigue (read more on effects and symptoms of dehydration here.)
Breastfeeding mothers are already at risk of dehydration; in addition to needing extra fluids to make all of that milk (breast milk is about 90% water), that liquid is constantly being depleted by baby eating. A good rule of thumb for a breastfeeding mother is to take in as many fluids as she did before the baby was born, plus an additional 25oz each day.
Therefore a breastfeeding mother on a flight, particularly a long flight, needs to be drinking an awful lot of water during the trip to stay properly hydrated, especially if the baby is eating more often than usual.
What can happen if you don’t stay hydrated?
I had flown numerous times while breastfeeding my boys as babies, and had never given much thought to how much I was drinking during the flight. I always accepted water when it was passed out by flight attendants, but never requested any extra or kept track of how much fluid I was taking in.
This hadn’t really had too much of a negative impact on me, other than perhaps a headache or feeling more thirsty than usual upon arrival, but a flight in December changed all of that. I don’t tell this story to scare people, and I definitely don’t want to put anyone off flying with babies while breastfeeding, but just to highlight what can happen if you really do get dehydrated on a plane.
I was flying from Birmingham, England to Newark, New Jersey with my husband, my 4-year old son Harrison, and my 8-month old baby, Grayson. Grayson was still breastfeeding at this point, at least four or five times a day, but he tended to nurse more on a flight than he would at home.
Due to a mix-up with our seats, my husband ended up traveling first class for the 8-hour flight, and I ended up in the back with Harrison sat next to me, and Grayson sat on my lap (believe me, we tried to switch this, but nope, I got the short end of the stick!) I had planned on having my husbands help with the kids during the flight, so hadn’t been as organized as I would normally have been with toys and activities for the kids, but I figured we’d manage.
For the first half of the flight, things were fine; Harrison is a seasoned traveler and entertained himself, and Grayson, although a little reluctant to sit still, did OK. He nursed more than usual, at least every two hours, but it kept him quiet and happy, so I didn’t complain.
I had taken a cup of water when the beverage cart went around at the beginning of the flight, but hadn’t drunk anything since. Around the halfway point, I started to feel a bit thirsty, but our aisle seat companion was asleep and I didn’t want to disturb them.
A while later, with Grayson still nursing every couple of hours, I started to develop a headache, and feel a little lightheaded. With an hour to go until landing, my husband came to tell me that the flight attendants had asked if I would like to trade seats with him and sit up front for landing so I could take a little break. Both boys were fast asleep, so I gratefully accepted, and moved to a lovely first class seat for the final 60 minutes of the flight.
I immediately grabbed a water bottle and downed the whole thing in one go – I was unbelievably thirsty. I was about to ask for another when the pilot announced that we would be hitting some turbulent air, and the cabin crew needed to be seated immediately for landing.
My headache was getting worse, and I suddenly felt very, very tired, so I decided to try to sleep instead. I woke up as we touched down feeling incredibly ill. My head was pounding, I felt nauseous and faint, and my hands were shaking so much that I struggled to undo my seat belt. I grabbed my bags and got off the plane, waiting by the gate for my husband and the boys.
My husband noticed I didn’t look good right away, but we had a connecting flight to Orlando to catch, and had to hurry. I made it as far as immigration before having to stop in a bathroom to be violently sick, but we managed to make it to the gate. That’s where things got worse.
Sitting at the gate as my husband checked on our seats, I suddenly felt an incredibly panic; I couldn’t remember what airport we were in. Worse, I couldn’t even remember what flight we’d just been on, or where we’d come from. I had no idea what was happening, and, terrified, I called my husband over.
He asked me a few questions, and I tried to answer calmly, as my two little ones were sat next to me. But I remember being truly panicked that something was very wrong with me. My husband alerted the gate agents, who called for paramedics.
When they arrived, a few questions were asked, and my vitals were taken (all while sitting on the floor of Newark airport – oh so glamorous!) Finally, a female paramedic, who had been chatting with Harrison, asked if I was breastfeeding Grayson, who was tucked up in his stroller.
I said that I was, and she asked how much water I had had on my previous flight. I told her it had been just one small cup, then a bottle at the end of the flight. Then she asked me, “when was the last time you went to the bathroom?” I realized I hadn’t – I hadn’t had to go to the bathroom since I left England, over 10 hours earlier. I was severely dehydrated.
The paramedics began working on getting some fluids into me. I sat and drank almost a gallon of water in about 30 minutes, and felt better almost straight away. I was given another bottle of water, and told to keep drinking continuously.
I was told not to fly again that day, and we were rebooked on another flight the next morning. A hotel was found for us for the night, and I was able to hydrate myself properly before our next flight. My milk was definitely affected by the lack of fluids; Grayson struggled to eat until later that night when I could feel my supply start to return to normal.
The whole experience was utterly terrifying, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Not only did it scare me, but it scared my whole family, and could have been so easily prevented. My situation could have been so much worse, and I’m extremely grateful that it wasn’t.
Now when I fly, I don’t rely on being able to ask for water on the plane; once we are through security, I buy at least one bottle of water for every hour of the trip (yep, I’ve gotten on board with 10 bottles of water before!) and keep track of how much I’m drinking at all times.
I also rarely drink alcohol on a plane, and try to snack on foods high in water content. I am no longer breastfeeding Grayson, but one day I might be a breastfeeding mother again, and now I know just how important it is to stay hydrated when flying.