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In-flight births highlight risks of flying while pregnant

Forget the stork. These days, it seems, newborns are being delivered by commercial aircraft. At least twice in the last two months, expectant mothers have given birth at 30,000 feet or higher.

Even more surprising than the unexpected deliveries? The incidents represent that rarest of situations: The presence of a crying baby on a plane elicits applause instead of angry glares.

“A plane is not the best place to give birth to a baby but it does happen,” said Dr. Russell Rayman, a preventive medicine specialist and former executive director of the Aerospace Medical Association.

In the latest incident, a woman on a Delta flight from Africa to Atlanta gave birth on March 23. According to news accounts, she went into labor three weeks early and her baby boy was delivered by an OB-GYN who happened to be on board.

A Delta Airlines flight attendant helped deliver a baby 36,000 feet over Africa. WFLA's Jeff Patterson reports.

Six weeks earlier, on Feb. 9, a woman on a Spirit Airlines flight from LAX to Fort Lauderdale gave birth in the plane’s forward galley. With no response to the crew’s “Is there a doctor on board?” request, the infant was delivered by flight attendants with assistance from MedAire, a company that helps airlines manage inflight medical events via telephone.

While both incidents had happy outcomes, they also serve as cautionary tales, especially for women in the later stages of pregnancy. While well-trained to handle in-flight emergencies, flight attendants don’t typically receive training in delivering babies and there are no guarantees that a medical professional will be onboard.

Nor do the airlines provide consistent guidance on how far into pregnancy they’ll allow women to fly. Delta, for example, has no restrictions while Spirit urges women in their ninth month to be examined by their doctor to determine whether it’s safe for them to fly.

Other carriers offer stricter guidelines although all essentially operate on an honor system. At United, women in their ninth month must have an obstetrician’s certificate dated within 24 to 72 hours of departure showing they’ve been examined, along with the baby’s estimated birth date. JetBlue, US Air and Virgin America require passengers flying within seven days of delivery to have a doctor’s letter stating they’re fit to fly.

Meanwhile, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests that pregnant women without obstetric or other medical conditions take the same precautions that other air travelers take. The group provides an excellent resource on the subject on its website. (According to Dr. George Macones, chair of ACOG’s Committee on Obstetric Practice, like other travelers, pregnant women should be aware of the risk of blood clots — a function of immobility and dehydration — and exposure to the radiation prevalent at high altitudes.

Of the former, he recommends drinking plenty of water and walking around every hour or so. Of the latter, he says it’s of no concern for infrequent travelers but that people who fly a lot — flight attendants and frequent business travelers — can exceed national guidelines for exposure.

Travelers concerned about the latter can calculate their in-flight exposure via a tool maintained by the FAA, which can be found here.

It’s also a good idea to let the flight attendants know about your situation, said Sara Nelson, international vice president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

“Flight attendants are really the first responders on a plane,” she told msnbc.com. “If you’re coming onboard and you’re advanced in your pregnancy, take a moment to say hello to the flight attendants and let them know where you’re sitting.”

You never know -- you could find yourself suddenly needing seating for two.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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