Baby's Ears and Altitude Changes

By: Renown Wellness Team

October 04, 2017

A woman and a child wearing face masks

One of the best things about living in the Reno area is the beautiful mountain range that surrounds our city. Many families take advantage of the activities the mountains have to offer or travel over them to visit friends and family in neighboring areas.

However, for parents of infants there is often angst over your baby’s ears and altitude changes and the associated potential for ear pain and/or “popping.” Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect your infant’s ears the next time you drive over the mountain or hop on a plane with your little one.

Baby’s Ears and Altitude Changes: What Causes Them to “Pop”

The simple answer is pressure. The problem originates in the middle ear where there is an air pocket that is vulnerable to changes in pressure. The Eustachian tube, which runs behind the nose to the middle ear, is constantly absorbing and resupplying air to this pocket to keep it balanced. When the pressure is not balanced, your ears feel “clogged” or like they need to “pop.” In some cases this sensation can cause significant ear pain and even temporary hearing loss.

Rapid changes in elevation or altitude, like driving over a mountain, or ascending or descending on an airplane, can cause rapid changes in pressure. In order to avoid problems, the Eustachian tube needs to open widely and frequently to equalize those pressure changes. The problem often intensifies during descents as you go from an area of lower atmospheric pressure to an area of higher atmospheric pressure. This is why you hear babies screaming on planes during descent or why your infant is wailing in the car seat as you head down the mountain.

What can you do to make it a more comfortable trip for your child?

First, be prepared. Babies cannot intentionally “pop” their ears like adults can, but we can help them by encouraging them to swallow. Offer your baby a pacifier or bottle while making ascents and descents. If possible, it may be helpful to have an adult ride in the back seat with baby if you’re in the car to ensure this can happen. Don’t let your baby sleep during descent on a plane. Help your little traveler out by offering him or her a pacifier during this process, as descent is the most likely time for pain associated with altitude changes.

If your baby is congested prior to travel involving altitude changes, seek the advice of your pediatrician since they may have other solutions, including medications such as decongestants. If you return from a trip and notice your infant is still fussy and uncomfortable, contact your child’s doctor for a thorough ear evaluation. Safe travels!

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