A prelude to the episode about keeping a healthy baby while traveling coming out Tuesday, March 29.
by Steve Silvestro, MD
Pediatrician & Host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast
Traveling with kids can seem intimidating to some parents. Add to that the worry that your kids might get sick during your trip, and you just might think you’d be better off staying home.
But traveling with your children can be a wonderful experience for both you and your kids, so it’s not worth letting fear of something that hasn’t happened yet hold you back from discovering new places and adventures with your little one.
As a pediatrician, parents often ask me what they can do to keep their families healthy during travel. The tips below are what I tell my own patients, and if you follow them, then you can have a happy, healthy adventure with your family.
1. Wash everyone’s hands frequently & bring hand sanitizer.
Listen, I’m not actually a fan of telling kids to wash their hands like crazy. Having a low dose of germs around from everyday encounters is thought to help boost your immune system—your body sees enough germs to get immunity, but hopefully not quite enough to actually get sick.
But your vacation isn’t the time to think about trying to build your child’s immune system. Instead, you’re better off trying to ward off whatever germs you can so that you don’t tempt fate. Don’t be shy about sanitizing or washing your child’s hands after he shares toys with his cousins or climbs on all the chairs at the airport.
2. Try your best to prep both you and your child with a healthy diet and good sleep habits before you travel.
The three basic principles of staying healthy are things that everyone already knows: eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. Kids and babies already have exercise covered just by playing every day. Sleep and food, however, can sometimes use some work.
Your travel prep here needs to start weeks in advance. You can’t just put your child to bed a little earlier the night before you leave and tank her up with vitamin C before you leave the house—fortifying your child’s immune system takes time.
At least two weeks before you travel (even earlier if you can), do your best to ensure that your child’s bedtime routines are protected. Getting enough sleep well in advance of any challenge (think: your airplane seatmate with the flu) ensures that the body is well prepared to withstand that challenge. And by feeding your child healthy, whole foods and staying away from added sugars that stress the immune system, you are helping to make sure your child has all the right building blocks to fight off unwanted germs.
3. Bring Tylenol (Ibuprofen if your child is older than 6 months), Benadryl, and a cheap thermometer. (see site for dosing guide)
Okay, so this one is more in case your child does get sick, but if that does end up happening, you want to make sure that you have the right tools to help your child feel better.
While it won’t be hard to find these if you’re traveling domestically, and you can usually find equivalents of each of these medications abroad (for example, paracetamol is like Tylenol, and Nurofen is like Motrin), you can get your child feeling better faster and more easily if you have medicine on hand and it’s one you already know.
Because dosing for each of these medications varies by your child’s weight, it would be wise to have a rough idea of how much your child weighs before you travel. And to make sure you always know the correct dose no matter where you are, you can download my free Children’s Medication Dosing Guide at www.drstevesilvestro.com and save it to your phone.
4. Encourage your child to eat or drink during takeoff and landing.
Anyone who’s ever flown on an airplane is familiar with the discomfort of ear pressure and popping that can occur with takeoff and landing. To avoid it, you might chew gum, take a drink, or even wiggle your jaw to try and equalize the pressure in your ears.
For kids, the solutions aren’t too different. For a child who is old enough, you can encourage her to chew on something during takeoff and landing. For a baby, nurse or bottle feed her to encourage her to swallow. Sucking on a pacifier might also help.
One lesser-known secret is to make sure that your child drinks plenty of fluids during the flight. The air tends to be quite dry on an airplane, and this thickens mucus—which, in turn, blocks the Eustachian tubes and can lead to worse ear pressure. Staying hydrated—whether it’s breastmilk, formula, water, or juice—can help.
5. Most pediatricians prefer not to give a prescription for antibiotics “just in case,” so know where to get medical help in case you need it.
Taking antibiotics with you might seem like a great precaution, but it really provides nothing but a false sense of security.
Let’s say you bring something for traveler’s diarrhea (which is usually caused by the bacteria E. coli), but the diarrhea your child ends up getting is from a virus like Norovirus. Since the antibiotic won’t actually cure a viral infection, taking one does nothing more than wipe out the good bacteria in your child’s gut & potentially make diarrhea worse.
Some parents instead ask for a broad-spectrum antibiotic that will cover “everything.” Unfortunately, there isn’t one particular antibiotic that will cover all possible travel infections. So, if your child gets a fever and you give her an antibiotic that isn’t going to work against that particular infection, all you’re doing is delaying the appropriate treatment.
Ultimately, if your child gets sick enough to need medication while traveling, you are much better off seeing a local physician who knows what infections are common in that area. If you don’t have faith in the local medical care, you can always call your country’s embassy to see if they can recommend a place to get treatment. And, of course, the BebeVoyage.com community is also a fantastic resource.
6. If you are traveling abroad, check the CDC website for any health requirements specific to your destination—and do it at least a month before your departure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent online resource for learning about health risks in foreign countries. The simplest way to access it is to simply Google “CDC” and the name of your destination country.
It may be wise to receive certain vaccines before traveling to your destination. Common examples include typhoid, yellow fever, and hepatitis A. Some of these vaccines have lower age limits, meaning that your child would have to be at least a certain age to receive them, so check with your pediatrician to see whether your child is eligible.
The general thinking is that it takes up to two weeks to get decent immunity after vaccination, so be sure to talk with your doctor well in advance of travel in case any special arrangements need to be made to order the vaccines.
The CDC site will also let you know whether there are any local outbreaks of diseases like measles, as well as whether or not you and your child will need malaria prophylaxis. If you do, your doctor will decide which medication is best for your destination. Depending on which medicine is used, you may need to start taking it as far out as two weeks before travel—so again, be sure to get in touch with your pediatrician well in advance of your trip.
7. Expect a little chaos and enjoy yourself.
This is always the last piece of advice, right? But that’s because it’s true. Listen, nothing with kids is ever straightforward and easy. And if you view difficulties as difficult, they’re going to be. But if you expect that ups and downs are par for the course when it comes to traveling with kids, you won’t waste your mental energy fighting the inevitable and it will be a much smoother ride.
Keep an open mind, roll with the punches, and remember: any crazy experiences you have now will only make for better stories to tell down the road.
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician, dad, and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. Dr. Steve helps parents navigate the challenges of parenting by bringing the wisdom of the world’s best experts on child health, behavior, and wellness directly to them. Listen to The Child Repair Guide Podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, or learn more at www.drstevesilvestro.com.