Travelling with your kids can be the best risk you’ve ever taken—or the worst decision you’ve ever made. Guess what makes the difference?
By Deborah Sanborn
To avoid one and get the other while travelling with kids, plan, prepare and put in order. Here are two great reasons why travelling with kids is an amazing opportunity: one, little brains develop physically better the more they are psychologically stimulated, and with childhood obesity rates soaring, instilling kids with a lust for adventure may help prolong their life.
Luckily for parents, the adventure travel industry appears to agree. “We developed a relationship with the hotel, where the proprietor provided a reliable woman to baby-sit for nights out,” say Danielle and Chris Chopik, who took little Levi to Guatemala when he was just eight months old. “We also had the baby monitor, which allowed us to hang out at the rooftop restaurant with the little man in earshot.”
When asked why they took their son at such a young age, the Chopiks answer heartily. “We are travellers and we are parents—these choices co-exist.” but mostly, they say, it was actually easy to do, even to a less developed country like Guatemala, where they travelled by bus, boat and minivan with little or no problems. Their success was hardly accidental—they did their homework, and bowed to caution at most turns.
“Our view was to anticipate, prepare and create contingencies.”—and apart from a small heat rash, Levi thrived on his first foray into the big, wide wonderful world.
Not everybody is as careful. According to the centers for disease control and prevention, although exact numbers are sketchy, the rate of illness and death in children travellers is worrisome, with carelessness the culprit. Diarrheal illnesses, malaria, drownings and vehicle accidents are the problems most people face when travelling with kids, even though most are preventable. the conventional wisdom on montezuma’s revenge—that diarrhea is simply a rite of passage for the adventure traveller—just doesn’t apply to children, where it can easily lead to dehydration and death if not treated. Children are at high risk for gastrointestinal illnesses because they’ve had limited exposure, and thus immunity, to the bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause them. They’re also prone to touching things that catch their eye, and ingesting microbes when sucking fingers and thumbs. Try policing that behaviour on the road!
Start with a trip to the family doctor, then to the travel health clinic for specific advice and vaccinations.
Ensure your child’s routine immunization is up-to-date—measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough are widespread outside of north america. Even polio is making a comeback in Africa and Asia. Once you’ve covered the basics, plan for long flights and car rides, time changes and sleep deprivation, safe nutrition and hydration, hot and cool weather. Never let your sense of adventure overpower your obligation as parent. (One query on a travel website asked for advice on taking an unimmunized child to india—not a good idea!) your child’s health and safety is absolutely in your hands. It goes without saying that no trip, however enlightening, is worth risking any young life.
Crossing International Borders
- Anyone under 18 is a child in most countries.
- Documents: child’s passport, but consider birth certificate, landed immigrant certificate (for re-entry), copy of divorce or separation papers.
- Parental letter of consent: often needed if you’re non-custodial parent, grandparent, guardian, or single parent travelling with your child; best if notarized from parents, or other parent not present, as foreign authorities are alert to abducted children.
- Proof of immunization, as some countries won’t let children in without it.
Q&A with Danielle and Chris Chopik, on travelling to Guatemala with son, Levi
Outpost: What did you identify as key concerns before going?
D&C: Having the appropriate medications to deal with health issues—certainly enough to bridge for a journey to acceptable health care, or even home. We planned to visit Lake Atitlan, and travelled with a lifejacket for Levi. we had a well-equipped first aid kit, including rehydration salts, and an extreme trauma kit. we were most worried about water and mosquitoes, and took typical precautions. The biggest problem we actually encountered was the altitude travel in the car—which resulted in some extreme discomfort for the little dude for 20 minutes each way—he had no trouble on the plane.
OP: What were the realities on the ground with Levi?
D&C: Travelling with an infant was relatively easy. leave the big heavy conveniences at home, take the best and lightest gear. We travelled with a 70 L Lowe pack and a deuter carrier. We used the carrier when walking, and that was totally painless—kept the sun off of him and has a bug net. The best discovery was the ongoing desire of people, particularly women, to help. The tough part was that nap time disrupts the adventure schedule. We would try to plan shorter adventures—or spell one another off so that we could each have a day of adventure. The health care accessible in some of the locations was minimal. We chose to stay in good guest houses that offered minimal risk.
OP: Breastfeeding is best when travelling with infant, not only as the milk is safe, but also because you don’t have to worry about water quality for formula or washing bottles.
D&C: Levi was breastfed, and we also travelled with organic instant oat and rice cereal. Levi was also eating eggs, avocado, bread, yogurt and banana. The same rules for adults apply with kids, and there’s a layer of additional caution and no risk-taking—peel it, cook it or forget it! We filtered our water, or retrieved water from reliable hotels, and did not consume a single bottle of water on our trip. This was not a hardship.
OP: Based on Guatemala, what might your concerns be if you took Levi on another adventure?
D&C: Helping him understand is the first precaution. If he sees someone else do something, he usually follows that pattern. We’ve both had first aid and swimming training, and that definitely builds confidence. Basic self-defence is an asset also. We always avoid taking risks with food [when travelling], especially with Levi. One trick we learned in India was to dry your cup and plate before you eat. The dirtiest streetside stall cooks its food—but the water used to wash the plate may be from old rainwater. Having enough food to get you through a leg of a journey is the difference between a good experience, and a constant battle with a screaming and defiant wiggler!
Traveller’s Diarrhea and Dehydration in Children
- Primary cause: unsafe food & liquids, overheating.
- Prevention: keep kids cool, out of direct sun; breastfeed, or use purified water for infant formula (boiled is best) and for washing skin, brushing teeth, cleaning pacifiers, teething rings, toys; wash children’s hands often with soap to lift dirt, then antiseptic; use alcohol sanitizers to disinfect skin, pacifiers, etc; only feed them safe, well-prepared foods, pasteurized milk & cheese.
- Symptoms: irritability, sleeplessness, diarrhea & bloody diarrhea, crying & lack of tears when crying, vomiting, fever (38.5 c+), sallow skin, decreased urine output, weak or rapid pulse, heartbeat or breathing.
- Treatment: oral rehydration solution (1 packet to safe water) & continue to feed child; seek medical attention immediately if serious symptom like bloody diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or change in pulse, heartbeat or breathing is present, or if mild symptoms persist—never delay with children, they may need iv therapy; if symptoms are mild with no fever, use ors alongside infant food & cereal (rice cereals are best); if vomiting present, give ors in sips or spoonfuls; ciproflaxin is contraindicated for children.
Child Medical Kit
- A list of your child’s health status: immunizations to date, allergies and medications for them, blood type, height and weight (pertinent for medicine dosages).
- Safe snacks, some water if possible, from home.
- Mosquito net & repellant with low-formula deet; ask doctor about age appropriateness.
- Hand-sanitizers & wipes, diaper rash & topical antiseptic ointments, thermometer, spf lotion for kids, bandages.
- Oral rehydration packets, children’s-strength medications—best to buy at home where quality is guaranteed.
- Cough and antihistamine syrup, topical lotion for insect bites.
Prep and Planning, Tips and Info
- Travel vaccines are mostly same for children as for adults.
- Malaria: children need preventive anti-malarial as prescribed by doctor (malaria kills millions of indigenous children worldwide), including those of immigrants travelling to birthland—there’s no inherited immunity for tropical diseases; don’t rely only on medicine, protect children from bites.
- Rabies: endemic where animals aren’t vaccinated; children prone to petting animals.
- Breastfeed/feed infant during take-offs & landings for ear popping.
- Put contact info on children’s clothes.
- Take overnight flights, best fit children’s sleeping patterns.
Note: for more info see Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Yellow Book—Health Information for International Travel. The information in this article is intended as a guideline. Always get individualized medical advice from a doctor or travel health clinic before travelling.