It seems to be a law of the universe: Whenever you take your baby on a trip, she inevitably comes down with something. And dealing with a sneezing, coughing, and fussy little sickie away from home -- and your child's pediatrician -- is no fun.
We do a lot of traveling with our kids, and have seen our fair share of fevers, upset tummies, and sore throats in the air and on the road. But in our journeys, we've also found ways to keep our kids healthy more often than not. Here's what we've learned:
If you're traveling by air...
We usually tell parents to wait at least a few months before flying with their baby. It's perfectly safe for a newborn to go on a plane if air travel is absolutely necessary -- the altitude won't damage little ears (though they may feel pain) -- it's just that newborns are particularly vulnerable to illness, and even a simple cold can become life-threatening. Since airplanes are like giant petri dishes for germs, we err on the side of caution. Once you've booked your flight, though, follow these smart air-travel strategies to keep your child well:
Postpone if your baby is sick. Many parents feel obligated to get to Grandma's for holiday celebrations, but when your little one doesn't feel well, it's better to stay home for an extra day or two and visit the pediatrician. If ear infections or other problems are found early, it can save you a trip to an unfamiliar ER. You can also arm yourself with prescriptions for ear drops or antibiotics. With a doctor's note, many airlines will allow you to reschedule a flight.
Book the most baby-friendly seat. The safest way for babies to fly is in a car seat in their own plane seat, but the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't mandate this, and many people can't afford to purchase an extra ticket. If you plan on holding your child in your lap, request an aisle seat, which gives you better mobility to get up and walk around to soothe your baby and quicker access to your seat when boarding and deboarding. Tell the agent you'll be carrying your baby and request that the seat next to you be left empty, if possible. If you and your husband are traveling together, book the aisle and window seats and let the airline know you have a child, which ups the chance of the center seat being left available.
Schedule the flight during naptime. A sleeping baby is a happy baby.
Feed before you board. The lower atmospheric pressure in some aircraft can expand the air in the intestines. Since babies tend to swallow a lot of air during feeding and sucking, it's best to give him a large feeding before takeoff rather than afterward to help avoid uncomfortable gas. During the flight, stick to smaller and more frequent feedings.
Protect his nose. Tiny nostrils and dry cabin air are not a comfortable mix. A quick squirt of a nasal saline solution every 30 minutes helps keep the nasal passages open.
If you need to ask the flight attendant to heat up a bottle, try to supervise the process yourself. The crew can be very busy and might inadvertently heat the bottle for too long.
Wash your own hands as often as possible. If you catch something on the plane, it's almost guaranteed your baby will then catch it from you. Avoid germs by scrubbing up frequently and keeping your hands away from your face.
Prevent ouchy ears. Changes in altitude can lead to painful pressure in little ears, particularly during landing. During this time, have your baby suck on a paci, nurse, or drink from a bottle or sippy cup to keep the ears popping. Ear-numbing drops or a dose of pain reliever can help, too.
If you're traveling by car...
Nothing can ruin a road trip like a queasy baby. When your little guy is in his car seat, he sees the stationary seat back, but the motion sensors in his ears tell the brain that his body is moving. These conflicting messages can result in nausea -- and possibly a big mess. Here's how to fight it:
Try to plan your route over straight freeways. Frequent stops and starts and winding roads upset tiny bellies.
Travel at naptime. Sleep settles queasy insides. The best time to depart is just before a nap, so you can hope to arrive at your destination with a comfortable and well-rested baby.
Give her a small snack or feeding before you buckle her in. Riding on an empty stomach -- as well as on a too-full one -- can trigger motion sickness.
Start the trip with a full tank of gas. Babies are sensitive to the exhaust and fumes at gas stations.
Give your child a view. Place the car seat in the middle of the backseat so your baby can look out the front window -- being able to see the horizon quells queasies.
Open a window on each side of the car (if it's not too cold). Fresh air is an upset stomach's best friend.
Talk to your doctor about medications for motion sickness; they're not recommended for kids under 1, but they may be used safely thereafter.
No matter how you get there...
Babies thrive on routine, and it's best to keep them on their same schedule, more or less, while you're traveling. If your baby gets a bath before bedtime, for example, do the same thing when you arrive at your destination -- it will help her feel less frazzled and stressed (and stress can compromise her immunity). The more familiarity you can instill, the better (don't forget her favorite blanket or toy!). Part of the fun of vacations, of course, is being spontaneous and doing things differently -- and that's okay; it can even help your baby learn to be more flexible in the long run. Just be sure that not everything is foreign. If you change the morning routine, try to go back to the regular protocol at nighttime.
William Sears, M.D., is a Babytalk contributing editor and the author of more than 42 books on parenting. His son James Sears, M.D., is a pediatrician and the coauthor of Father's First Steps.