LIVING, TRAVELING AND WORKING ABROAD as a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) and Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) has been for me, an invaluable experience.
Doing it with a toddler added a whole other layer of fun and complexity.
My family returned this year from a South East Asian adventure that allowed both my husband and I to work, give back to the communities we were apart of, and expose our daughter to sights, smells, and sounds she would never have found in our beloved home of Toronto (as diverse as it is).
We left with a baby and returned with a toddler and her passport – full. You can imagine, in that time there were a lot of decisions we had to make and things we had to consider with respect to her health. As an ND and a mom, I had my work cut out for me to find a balance between “rolling with the punches” in cultures very new to us and being concerned for my child’s safety and well-being.
These are the tools that I truly believe helped me go confidently in the direction I did as a mother and as a Naturopathic Doctor, and that made our travel experiences as enjoyable as possible with a baby on the hip.
Here is my personal recipe…
When we moved abroad, my daughter was 8 months old. It was a 24 hour journey to get to our destination of Bangkok, and we took that 24 hour journey again several months later on a visit back to Canada. The benefits of breastfeeding are endless, but for me it meant a quiet, happy baby on the airplane and a strong immune system (this kid has had 2 very minor colds in her 2.5 years of life and I attribute it to this). Not only did breastfeeding give my daughter valuable immune support while traveling, it also helped to re-connect us at the end of a busy day or during a time she needed soothing or distraction.
While South East Asia was my least favourite place to wear my daughter given the intense heat for much of the year – the alternatives would have been more challenging. Whether on the go in bustling Bangkok, in an airport, jumping out of a tuk tuk or onto a moving train (yes, that was not fun), having her strapped onto me allowed me to be hands-free.
It also made things simple for travel as we did not have to worry about lugging around a stroller (which half the time would have been useless for us in the places we have traveled given the lack of stroller friendly sidewalks, crowds, etc.).
Aside from convenience, there is also a big safety and security element to baby-wearing that I really began to appreciate once we began traveling. In many of countries, carseats are not a thing. Seatbelts most of the time are also not really a thing. We of course used them when they are available, but having Kyla strapped snug to me made me feel a lot more comfortable than if she was simply sitting on my lap. Another thing is that it helped create some boundaries. In our experience, many of the people we met in South East Asia LOVE babies. With the best of intentions – the poking, pinching, grabbing, and cooing were endless. Having my daughter strapped on made it easier to avoid this type of attention if I felt it was too much for her.
This is considered a very normal arrangement for many families around the world (including Thailand where we lived) but as a Canadian, it seemed like a bit of a foreign and scary idea originally. As I have found with many things in parenting, you won’t always know what works until you get there. For us, bed-sharing safely meant easier breastfeeding overnight and from a traveling perspective, it kept things simple and meant I did not have to worry about cots in a hotel room or a bed on an overnight train. I feel like sharing the bed gave her a sense of security knowing we were right with her when we traveled to a new place each night.
A two year old with a cashew or piece of dried mango in their hand is a lot more manageable than one without – especially in the long visa line-ups or during a flight delay. Being ready with snacks like granola bars, dried fruit, or a little bag of sticky rice was another big part that made travel easier. In South East Asia we were never far from a fruit stand, so we got used to always buying a banana on the way to an airport.
Low to no refined sugars in her diet:
The funny thing is that on almost all of our trips it was a given that Kyla would be handed a candy or gum or sucker or free dessert- even before she was one! We usually gracefully accepted kind offerings and would carry on, with them in our pocket. I can’t say she NEVER had refined sugar before she was one, but we really avoided giving it to her while at the same time working to respect culture and custom. This is not about trying to be the perfect Naturopathic parent, because there is no such thing, but about trying to keep her developing immune system strong and healthy.
This is of course a very controversial topic. As a Naturopathic Doctor with a global health interest, I know that vaccinations have saved many lives and while I believe in supporting healthy communities, I also believe in supporting individual choice. For me and my family, the choice to vaccinate needed to consider our travel plans and the increased exposures Kyla would encounter. We chose to slightly delay the start of her vaccinations by several weeks and spaced out her schedule with the support of Kyla’s pediatrician. At the age of 2.5 she is fully vaccinated (from age one and beyond she has had all the vaccines as per the Ontario Immunization Schedule) with the exception of Chicken Pox, Hepatitis B, and flu shots. While traveling we chose to avoid locations with a high risk of malaria, and when on short trips where there was a very mild risk we were super vigilant about preventative strategies to avoid exposure.
As our time in South East Asia came to an end, I had a fun time reflecting on what this time has meant for me personally as a mom and professionally as an ND/IBCLC.
These are the lessons I have learned…
1. Kids can enrich your experience while traveling- its all about perspective.
If you think traveling with a baby will be hard, then it will be, because every little thing that goes wrong (the poop out in the airplane,) will fill you with rage and make you question why you even bothered. But if you, like I tried to do, just breathe through those times and realize its not the end of the world, you’ll get over things that much easier. We were smiled at by so many strangers on our travels because of our daughter. People I am sure we would have never met if we had walked around as two adults, made deliberate attempts to cross our path because of the chunky cheeks they wanted to greet. Despite the language barrier, this even led to shared meals and many lasting friendships with local our neighbors and people that we met on our travels.
2. You will find opportunities if you are open and look for them.
Dr. Alison Chen wrote a fabulous article recently about opportunities abroad for ND’s, if working abroad is something you’d like to do. For me, I was very fortunate to have a partner with a work contract already in place and what I needed to do once we landed was to network and connect with people doing similar work. It was then that I found out where the areas of need were, put myself out there, and let word of mouth travel.
3. It’s more than private consults.
Something that became clear for me while abroad was that being an ND is more than the private consult. I am passionate about global health and health education. Living abroad with a lack of resources, supplements, health foods, etc, reignited my love with community health. I gave talks and workshops and worked hard on community mobilization within vulnerable communities. There is so much our skill set can offer the world!
The most supportive and empowering thing my mother ever said to me was before we left for our trip, at a moment when I was filled with doubt about leaving with a baby. She said “Follow your dreams so that one day your children will have the courage to follow theirs”. This helped me and my partner see our travel as not some selfish gallivant we were putting our daughter through, but a journey she would be apart of in witness of us being our true selves.
Happy travels and happy parenting!