Once your preemie comes home from the hospital, you might be ready to tackle the outside world, after spending weeks or months inside the neonatal intensive care unit. Or you might go to the opposite extreme -- be afraid to leave the four walls of your home, afraid that your baby might catch every stray germ. As in many situations, moderation and common sense should be your guide when contemplating travel with your little peanut. Start with short trips where you're close to civilization and work up to that backpacking through the wilds trip gradually.
Traveling by Car
Your preemie can travel by car just as soon as you install an approved car seat in the back seat. His first car trip will probably be home from the hospital (at last!). Preemies often don't fit well in conventional car seats; you might have to place padding around him to keep him in place. Because the car seat puts the baby in a position in which his head can fall so that his airway becomes blocked or occluded, have someone sit next to him in the backseat or install a mirror that allows you to look at him frequently. If he has an apnea monitor, bring it along on even short trips. Preemies have trouble maintaining their temperature, so bundle him more than you would yourself to keep his temperature stable.
The airline will allow you up in the friendly skies when your baby is as young as two weeks, but it's not likely you or your preemie will be out of the hospital and ready to fly so soon. If you think the airline will give you any hassle about flying with your 6-month-old who looks like a newborn, take a note from his pediatrician stating he's fine to fly. If possible, buy your baby a seat; he'll be safer in his car seat and his equipment, if he has any, will stay secure better than if you're holding him and shifting his position frequently.
Food and Water Safety
To minimize potential stomach upsets, travel with bottled, distilled or nursery water and use it rather than tap water to make his formula. Or buy ready-made formula; it's more expensive, but easier to deal with when traveling. Don't ask the airline to fill the bottle with their water if you're flying; according to a 2008 issue of "The Washington Post," water on some flights contains more bacteria than federal regulations allow.
If your preemie comes home on an apnea monitor, pulse oximeter or with supplemental oxygen, traveling becomes more complicated but not impossible. Secure equipment in the car by belting it in so it doesn't go flying in a hard stop or accident. Charge equipment completely before taking a trip; an apnea monitor typically charges fully in five hours and remain charged for up to 20 hours (double check your monitor's guidelines for exact times). If you're traveling by plane, call the airline ahead of time and ask if there are any special rules for traveling with the monitor and let the company you rent from know as well. Check your supply of monitoring belts and patches. If you're traveling with oxygen overnight, contact your supplier to set up a delivery at the location you'll be visiting. Most companies that supply medical equipment have multiple offices and are easy to work with when you're away from home.
When to Stay Home
If you think your little one is coming down with something, stay home. Preemies have delicate immune systems and are more likely to become sicker quicker than a full-term baby might. Or if your relatives are sniffling and sneezing, skip the trip, even if it is Christmas. It's hard when you want to show your baby off to relatives who might come from far away, but having your baby get sick and end up back in the hospital isn't worth the risk.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.