Advice on bringing babies to developing countries
December 11, 2013 1:42 PM   Subscribe

MeFites with experience raising or traveling with young infants as expats in developing country settings: what influenced your decision to bring your baby with you as you worked abroad? What were some challenges you faced? What were some benefits? In hindsight, do you think it was the right decision? What issues came up that you would not have expected?

I am due to have my first baby in March, and am in the 2nd year of an international health-oriented PhD program. My research group has a grant in review, which, if approved, would find me in sub-Saharan Africa before the baby is 12 months old. If the grant is approved, I would be out of the US for 4-6 months, and I have a number of reasons for preferring to not be separated from my baby for that amount of time at that age (e.g., breastfeeding, emotions, etc). While my partner is willing and able to raise our child in my absence, we are inclined to think that it would be easier on both of us if we were able to co-parent during the whole of her first year, and he is game for joining me abroad.

I am also interested in the other side of the decision as well - those who chose to temporarily separate from their infants while working abroad for an extended period. What influenced your decision-making process? What were some challenges of the separation that you did not anticipate? In hindsight, do you think it was the right decision?

I should note that I am an infectious disease epidemiologist with a specialty in tropical diseases, so I am familiar with most of the health risks to infants in the country where I would be working, but I would still be interested in hearing of your experience with accessing appropriate health care and so on. We will also most likely be in an urban setting, where would be at relatively low risk for many infectious diseases and have relatively good access to shops, doctors, pharmacies, and so on.

Any advice on this topic is most welcome.
posted by palindromic to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, I hate to be the guy: but assuming your kid is medically normal, you take all available precautions, medical care is available, you'll probably be fine. You'll be stressed and tired and kind of lonely, but fine.

But what if baby palindrome isn't totally 100% ok? It could be something really serious, or it could be something as banal as a casein allergy, in which case you'd need to stockpile tons and tons of hypoallergenic formula. Have you thought through what you'd do if (for one reason or another), the baby wasn't ok to travel?
posted by Oktober at 2:51 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I spent my pregnancy as a PhD student in a developing country. Last summer I was on fieldwork for 3 months in a developing country with my 4.5 year old, solo parenting.

I LOVE fieldwork (typing this from a 3 week fieldwork trip sans child) but no, I don't recommend you do this.

I'm assuming that you have done fieldwork in a developing country before. I'm also going to assume that you've done fieldwork in this developing country. I'm also going to assume that you have a decent support network of both locals and expats in the place you'll be living. And I'm also assuming you and spouce have a fairly highly degree of fluency in the local language. If these assumptions wrong, then absolutely do not do this.

But even if you have an amazing network, here is also why I think no...

First, and most importantly, that first year is intense. I had a supportive partner, good childcare, and I am a generally motivated person, and I was done with coursework. Yet I was barely capable of doing work. I did my qualifying exams in the term that he was 3-5 months old and that was painful.

The amount of work involved in caring for a child under the age of 1 is tremendous, even without all of the challenges of living in a a developing country.

Breastfeeding and sleep Deprivation are no joke. I doubt you'll be able to accomplish what you want to do that first year.

An example - going to to the doctor, even for routine things - is not great, even in the best of circumstances. (I had the best ObGyn in my developing country and there were still a lot of 'wrong' things culturally and medically.)

Even last summer, with my healthy 4 year old, I had set up the exact route to the verified-by-many-trusted-friends doctor, had her number on speed dial etc.

Having a baby is hard enough without having to worry about the water or power going out. Laundry alone...

Second point... While spouce may think caretaking will work out, the realities of breastfeeding and trying to get work done (in the apartment?) may not actually work well with you getting things . If spouce doesn't come, what is your childcare plan and do you have the support network to find someone?

I did not leave my baby overnight until I had an interview when he was 2ish. I didn't wean him until I had to fly back for my dissertation defense. Ymmv with regard to leaving baby.

I didn't bring my kiddo on fieldwork until he was out of diapers. Even though I did a ton of shorter trips around the world with him when he was little, a long trip with a kid in diapers would suck. And once he was 4 and could communicate decently about the experience I felt he was ready. But actually, having him on fieldwork mostly sucked. He was pretty unhappy (language difficulties, missed his dad and home, attitudes toward children differences) and it was hard for me to work and to have a (Essential to fieldwork) social life. And as I eluded to above, I have language skills and a 15+ year social network here.

I'm happy to talk with you more or even Skype. I wish I could say do it... Because I love fieldwork. But I can't. It is just all in all a bad idea.

(Fwiw, if you were moving to a developing country semi-permanently I may answer differently.)
posted by k8t at 3:06 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

If it's safe, bring your baby. If it's not physically safe enough for your baby to live with you, are you sure it is physically safe enough for your baby's parents to live there? Your baby deserves to have her parents live long healthy lives.

Separately: I watched my cousins in this same scenario; she was away on research for months and he stayed behind with kid. My take was that kid was fine, but husband had a really really hard go of it alone at home, and wife felt the distance. It was undoubtedly detrimental to their marriage in a big way, which is in turn detrimental to their kid, and the stress contributed to underlying health issues for the parents. All marriages are different, but I never would have pegged it as a potential issue for them until I watched things crumble before me.
posted by samthemander at 3:22 PM on December 11, 2013

I haven't done this myself, but I am a linguist in a department where colleagues take their young kids to the field (generally 3-6 months at a time in Papua New Guinea or Indonesia) all the time. They say it is hard, but that in some ways it improves the fieldwork experience because it gives them a real point of connection with the local community. The women in particular take women more seriously and welcome them into the fold more when they come with kids in tow. For slightly older kids who will remember it, it's a really worthwhile experience for them too. For a baby, I guess that isn't relevant.

The main clue that people are finding this an ok thing to do is that they keep going back and take the kids every time. There is only one person I know who didn't bring their child again after the first experience, and that was mainly because her husband wasn't able to accompany them on future trips. (If you are doing it alone, it would be really tough, I think.)
posted by lollusc at 4:30 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is seriously psychologically dangerous to your child to separate from them for 4-6 months, even with a trusted caregiver. Normal emotional, cognitive, and even physical development can be seriously affected negatively by such a separation.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:57 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I was two my father moved away to another country where he could work, make money, and get things started for us. I was two, not a baby, and it was my father, not my mother. But I still suspect, very strongly, that being suddenly separated from someone I was deeply attached to at that age had a strong effect on my psyche, in a (obviously) negative way. I bet those steeped in child psychology could flesh out what the issues are endlessly. But I really suspect (again just a suspicion), that it was not a good thing for me. I can't speak to the healthcare aspect but maybe it's something to shed light on how your child's psyche may be radically altered by this situation (of possible separation).
posted by Blitz at 6:03 PM on December 11, 2013

Will you be able to hire household help in that country? Most field people I know who have small children can cope well because they have really great nannies/housekeepers who they hired on recommendations from other expats/field people. You're providing decent employment (pay well!) so don't feel guilty about this. A good nanny (or two - if you're out working, a day and a night nanny make a lot of sense) can make a huge difference in being able to go and work and travel, knowing your child is being cared for well. Your husband could then get some work done as well which would help him settle in for the time period.

Lots of parents have separations for work from their kids. It's tough, but with skype and video chat, it's much much easier than even a decade ago. Military families routinely deal with this, and you might find good suggestions from them on ways to keep the parenting connection strong.

Breastfeeding and having both parents around are great but NOT CRITICAL. I do both, and I took my toddler to Cambodia when I had to travel and intend to do so again frequently. But not doing so does NOT have to damage your kid, and plenty of good strong families have worked around a parent's demanding work schedule or distances.

You can make either option work, and your baby will adapt if you get plenty of support. What's more important than the particulars (cloth vs disposable etc) is: will he have happy and stable parents? Make a decision for your family including you, not your child.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:49 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Attachment issues. You should read about them.

There's a big difference between a parent who has been there every day suddenly not being there, and the common situation in military families with a child being born while the father is away or briefly present.

If you must leave the child behind, have a third adult who will be a continual presence in the baby's life, starting well before you leave. A nanny, grandparent, uncle, someone.
posted by yohko at 9:39 PM on December 11, 2013

I genuinely think the choice is between fieldwork with the baby or no fieldwork. I don't think there is a theory of child development that suggests it's a healthy plan to separate from a child of the age you're talking about for 4 - 6 months.

The closer your child is to the one year mark at departure, the better I think this will work. The demands of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation in infancy makes combining them with far-flung fieldwork something that sounds frankly awful to me.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:37 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another thing - really insignificant on the list of things to consider, but still matters - sometimes it is a pain to deal with other human being on your grant AND you have to think of the financial obligations.

For example, while domestically you can fly with a kid under 2 for free, internationally you have to buy them a ticket (even if they are on your lap) - although the cost is reduced a bit. So, for my grants (if kid is in tow), I have to buy our tickets separately and then call the airline to ask them to put us in seats together. And in cases where someone else buys my ticket (rather than me getting reimbursed - which is good!), I have to wait til they buy tickets, then I have to sort it out to buy kid's ticket with the same itinerary. The grant organizations hate abnormalities and trying to explain to them that your ticket cost is actually $x (You minus kid) sometimes makes them angry. I assume this would be problematic with bringing your husband too.

Also, let us all acknowledge how expensive it is to fly to developing countries. My research site tickets are $1200 in winter and $2500+ in summer.

Also visas! Your visa stuff is probably taken care of because you're a researcher. How are husband and baby going to get visas? And cost -- My country visas are usually $150+.

Last summer with kid in tow - I had to get a bigger apartment, which obviously was more expensive for rent and to heat/cool. (I am currently sitting in my rented studio and loving it. I wouldn't be able to do a studio with a 5 year old. Probably you could with a baby if you guys are willing to sit in the dark while s/he sleeps. I wouldn't be though!) I also, granted with an older child, had a totally different food budget. I spent so much more on kid-friendly food. Argh. I also took cabs way more often than I would if I was alone - Tired little legs. And with an infant, you're carrying diapers and stuff, so walking will be more of a burden. (Just today I did a nice half hour walk from one place to another and thought about the last time I had been at that location - with a cranky 4-year-old and how I paid $6 for a cab back home.)

My grant covered my international and emergency and evacuation insurance. But I wanted the same for my kid. It was $1000/month through my university. In the end I did not get evacuation insurance for my kid and hoped that if an evacuation situation occurred that I'd be able to bribe to get him on the plane or purchase it somehow.

So anyway, pointing these out as logistical issues and financial ones. I'm faculty, not a grad student, and all of this impacted my fieldwork a lot.
posted by k8t at 8:40 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have a kid yet, but my husband and I work in a small town in a developing country, and there are a few expats here with kids or babies. I think the most important factor here is the size of the town, and the family-oriented nature of the community--expat or otherwise-- that you and your partner will be living in.

The biggest issue for families here, for example, is access to health care. The nearest hospital/clinic is almost nightmarish, and really stressful to tolerate in even minor emergencies, friendly and helpful though they are. The couples with babies have to drive two hours to the airport and then take a flight to the capital just to get trustworthy routine pediatric care. That's definitely something to take into consideration.

Also, if your partner is on childcare duty, will there be ways for him to socialize and do fun community-based activities with the baby? Here there are no friendly cafes, parks, centers, or any sort of place for at-home parents to gather and socialize outside of the home. That could be hard on him unless he has a really outgoing personality.

I will say that the little ones that are here are adored by expats and locals alike, and showered with attention when they come to social events. The babies are happily passed around, and all the kids are more at ease with many different kinds of people than I've ever seen in kids at home. And that allows the parents to relax and socialize more easily.

So, if you and your partner feel comfortable with the access to and quality of healthcare, and the feel of the community, then it will probably be okay. Alternatively, if you are working in a smaller town, could your partner live in a nearby bigger city with the baby? That's what some families do here as well, though those kids are much older.
posted by sundaydriver at 6:24 PM on December 13, 2013

« Older I need to find a substance with the following...   |   How to have beer delivered in Ukraine? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.