In last couple of years, Ladakh has started getting considered for family vacations as well and when it comes to family, it of course also means travelling to Ladakh with infants or young children. Personally, I would not prefer taking a child along on a journey to a high altitude area like Ladakh, especially if the child is below 3 months of age. As mentioned in the article HERE, Babies under 3 months of age do not have mature enough lungs to handle the altitude sickness so if you kid is yet under 3 months, trash the plan for another time. If your baby was born premature or has a heart or lung condition, it is highly advised that you do not bring them along on the journey or at least consult a doctor before you plan to do so. Almost everyone who travels to Ladakh for the first time suffers from acute mountain sickness, with an exception of people who have been to similar high altitude areas before. Problem with travelling a child is that it is hard to identify signs of AMS with them. If your child is of a few years of age, they would still be able to tell you if they aren’t feeling well but with an infant or toddler, you would have to be strictly vigilant of their behavior all the time. Below are a few points that you need to consider while travelling to Ladakh with a small child.
Acute mountain sickness is a direct result of exposure to low oxygen levels due to gain in altitude. In order to compensate for low oxygen per breath, our body increases the breathing rate. This process of our bodies adapting to low oxygen and high altitude is called acclimation. In short, high altitude sickness occurs when our body is not able to get the amount of oxygen it needs from the air. It usually occurs at an altitude of 8000 feet or higher and anyone from adults to children can suffer from altitude sickness.
Depending on the symptoms, Altitude sickness can be of three types.
- Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): AMS is the mildest, most common type of altitude sickness. caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels. Symptoms include difficulty in sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath.
- High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): HAPE is a more serious condition of altitude sickness, symptoms include shortness of breath (even while resting), persistent coughing, exercise intolerance, coughing up pink, frothy spit (indication of fluid in the lungs).
- High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): HACE, another and even more serious condition of altitude sickness, causes difficulty when walking, severe lethargy and a loss of focus. HACE and HAPE are rare and if not treated on time can be even fatal.
Children have the same tolerance level for high altitudes as adults, with an exception of babies under three months of age, as discussed above. A better option would be to wait until your child is at least 1 year of age.
If your baby has altitude sickness, he or she may vomit, appear more tired or irritable than usual, not sleep well, loss of appetite and seeming generally unwell. Being at a high altitude may make your baby tired and dehydrated. He may also have a headache and feel dizzy, although he won’t be able to tell you how he’s feeling. When it comes to babies, be mindful of the non-verbal signs. The symptoms of altitude sickness in babies can manifest immediately or after a few hours. Older babies may complain of dizziness, fatigue and other symptoms.
Tips To Avoid Altitude Sickness In Babies:
- Your gain in altitude must be gradual or slow. For example, with a child it is better to take the Srinagar Leh highway to reach Ladakh. Even while doing that, stay in Srinagar for a day or two so that your child’s body can get ample time to adjust to high altitude. Srinagar Leh highway can be done in two days easily but with a kid, it is advised that you give it three days. Reach Sonmarg from Srinagar, stay there for the night, proceed to Kargil on day two and then to Leh on day three. Taking the journey slow is the key here. Altitude sickness usually occurs at an altitude of 8000 ft or higher so the idea is to first stay a couple of nights between 8000 to 9000 ft and then gradually increase the altitude. If you are planning to take Manali Leh highway, then you must stay in Manali for at least a couple of days. On the next day, stay at Keylong for the night and then break the journey at Sarchu. I highly advise against staying at Pang because it is even at a higher altitude than Leh and most people suffer from AMS here. Also, do not include Tso Moriri while on your way to Leh as this lake is at even a higher altitude. Drive straight to Leh from Sarchu, stay there for couple of days and then plan to visit nearby areas accordingly.
- Your body’s fluid requirements are increased at higher altitudes and same will be the case with your child so you must keep them hydrated at all times. Ensure that they are consuming enough quantity of water or juice while in Leh but also do not over-hydrate and by that I mean to force the child to drink more water just because you want to keep them hydrated. If the child is not thirsty, do not force them. Another option would be to offer them some juice if they do not want to consume water.
- Take extra precautions with the child in terms of protecting them from cold. Traveling to Ladakh means limited medical facilities and no medical facilities while on the road. You will not get a regular pediatric Medicare, hot milk or diapers at all places so you need to ensure that you carry luggage accordingly. Always keep your child well covered and carry an extra layer of woolens. Children tend to catch cold easily and if that happens, you will find yourself in a very difficult situation.
- Harsh Sun would be another one of your concern. Even adults get sunburns while in Ladakh so you can image what would happen to a child if you left them uncovered. Ensure that they are fully covered, full sleeve clothing to protect their arms, socks to protect their feet, gloves to protect their hands and a large enough hat to protect their face. Sun rays are really strong at high altitudes which may cause irritation in eyes with some children so using a shade would be a good idea. Use a sunscreen lotion with high SPF.
- You also need to take care of the child in terms of dry skin and chapped lips which can happen due to the cold environment and dry air. Carry a cold cream and apply frequently.
- As I mentioned earlier in the article, you need to keep your trip to high altitude areas short. Do not stay at top of the passes for a longer duration. Stop there, click a few pictures and be on your way. Do not spend too much time on the top with a child.
- If your baby has any heart or lung conditions, or if she is born prematurely, then you’ll need to reconsider the trip. In that case, consult with child’s physician about her ability to tolerate the altitude.
- You must allow your baby time to adapt to higher altitude so plan a trip with frequent stops along the way. Do not rush through the journey and ensure that gain in altitude is gradual.
- You must keep your baby hydrated at all times. Nurse your baby frequently or offer several additional ounces of formula or water daily while you remain at the higher altitude.
- If your child has a medical history, please ensure that you are carrying all the required details reports along.
- Another important thing to consider will be access to doctor or a clinic. If help isn’t available, even a simple earache or upset stomach can turn into a major problem with a child. To be better prepared for this, consult your child’s pediatrician before departure and carry any medicines recommended by the doctor.
- You must keep a close watch on your child’s behavior. It is not easy to identify symptoms of AMS in the baby as they are non-specific at first but some of the common symptoms are trouble eating or sleeping, becoming unusually irritable, crying too much in case of infant, change in skin color, headache, dizziness, fatigue or difficulty in breathing. If you notice any of these symptoms, your must immediately descend to a lower altitude. If you are visiting any of the nearby areas around Leh and the child continues to show symptoms of AMS, you must immediately return to Leh to get medical attention.
- Another problem could be putting your infant to sleep at high altitude. Keep them warm, comfortable, offer sips of an electrolyte solution to keep them hydrated. This will help them sleep.
I hope all this information was helpful however I strongly suggest that you consult a doctor before taking your child along on the trip. These were just some general suggestions provided by someone who has no medical knowledge and is no way an expert on AMS. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below and I would be glad to answer.