Altitude Adjustment in Babies

Everyone takes time to adjust to altitude. Babies are no exception. In fact babies actually take long to adjust to altitude as a general rule. There are a lot of factors that play into a baby’s ability to adjust to altitude.

Shelf Lake – Elevation just over 12,000 ft
Wee Man’s Highest Elevation before the age of 1 year

Before your baby was even born some of these factors were already at play. Mom’s activity while pregnant will affect the baby a lot. As well as where mom lives while pregnant. This is due to the oxygen levels shared while in utero. A mom who is active at high altitudes will have a baby more likely to adjust easily to altitude. A mom who is less active or lives a lower altitude is more likely to have a baby that requires extra time to adjust. Don’t worry it’s not anything you did wrong. It has to do with the way the body produces hemoglobin, which is the part of the blood that helps carry oxygen around the body. It’s been shown many times that those who live and are active at higher altitudes naturally have higher hemoglobin levels, which means when there is less oxygen in the air, it is easier for them to move oxygen around their bodies than someone who has lower levels. Hemoglobin levels can change rapidly though, which is why acclimation periods and sleeping at altitude can “fix” this very easily. Generally, the more time spent at altitude in low oxygen conditions, the better your body adapts. Just like anything else. This is no different for babies, and generally speaking babies are born with similar levels as their mom’s.

It’s important to understand signs of altitude sickness, for both mom and baby. Adults are more likely to notice symptoms sooner than babies. Altitude sickness in babies can be very dangerous and it’s extremely important to monitor. Sometimes, you won’t show any signs for up to 36 hours after it starts.

In adults symptoms include:

Dizziness

Short of breath

Nausea and vomiting

Diarrhea

Hang over like Headache

Muscle aches

  • These symptoms are common and should easily go away with hydration, food, and lowering in altitude
One of our favorite wilderness areas to gradually build elevation. Starts around 9,000 feet and has options to above 14,000 ft!

More serious signs in adults that REQUIRE medical attention:

Fluid in the lungs (think pneumonia), fluid in the brain- (symptoms listed above that won’t go away, loss of appetite, sleep issues, loss of energy)

It’s important to remember that it doesn’t take being at high altitude to get altitude sickness. High altitude is relative to what a person is used to. Sometimes symptoms happen from going up or down TOO quickly.

In babies symptoms are a lot more subtle and can be difficult to recognize. It’s very important to pa close attention to your baby while going up or down in altitude. Remember that speed in which you change can have a significant impact, for example my little man does great going up hiking but struggles in the car if driving above a certain speed. He also has a harder time going down than up.

In babies watch for:

Extra sleepiness (we still expect your little ones to nap approximately as much as they normally do or a little less)

Spitting up/vomiting – if you have a typically refluxy baby this can be hard to differentiate, you know your baby better than anyone so use your best judgement

Screaming for no apparent reason – hunger, bug bites, too hot/cold, positional comfort have been ruled out

Diarrhea

Refusal to eat- again this can be tricky, sometimes your baby is simply overly distracted-MAKE SURE THEY ARE HYDRATED

Again, many of these symptoms can be solved with hydration, food, and lower altitude. Take it slow, especially at first. Babies symptoms tend to linger more than adults and sometimes won’t appear until a day or two later.

When working on altitude adjustment I always keep track of the elevation we are at. It can feel very skewed out on the trails and I never want to push too high too fast.

Ok, you know what to watch for, so how do you actually help a baby adjust to altitude?

The same you would an adult – slowly and over time.

It’s best to start hiking about the altitude you are used to before you ever attempt any altitude with a baby. Before heading up to altitude make sure your pediatrician clears them. This is especially important if your baby was premature, born with any lung problems, or ever required oxygen support. Once you have the clear start slow.

Since going up fast is the hardest, you’re best off starting by parking lower and walking higher. As you and your baby do well, try parking a little higher every few weeks (if hiking regularly, if not this will take much longer). Pay attention to how they handle the car and remember they cannot pop their ears like an adult can. It’s OK and highly recommended that you make stops on your drives up and down until you are certain your baby can handle it. Start with slower roads, under 60 mph overall speed. If you go up any passes go extra slow, the people behind you will get over it.

Once hiking, an altimeter can be helpful if you aren’t sure how the elevation climbs. Take extra breaks and offer your baby your breast or bottle regularly. Remember it’s not recommended to give them water before 6 months of age. (see feeding your baby). When hiking your baby’s hydration level matters much more than calories. Make sure they are still peeing regularly or even a little extra. Just like with driving, if you both do well, you can push a little higher every few weeks.

Above tree line it always feels like you can see forever away.

Other factors to consider:

What altitude you live at versus where you plan to hike.

How often you go up.

Are you going alone or with people?

Are you experienced or is this new for you too?

Be smart. Pay attention. Take it slow. And it’s ok to not make it to your goal destination.

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