Extended Absense: Traveling With Out Your Baby

A Q&A With Summer Arrigo Nelson, World Traveler

Dr. Summer Arrigo Nelson is an associate professor of biology at California University of Pennsylvania. There, she teaches zoology, mammalogy and animal behavior as well as some anthropology courses. Since her primary research interest is lemurs, she must often travel to Madagascar to study the animals for weeks at a time.

Katy Rank Lev: Is it harder to get away on these long field research trips since you became a parent? How did you time your family planning around your work?
Summer Arrigo Nelson: Since becoming a professor, I have less flexibility to stay for long periods of time, so I created a 5-week study abroad program for our students every-other summer. I usually stay a few weeks after the students depart to conduct more research. Once you create this experience and commit to it, it’s something the students come to expect and anticipate. My husband and I looked at the calendar and as soon as I got back from our trip in 2010, we tried to conceive. Our son Milo was born in late July of 2011. We knew my next departure date from the time he was born, so I started pumping twice as much as he needed to drink when I was working. I wanted to stockpile, knowing he’d need 5 weeks’ worth of milk for while I was gone.
KRL: Did you think about taking your son with you?
SAN: We contemplated bringing him along. In the end, I felt he was just a little too young at 10 months. The immune system is not fully developed until age two–what if he got sick? He was too young to communicate what would hurt. Plus, he wasn’t fully mobile and I felt it would be restrictive for my husband as caregiver to be confined to our tent…in the end it seemed more stressful for them to come along to the field for 5 weeks. They are going to come in 2014, though!
KRL: So what was it like, logistically, to pump on a tropical island?
SAN: I brought converters along and tons of batteries. Which is good, because while the converters worked in the cities, the current is unpredictable in remote areas. I burned through all the batteries I brought!
KRL: What about timing? You had all those students around…and you were in a tent!
SAN: Generally, I tried to schedule classes around my pumping or I’d pump before we took a long hike. For one week, we do a research project where we stay up all night to trap rodents. I had to set up a tent to go into and pump. It was important to me, so I did it. I had tremendously supportive colleagues and students–and support staff, which made it all possible! Breastfeeding is the norm in Madagascar, so I could just say, “Stop the bus! Everyone out!” and kick everybody off the bus to pump in some privacy. Everyone understood and the students gave me space when I needed it. There were a few times when the timing didn’t work out and I became very engorged and started to develop blocked ducts, but I used hot compresses and a lot of hand pumping and massage to work through those times.
KRL: How did you store your milk?
SAN: I had to pump and dump, which broke my heart. There was no way I could keep it cold for 5 weeks. I thought I could maybe donate the milk locally, but because I had to take anti-malarial medication I wasn’t able to give the milk to someone else.
KRL: What was it like to nurse your son again when you got home?

SAN: Well, this is really heartbreaking. We were never able to get him to re-latch.

I worked so hard to maintain my supply while I was over there! I did it because I wanted to continue what had been a really strong nursing relationship. First thing off the plane, I tried to nurse him. He didn’t want anything to do with it. I worked with an LC, La Leche League…we did a month of strategies and it finally came down to a choice of going cold turkey and waiting until he was hungry enough to have to re-latch. I didn’t want to put him through that–his transition off the breast was not traumatic, so we continued giving him bottles.
KRL: I’m so sorry. That must have been so hard!
SAN: Well, it was for me but it wasn’t hard for him. He’d always had bottles when I was working. Daddy gave him bottles and I nursed him.

I didn’t want to create stress and potentially negative feelings by trying to force him to do something he didn’t seem to be missing.

KRL: Did you keep pumping?
SAN: I kept pumping for him for 2 more months, until he was 13 months old. Then, I slowly started reducing my supply. That was hard, very hard for me, but it seemed to be the best thing for him. He got all the good milk, just from a different delivery system!
KRL: What advice do you have for other moms who have to travel for an extended period away from their nursling?
SAN: Oh, just plan for every eventuality. I brought my Ameda Purely Yours and a hand pump as well. Which was lucky! There were times where things went wonky with the mechanical pump. Also, I’d say you can do it! It just might be more difficult or mortifying at times, but you can figure it out. It’s worth it.

Did you have to leave your baby for a long work trip? Leave a comment to tell us your best tips for other moms.

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