Knocked up abroad: pregnant travel in the first trimester

pregnant travelFor more on pregnant travel, see parts 1 and 2 of Knocked up abroad: pregnancy in a foreign country here and here.

There’s no question that having a baby changes you: your body, your lifestyle, even your shoe size. One thing I hoped not to change altogether was traveling, as long as it was reasonably safe and comfortable for me and the baby. From the beginning of my pregnancy in Istanbul, my doctor has okayed travel, as long as I get up to stretch frequently on flights and try not to overdo it. Most doctors (and mothers) agree that the second trimester is the most comfortable time for pregnant travel but the first trimester can be a good time as well (while you can still squeeze into pre-maternity clothes and walk without waddling) with a little extra precaution and a little more babying (of the mother, of course).


The first trimester of pregnancy is a tricky time for many women: the risk of miscarriage is highest up to 10 weeks, morning sickness is common, and hormones are running wild. It’s too early to tell anyone outside family or close friends and without a visible belly, it’s impossible for strangers to tell as well. At later points in your pregnancy, a baby bump acts as the international symbol for pregnancy and can make it much easier to express your condition when traveling abroad. If you travel in the early months before showing, you may want to learn the local language words for “I’m pregnant” to avoid a Bridget Jones-esque “mit kinder” scene if you need extra help while traveling.


Over this past December, my husband and I were looking for a good trip to take over the holidays, when I was around 10 weeks pregnant. Our location in Istanbul changes the list of short-haul destinations considerably from what we would have considered from New York, and we debated between a warm-weather beach destination (husband) or a snowy and “Christmassy” European city (me). We ruled out Egypt (not warm enough and not Christmassy), New Zealand (even less convenient to get to than from New York), and Sri Lanka (not enough time to plan properly and some risks of disease I couldn’t be vaccinated against). In the end, we chose…Russia.
Going to Russia in winter while pregnant may seem crazy to some, but for me it made sense: Moscow and St. Petersburg are a few hours from Istanbul by direct flight, my husband speaks fluent Russian in case of any problems, and there was no risk of malaria or eating any food that had spoiled in the sun. While it was cold and snowing during our trip and I couldn’t take advantage of some of Russia’s cold-weather remedies like vodka and saunas, a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a perfect mix of exotic and comfortable.

Nearly every cafe had a variety of non-alcoholic and caffeine-free beverages for me to choose from, I even had non-alcoholic sangria, mojitos, and mulled wine in addition to fresh juices and herbal teas. Both cities are beautiful to explore in the snow, with plenty of museums and cafes to warm up in, and the New Year holiday displays made it festive.

If you are planning a trip to a foreign country while pregnant, it makes sense to keep in mind the following guidelines. Always discuss plans with your doctor before booking and err on the side of caution when choosing a destination.

Check airline restrictions – Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly internationally up to 28 weeks, after which you must provide a doctor’s note issued within a week or so of departure. 35 weeks (earlier for women carrying multiples) is the cutoff for nearly all airlines to prevent women from giving birth on board. Most US domestic carriers will allow pregnant women to fly up to the final month; hilariously, Continental will not let women board if “physical signs of labor are present” though they don’t specify what.

Consider travel insurance – If your medical insurance doesn’t cover you overseas, you may want to look into supplementary medical travel insurance, but be sure it covers pregnancy as many policies do not. Additionally, if you are traveling to a country where English is not spoken, you may want to research the name of a clinic or doctor in case of emergency as well.

Be prepared for jet lag – Before pregnancy, I had little issues with jet lag, trying to get on local time as soon as possible. I discovered when flying back from the US to Turkey that it hits you much harder as a pregnant traveler, especially as you can’t use sleeping pills or alcohol to help you sleep. Factor this into your schedule and give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and adjust to time changes.

Realize your limits have changed – On a usual trip, I’d be up early to walk around a city all day, have a late lunch (or maybe just a big afternoon beer) followed by more museums and exploration, and still be up for checking out the local nightlife. Once pregnant, I required more sleep and three solid meals a day (plus maybe some snacks, I am eating for two!), tired after walking short distances, and was ready to call it a night long before last call. If you have an itinerary, pare it down to the must-sees and double the time to see everything; better to take it easy and enjoy your trip than feel exhausted and sick.

Look for destinations that don’t require vaccinations – One of the first tests your doctor will give you after confirming pregnancy will be for immunizations to hepatitis and rubella. If you haven’t had the vaccines, they will have to wait until after the baby is born as they are not safe for pregnant women. I have not had the hepatitis vaccine yet, and thus have a greater risk of contracting it, which rules out much of Africa and southeast Asia for travel, but also means I must avoid raw vegetables including salad in Istanbul. Most other medications and vaccines commonly given to travelers before going to an area prone to Malaria, Typhoid or Yellow Fever are not advised for pregnant women. But there’s still a big world out there, check the CDC for destination-specific information.

Be extra aware of food and water safety – Pregnant women are more susceptible to food poisoning the average person, as the immune system is suppressed so it doesn’t reject the fetus. This is the reason most pregnant women are told to avoid sushi and food that is not prepared in sanitized conditions. Even adventurous eaters should play it safe while pregnant and drink bottled water when in doubt. I recently had an opportunity to visit Mumbai, India but after consulting with a few friends who had lived there, I worried I’d spend the trip inside my hotel room eating pre-packaged food. Again,

check the CDC and use the same common sense you’d use anytime while traveling: stick with food that is freshly prepared in restaurants full of people.


Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, travelling in the second trimester, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

[Photo courtesy Mike Barish from the Istanbul tram]

Knocked up abroad: prenatal care and pregnancy advice in a foreign country

pregnancy foreign country See part 1 of Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country here.

One of the best parts of my experience so far with pregnancy in a foreign country has been the excellent medical care I have in Istanbul. Like many other expats before me, as soon as I took a positive pregnancy test, I called up the American Hospital for an appointment. The hospital treats many foreigners each year, is renowned for infertility treatment as well as other quality medical care, and is popular as part of Turkey’s growing medical tourism (the cow pictured at right is in the hospital lobby; you can tell how serious he is because of the glasses).

My first prenatal appointment was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, and while many Americans were getting up to stuff the turkey, I confirmed I was six weeks’ pregnant (you’re welcome for sparing the “bun in the oven” puns). My very charming and English-speaking Turkish doctor gave me the usual pregnancy advice/warnings*, all peppered with only-in-Turkey bits:

  • Eat lots of dairy like ayran (yogurt drink Westerners often hate because it’s not sweet), yogurt, and cheese. While pregnant women should avoid unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses, you won’t find many of either in Turkey (or in the U.S.) unless you are looking for them.
  • No undercooked or raw meat like çiğ köfte, a popular raw meat and bulger-wheat snack served all over Istanbul (I first tried it outside a trannie bar here). I’ve discovered that the primary concern with sushi is an elevated risk for food poisoning; there is no additional or specific risk to the fetus. Sushi fish is often flash-frozen when caught, therefore it contains lower levels of bacteria. Use your judgment when ordering raw sushi, or stick to California rolls.
  • It would “be a crime to not eat fish in Turkey,” according to my doctor, but stay away from the big ones like shark which have high mercury levels. 1-2 servings of salmon or tuna per week is fine.
  • Sadly, especially in a country with excellent produce, eating unpeeled vegetables or salads in restaurants is a no-no, due to the hepatitis risk. While most restaurants are very clean in Turkey, when you are in a country with some traditional “natural-position” (aka squat) toilets still in use, you run the risk of some food contamination that’s riskier for expectant women than the general public.
  • Like many Europeans, I was told that 1 or 2 alcoholic drinks a week is okay, such as a glass of wine with dinner. Moderation and common sense are key, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
  • Caffeine is also fine in moderation: 1-2 cups of coffee, tea, or sodas are allowed per day, though I’m not convinced that a piping hot, two-sugars-no-milk glass of Turkish çay isn’t higher in caffeine than your average cup of tea.
  • Light exercise like yoga, pilates, and swimming are fine, but no “jumping exercises.”

My other concern was, of course, travel, but that was given the green light as long as I have no complications. Most airlines allow travel up to 28 weeks without a doctor’s note and up to 35 weeks with medical clearance. Whether your flight is short or long-haul, it’s advised to get up and move around every hour or so (good advice even for non-preggos) and choose the aisle seat. As I get bigger, I find puffing out my stomach as much as possible helps to get baggage assistance, and seats on the subway is good too.

The costs of prenatal care in Turkey are low: each of my appointments to a top-end private hospital cost just over $100 USD even with NO insurance (my U.S. insurance treats all international care as out-of-network and thus, out-of-pocket), even with ultrasounds at every visit–most American women get only a few over the course of the pregnancy. I’ll pay less for childbirth with a private room and catered meals for the family than I would for a shared room in a New York hospital. I rarely wait more than a few minutes to see the doctor, and the facilities and equipment are new and clean.

So far, Turkey has proved fairly easy to navigate as a pregnant person. I’ve never had a doctor who I could easily email with problems (such as which cold medicines were okay to take when I was sick in Russia), and everyone I meet is helpful with my concerns and questions. Istanbul is built on hills, so walking to the store can mean a fairly strenuous hike, but modern Turkey accommodates with online food and grocery delivery. Organic food is cheaper than at home, and nearly all of my cravings have been satisfied so far (though I could go for some American mac-and-cheese). I’m not yet halfway through the pregnancy but wouldn’t hesitate to reassure another expat that Turkey is a fine place to have a baby.

*Note: none of this is intended to be taken as medical advice, but rather my personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Talk to your own doctor about warnings and concerns before traveling to a foreign country, pregnant or otherwise.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.