Traveling with babies, toddlers and kids can be overwhelming, a bit stressful and scary but also fun, exciting and enjoyable! Appropriately managing sleep baby and toddler sleep while traveling can really help make a trip more fun and enjoyable. Because everyone knows that an overtired, cranky little one is no fun for anyone, including the little one, the parents, travel companions and basically anyone around.
As a Sleep Consultant, I work with a lot of families to help them prepare and manage their babies’ and toddlers’ sleep while they travel to maximize fun and enjoyment. I’ve compiled all my best travel tips here for you so that you can maximize the fun and enjoyment on your next trip with your little ones!
Sleeping in a different environment
First, let’s talk about sleeping somewhere different. We all get used to sleeping in a certain environment and it feels comfortable, so it may be more difficult to sleep in a new and different environment. The same is true for our kids. It may even feel a bit scary sleeping somewhere new so here are some tips to help your kiddos sleep well in any environment.
Make it as familiar as possible
Make the sleep environment as familiar as possible for your child. This includes bringing familiar smelling sheets for the pack’n’play or crib for babies or blow up mattress travel for toddlers (here is what we use and love), having their lovey (12 months and older!), and the same sleep sack or blanket. You also want to bring their sound machine (or a portable one, this one is great!) and night light for older toddlers that use one.
If your child is used to sleeping in the dark dark dark, you want to make sure it is just as dark where you are staying. Hotels usually have great black out curtains but Airbnbs or your family’s house may not. Bringing black trash bags or foil and painters tape can be a life saver in making it super dark. If your little one sleeps in a pack’n’play, travel crib or on a blow up toddler travel mattress, you can purchase a Slumberpod which makes their sleep space super dark! (Get $20 off your Slumberpod here using code SLH$20)
Create a Separate Sleep space
If your child is used to sleeping in their own room, I recommend creating a separate sleep space for them while traveling. If having their own room isn’t an option, you can create a separate sleep space in many different ways. This could be making a ‘fort’ around their bed, putting the pack’n’play in the closet or bathroom or getting a Slumberpod.
I highly recommend getting a Slumberpod if you are room sharing with your baby or toddler while traveling. This black out canopy for a travel crib, pack-n-play or toddler travel mattress is a life saver. (We love it and still use it with my 2.5 year old — pictured below!) It creates a separate dark sleep space for your little one, is easy to use and set up. (Click here for $20 off your Slumberpod using code SLHs$20)
Practice makes perfect
If you plan on having your baby sleep in a pack’n’play, I recommend practicing before you go for a few naps. This allows your baby a chance to get used to their new sleep space in their familiar room. Then they are familiar with the sleep space when it is in a different environment.
Additionally, if you are going to use a Slumberpod, practice with this before you leave so that your child is familiar with it prior to using it in a new or different location. Expose your child to it outside of sleep and make it fun and exciting to get into the Slumberpod.
Go through routines as normal
Do your bedtime and nap routines as normal for each sleep period in the new environment. Consistency and knowing what to expect helps your kiddos feel more comfortable and more easily able to sleep in a different environment.
Default to the normal way of getting to sleep but offer extra comfort if needed.
With a baby, toddler or child that falls asleep independently, you want to allow them the space and opportunity to fall asleep independently even in the new or different environment. If your little one is struggling with falling asleep, you can offer extra comfort, but ideally after offering that comfort allow them space to fall asleep in their sleep space as they are used to.
Getting on an airplane with kids can be really intimidating. We’ve all been on that flight where a baby is crying the. WHOLE. TIME. As parents we feel so sorry for that poor parent with the crying baby. And we hope that it will never be our little ones doing the crying.
Parents may also worry about sleep on the plane and how to manage it. Because unless you are on a long haul with the bassinet seat, that independent sleep you’ve been working on isn’t always quite possible. Here’s the scoop on managing your little one’s sleep on the plane:
Do whatever is needed to get your baby to sleep if it is time for them to sleep. Nurse, feed, pacifier, rock, hold, bounce, sing, do all the things. This is a short term situation where maintaining sanity is important! All those independent sleep rules you have been working on…they can be out the window for the plane (and no it isn’t going to set you back…baby is in a new, overstimulating environment and what you do once, twice or a few times on the plane is not going to undo independent sleep skills.)
For toddlers, bring their lovey or comfort item — something they associate with sleep to set them up for resting and possibling sleeping if they can allow their bodies and brains to relax but don’t be surprised if they don’t sleep, especially during daytime flights. Toddlers and preschoolers have a lot more stamina than babies and can likely stay awake in an exciting, stimulating new environment. Bring other entertainment (screen time rules go out the window for us on planes…) and snacks. ALL. THE. SNACKS. Bringing new and exciting toys or coloring books or other things your child likes to play with can help hold their attention longer.
Pro tip for traveling by airplane
Don’t count on your little one sleeping on the plane! (Prepare for the worst but hope for the best, right?!) When you get to your destination remember your little one may be overtired from not sleeping or all the stimulation from the airport and plane so take that into consideration for your first day plans. You may need to adjust their bedtime to allow them to make up for missed sleep. Prioritize getting their sleep space wherever you are staying set up so they can explore and see it and it will be ready for them when it is time to sleep.
When you are traveling by car and you have a little one who naps, I recommend planning your trip around nap time to get an on-the-go nap in. If you are planning on being in the car for a long period of time during the day, make sure you plan for 30 to 60 minutes at least of high energy activity at the end of the day so that your child will be able to sleep better at night.
Adjusting time zones
Adjusting to a new time zone when traveling can be challenging with little kids. If you have more than a 2 hour time difference or will be in your destination for more the 5-7 days, I recommend you adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible
So just how do you do this?
Sunlight and lots of it!
Natural light tells our brains and bodies that it is time to be awake. This is super important in helping our children’s bodies adjust. (Yes, yours too!) Of course the opposite of this also applies. As discussed above you want it dark, dark, dark for night time to help signal to your child’s body that it is time to sleep.
Grounding means bare feet on the ground and getting out in nature. Studies show that this helps reset the body clock to the local time using the Earth’s field of energy to reset the circadian rhythm.
Get on the new time from day one
Starting with bedtime, get on the new time as quickly as possible. When you arrive, get outside and then push as close to your child’s normal bedtime (or the bedtime you want them to have on vacation) as quickly as possible, ideally within 1 to 2 days.
With really little ones you may need to balance this with avoiding overtiredness. Sometimes a quick cat nap for babies can help them get through to their normal bedtime in the new timezone. Other times you may need to wake them to allow for enough sleep pressure to build up before their vacation bedtime.
You also need to avoid sleeping in too late per the clock in the new timezone. Getting up at the normal time and getting outside will further help reset the body clock to local time.
Striking a balance
When you travel and go on vacation you want to enjoy it, right?! Well, what can really take some of that enjoyment out of it?
An overtired, grumpy, irritable baby or toddler!
We’ve all been there and it is not fun.
This is why still prioritizing sleep while you are traveling is important. No, I don’t mean you need to be chained to your Airbnb or hotel room for all naps to happen as normal or bedtime to always be right on time. It is a balance and getting this balance right will help make the trip as enjoyable as possible. Here are some tips for striking that balance.
Normally I use an 80/20 rule. 80% of sleep happens at normal timing and environment, 20% can be some exceptions. But when traveling and on vacation, this gets a little looser.
I recommend following more of a 50/50 rule so you can enjoy and not have a super overtired, grumpy kiddo. So 50% of sleep is normal timing and in their sleep space and 50% is more of an exception. Here are a few examples:
- When your baby or toddler is taking 2 naps a day, you can aim for one nap on the go and one nap back in their sleep space.
- If one night you plan on a late night and late bedtime, plan for the next night to be an early or normal bedtime night.
- If you’ve got a kiddo who is on one nap, try for an on the go nap one day and an early or normal bedtime that night. Or flip it, a normal nap in their sleep space and a later night.
- To best use on the go naps, plan times of car travel or long walks with the stroller to match baby’s nap time, bring some portable white noise and their lovey (12 months+!!) to help them be able to more easily fall asleep.
Managing your expectations of your child’s sleep while traveling is hugely important for the enjoyment of your trip. Here are a few things to expect:
- It may take a few nights to get on track and sleep well in the new environment
- There may be some night wake ups, even when those are not normal at home
- Your child may need more support in getting to sleep the first few nights. Ideally, you want to provide extra comfort and support but allow them to fall asleep in their sleep space.
- There may be an adjustment period when you get home where you have to help remind your child how sleep works at home while you get back into your normal routine.
You can plan for the worst and hope for the best and many children will surprise you!
Need support planning for your next trip?
If you are planning a trip and you need some more support while prepping for baby and toddler sleep while traveling, the Sleep Consultants at Sleep Love and Happiness can help! Schedule a 30-minute sleep support call so we can walk you through managing sleep on your trip so you can maximize enjoyment!
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep and enjoying your travels!
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