Adjusting to a new sleep space can be difficult for anyone, but unfamiliar settings can be especially disorienting for children. Whether it’s staying at a hotel over vacation, going to a sleepover at grandma’s, or moving to a new home, children can have trouble adapting to new routines and settings, which impacts their ability to relax into sleep.
This can be exhausting for everyone involved, and though this phenomenon is normal, it’s helpful to find ways to ease the transition. We reached out to experts to learn why adjusting to new sleeping quarters can be so hard for kids, and what parents or guardians can do to help kids adapt.
Why do children struggle with sleep in a new space?
One of the reasons kids often struggle to sleep in a new place is because so much is unfamiliar, and dealing with the unknown is scary for many children. On top of that, unlike adults, it can be hard for a child to process what is happening and why.
“Sleeping somewhere new can be a huge change for children — a change they oftentimes have no control over,” explains Kevin Kidd, a therapist with Open Arms Wellness. “Their parent/caregiver has a better understanding of the situation, as they're the ones processing the motivations for the change and making the decision to make the change.”
Sleeping in a different space also usually means a break from routines, explains Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, and author of “The Rested Child.” When you are home, it’s recommended that you create a bedtime routine that signals to your child that sleep is coming. With regular practice, their body becomes attuned to that routine in that space. And it’s really hard to replicate that when you are somewhere new, Winter says.
Every child reacts a little differently sleeping in new places, says Kidd, and that reaction also depends on the scenario. “Moving to a new home can be more jarring because they know they're leaving the comfort of their old home, and old sleep space, behind permanently,” Kidd explains. On the other hand, sleeping over at their grandparents’ house or going to a friend’s house for a sleepover may be less difficult, because kids are more familiar with the environment and they know it’s not a permanent move.
No matter a child’s home setup, stability and security are critical for helping them feel comfortable enough to sleep. One of the most difficult scenarios, says Kidd, is when a child moves into a foster home. For many reasons, a move can cause sleep issues. “The child has been removed from their parent/caregiver, they may have also been displaced from being with siblings, and there's typically no clarity about how long the change will last and what a more permanent transition might bring,” Kidd explains. In these situations, patience is critical, and can mean different things to different children. Some kids will need space, while others will benefit from comfort and encouragement. If the child has familiar items from home, be sure to keep them easily accessible, to help connect the new sleep space with the old one.
The psychology of helping a child adapt
Whatever challenges your child is dealing with, the key to getting them to relax into sleeping in a new space is to try to bring a sense of familiarity and security into their environment, says Winter. After all, falling asleep is about letting go and trusting that you are in a safe space.
“We really want to create — in everyone — a sense of security,” says Winter. He suggests you should ask yourself the question: “When a child’s sleeping in a new place, how can you create a sense of being ‘home’ in that situation?”
Kidd says that it can be helpful to imagine what is happening from your child’s perspective. You want to think of ways to make their latest sleep space fun and new, while also bringing in elements of their previous sleep space. “Get their input and allow them to have as much control over their sleep space as is reasonably possible, and make adjustments as needed based on their comfort with the sleep space,” he recommends. This can include letting them choose bedding, night lights, and other decor.
6 tricks to help your child adjust to a new space
Winter shared some practical “tricks” for how to make the transition to a new space a little easier for kids (and their tired parents). Here are his top tips:
1. Keep things in perspective
As adults, we can rationalize what it means to sleep in a new space. We know that it might take a bit longer to fall asleep and that we might not sleep as well. It can be helpful to offer that kind of perspective to kids so that the whole experience becomes less of a high-stakes thing, says Winter.
“You can tell your kids something like, ‘Hey, we’re going to sleep at Grandma’s house, and you may not sleep as well as normal,’” Winter offers. What you might find is that with the pressure off, your child is able to fall asleep with less struggle, even if it still takes a bit longer.
2. Stay up late!
Building on the theme of taking the pressure off when it comes to falling asleep, Winter suggests pushing bedtime forward a bit while you are away from home. Parents are often resistant to this tactic, but you’ll probably find that your kid is able to go to sleep much easier when you put them to bed at a later time.
Your child might need a nap the next day, or even crash a little earlier for bed, but that’s okay, says Winter. The idea is that you make the night less frustrating for everyone involved if you are a little looser about bedtime and allow your kid to go to sleep when they are tired enough.
3. Lavender on your pillow
There are some small studies that have found lavender spray can help you initiate sleep. Winter suggests using the ritual of spraying lavender oil on your pillow to help make sleeping in a new space a little smoother. He recommends starting this ritual at home before your child starts sleeping in the new space. This way that they begin to associate the smell of lavender with sleep.
Then, bring the lavender spray with you to the new space, and spray it on the pillow your child is sleeping on. “We tend to tie memory most strongly to smell,” Winter explains, so bringing this familiar, safe smell with you to the new space can help your child fall asleep.
4. Bring a piece of home
Our sense of smell is strong and evocative, says Winter. But so are our other senses. Having your child bring anything tactile and familiar with them into the new space can offer reassurance and comfort. So that might mean bringing their stuffie, lovie, favorite blanket, or pillow. If you need to travel light, you can simply bring their pillowcase, says Winter. He suggests not washing it in the days leading up to your stay in a new place, so that it will feel and smell like home.
5. Use a portable sound machine
We tend to stress silence when we are going to sleep, but sometimes trying to fall asleep in a completely silent room, especially if it’s unfamiliar, can be difficult. That’s why Winter suggests you try a little white noise to help your child fall asleep in a new space. These days, white noise or other sound machines are often portable, and easy to travel with. They are also extremely helpful for combatting unexpected new noises, including traffic, noisy neighbors, or snoring.
6. Bedtime tea time
There is actually something to the ritual of drinking a hot beverage before bed, says Winter. Having a warm drink before bed, such as tea, warms up your body on the inside, and as your body cools down, it’s a natural trigger to help people fall asleep.
Winter suggests trying a naturally caffeine-free herbal tea like chamomile tea and making it part of your bedtime ritual while you are away from home. Many studies have found chamomile tea to have positive impacts on sleep quality “You make the tea in the hotel room, and it fills the room with that smell of chamomile, which again is a kind of natural trigger for ‘Hey, let’s get sleepy,’” he describes. For kids who love a pre-bed milk, warming it up can be similarly comforting.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to helping a child adjust to a new sleep space is that all kids are different and there isn’t one approach that works for everyone. Do your best to listen to your child, meet them where they are at, and remember that many children struggle to sleep in a new space. So have a little patience, keep the faith that it will all work out right in the end and don’t hesitate to stock up on coffee.