Every parent knows that traveling with your little ones tends to throw everything entirely off when it comes to good sleep. Even if you have the best-sleeping baby on the planet, there is something about vacations that seems to create a little monster out of your darling angel.
And for parents who haven’t traveled with kids in almost two years — or maybe not traveled with kids at all if your child was born after the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — there is a lot of anxiety and worry associated with the disruptions to routines and the lack of sleep that can come when traveling.
“The most common fear and obstacle for babies and toddlers alike when traveling is losing nap times and having difficult night sleep,” says Laura Gournic, a certified sleep sense consultant and life coach. “We often want to pack in as much fun and activity as we possibly can when we finally get away from the demands of regular life and have permission to play.”
But that fun can lead to overtired and overstimulated babies and toddlers who often fail to nap. This then leads to struggles during night sleep.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. We asked Gournic and other sleep professionals, including Dr. Natalie Barnett, Director of Clinical Research at Nanit, and Dr. Chris Winter, a Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, neurologist, and author of “The Rested Child: Why Your Tired, Wired, or Irritable Child May Have a Sleep Disorder,” to discuss the most common sleep problems that parents have with their little ones when traveling and on vacation — and how to solve them.
“With a little knowledge about how to plan ahead and a commitment to protecting your family’s sleep,” says Gournic, “you can keep the quality of sleep that you enjoy at home.”
Sleep problem: Traveling by plane
Traveling by plane can be tricky for parents, especially since many of us try to time the flight’s takeoff and landing with our kid’s sleep schedules.
Barnett: Arrive in time for bedtime. Stress less about the time of the flight and focus instead on flying domestically during the day, “so that you can give yourself a time buffer if the plane is delayed and you can still arrive before your baby needs to go to bed for the night.”
If you’re flying overseas or on other long-haul flights, she recommends an overnight flight “to give your baby the best chance to sleep for as much of the flight as possible.”
Her best tip to make sure baby sleeps on an overnight flight? Purchase an additional seat for the baby and bring their car seat on the plane. “I know it’s a big ask for a lot of families, but it can be a lifesaver to have that extra seat on long flights,” she says.
Winter: Keep track of your child’s eating schedule when traveling by plane to help reduce the chances of having a cranky child or crying baby on a plane.
He also recommends bringing your young child’s favorite nighttime blanket on the plane to help them get some sleep, dressing your baby in their pajamas if you plan to do an overnight flight, and bringing their favorite book if that is part of your bedtime routine at home. For older kids, getting a special travel pillow and re-creating a nighttime treat they have at home can help get some rest on the plane.
He says that setting expectations when traveling with older kids can help. For instance, let them know when to play games or watch a movie, get a snack, prepare for layovers, etc. He is also a huge fan of signing up for special privileges through your airline. This is especially helpful if you have a layover.
“This is the time when you might want to invest in something like American Airlines’ Admirals Club or something similar,” he says. “If one member of the family has the membership, everybody that is traveling with that person can go to a lounge and find a quiet space to have your kids relax. It’s worth it rather than being at a crowded gate during a layover — kind of uncomfortable, without a place to sit, and where it is loud.”
Gournic: Ultimately, plane travel is difficult for kids — especially babies. Gournic recommends doing whatever is needed to get through the flight, even if this means extra snacks or more screen time than you typically allow at home.
Sleep problem: Traveling by car
A bumpy trip can cause moods to dip.
Winter: “If a family is driving somewhere, most of the time that drive is long enough to help with sleep adjustments,” he says. Plus, he says, stopping to take breaks whenever you want gives you more control over your travel schedule to help your child get through it.
Dr. Barnett: Drive during your baby’s nap time. “This way, you can try to keep your baby on their regular schedule as best you can so that the vacation is off to a good start,” says Barnett. This is better than driving at the beginning of the night, she explains, because it allows you to “give your child the opportunity to acclimate to their new sleeping space before they go down for the night.”
Gournic: Be proactive and plan out your trip out so that you can stop at parks, tourist attractions, or other outdoor activities when your baby is awake. “The challenge is to give yourself permission to take the time to do that,” she says. “But it will be beneficial for everyone to get sunshine and fresh air because both of those will make the next nap that much easier in the car.”
Sleep problem: Changing time zones
The thing you want to remember when your child’s sleep is off due to traveling to a new time zone is that even adults struggle with the adjustment. It typically takes one day per time zone changed for your body to adjust. So if you are traveling from Los Angeles to New York, which is a three-time-zone change, it will take your body three days to adjust. This is true for your child as well.
Winter: Plan around travel and think to yourself: “What are we going to do to try to minimize the impact of this on our kids?” His tips for traveling by car and plane can help, but if you didn’t plan for the change in time zones, he suggests that parents “get on that schedule as quickly as possible.”
His top recommendations include making a plan for when to eat and when to get sunlight and fresh air — not just basing a schedule around your nap or bed times — to help create a schedule for the new time zone. “Make sure that, when you get to that place, you get onto that meal schedule pretty quickly,” he says. Although it’s easier to delay meals than get kids to eat earlier, he recommends playing games to distract kids to help adjust mealtimes.
When it comes to light, he recommends adjusting lighting to “romantic lighting” (think holiday lights, dimmed overhead lights, or even dinner by candlelight) if you are hoping to get your child to sleep earlier to adjust to a new time zone or getting outside before the sun sets if you’re trying to delay sleep.
Gournic: Let them “have a short cat nap, then wake them so you can lay them down at their regular nap time” in the new time zone. “Try not to let baby sleep longer than their regular nap lengths during the day to allow them to get a good night’s sleep,” she recommends, even if your baby arrives sleep-deprived at the new destination.
Barnett: Adjust the baby’s schedule by half of the time zone difference. “If you are traveling to NYC from LA for the holidays, adjust the schedule by one-and-a-half hours instead of adjusting to the full three-hour difference,” she recommends. “This can make it easier to adjust on your way and on the way home if you don't need to adjust the full –time-zone difference.”
You could also not adjust at all and keep your kid’s schedule on your home time zone if you’re traveling for just three or four days.
Sleep problem: Daytime routine is off
Picture this: You arrive at grandma and grandpa’s home. Everyone is eager to hold and snuggle and play with your child. So naturally, they want them awake to interact, bond with them, and make memories. That sounds great, right?
But this is precisely the situation that can lead to lousy sleep during travel, vacation, and beyond. The experts strongly caution parents to prioritize your baby’s or toddler’s sleep even in these circumstances.
Gournic: “It may feel initially like naps and healthy night sleep are robbing you of fun that you could be having otherwise,” she says. “But please know that the price you will pay during your entire vacation will be much higher if you let your baby get overtired and overstimulated.”
She adds: “It can be tough to tell the people that you love the most that you’re putting an end to the party because baby needs sleep,” she says, “but do not compromise your baby’s sleep and make exceptions.” Let your loved ones know they can see the baby after they've awoken. It may even be helpful to communicate these boundaries before you arrive.
That may sound harsh, but her main concern is that this can become a slippery slope that leads to your baby’s sleep slipping “into the toilet,” as she puts it. “Before you know it, you are on your way home, and you realize baby did nothing but cry the whole trip. It will feel like a disaster!”
Sleep problem: Naps are impossible
It’s pretty typical for naps to get off track when traveling, so it’s crucial to be proactive if you want to get them back on track.
Gournic: “First and foremost, avoid introducing any new props to put them to sleep,” she says. “These will backfire, causing long-term sleep issues.” Instead, she recommends providing a black-out space for the baby to nap and ensuring that the 15-20 minutes before nap do not involve any additional stimulation to relax before their routine and sleep time.
“Once you lay them down, allow them some space to fuss some and struggle a bit because it can be hard for them,” Gournic adds. “Sometimes crying can be their tool to decompress and burn off excess stress. Don’t let it unnerve you. Give them a good hour in the nap space before pulling the plug.”
Barnett: Naps can be more challenging than nighttime sleep for little ones when the family is traveling. However, because of this, her advice is actually to do whatever you need to do to get your baby to nap.
“Do what you can,” she recommends, “and if that means a car or stroller nap, then go for it. It’s more important that your baby takes somewhat of a nap than to be in a perfect sleep environment.”
Sleep problem: Different sleep environment
The most common sleep disruptor that Barnett sees is when a baby is “sleeping in a space that feels, smells, or sounds different from their usual sleeping space.”
Barnett: Re-create a similar sleep environment to what you have at home as best you can so that “you will set your baby up for sleeping success while traveling.”
Winter: Do the best you can when it comes to helping your child sleep in a different, unfamiliar environment — but remember that there’s only so much you can do. Although the things you can do are individualized, he recommends having bedtime rituals that are “somewhat portable,” such as using a lavender spray on a favorite pillow. You can also bring a sound machine, favorite toy, blanket, or sleep sack.
The same goes for books, bath toys, or soap (if you do a pre-bed bath), or anything else that can be easily packed and set up in your temporary space.
Sleep problem: Bedtime routine is difficult
Having a stable bedtime routine is fundamental to making sure your child gets adequate sleep. If your child doesn’t already have a regular routine, they are far less likely to adjust their sleep when traveling to a new location.
Barnett: “Keeping a similar routine is key to adjusting your child to the new environment,” she says. “Do your best to have the same bedtime routine when you are traveling as you have at home. This is one of the reasons I’m a proponent of a short and simple bedtime routine so that it can be replicated easily in a different place.”
Gournic: “Sleep routines trigger actual physiological body responses that promote relaxation and rest, so they are invaluable when you travel,” she says.
Keeping the same bedtime routine is especially important for toddlers, she says, because they hate change. “The more you can provide your toddler with what is familiar, the less disrupted your toddler’s sleep will be.”
Gournic recommends keeping good sleep hygiene for younger kids even if your baby wakes during the night. “Maintain the dark sleep space,” she says. “Don’t get up and play, turn the lights on, or engage more than you absolutely have to. Although they may be a bit out of sorts and crabby during this adjustment, it should only take a couple of days for them to settle back in.”
Winter: It’s vital for older kids to keep the same little bedtime rituals just as you would for younger kids. “All of those little things leading up to a kid going to bed has less to do with the actual travel but just having these roadmaps when going to bed and keeping these things the same every day.”
Sleep problem: Nothing seems to work
Okay, let’s face it: Sometimes, you do everything right, and nothing works. Is it okay to just “break the rules”?
Barnett: “It’s totally okay to go with the flow a bit more when you are traveling!”
“If you have previously sleep trained your baby and their sleep is disrupted whilst traveling, please know that with some consistency and effort when you get back home, it should only take your little one a couple of days to get back on track and sleep well again," she says.
The only thing that Barnett warns against is not letting travel be an excuse for sleep to be disrupted for a long time. “Get right back on the horse when you are back in your home environment,” she adds, “and focus on sleep for a few days after you return so that the sleep disruption doesn’t become a long-term habit.”
Winter: “If somebody says to me, ‘look, we found it easier that when we travel, we just let them do whatever they want to do,’ then go for that,” he adds.
However, he adds that he has no problem if parents rely on letting kids sleep in bed with them to make travel and vacation sleep easier on the family “as long as it’s safe.”
Sleep problem: Getting back to sleep at home
If your child already has good sleep habits before traveling, then they will be able to get back to it eventually. However, if that’s not the case, you will not have good sleep when traveling or getting back home.
Gournic: “If your baby was sleeping well before your travels because you took the time to teach them great sleeping skills, then simply returning to the very practices that got them sleeping well in the first place is always top priority,” says Gournic.
Barnett: If your child’s sleep does get off track when you are traveling, it’s okay to do the best you can in the moment and be sure to get back on track once you are home. Whatever your sleep routine and healthy habits were before travel, they will work again — even if it takes a few days to get there. So don’t lose hope and keep going. Your child’s sleep will get back on track with a bit of extra effort.
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1. White noise machine: “I love a white noise machine,” says Barnett. “It’s a great way to signal to the baby that it is time to sleep, just like at home.”
2. Travel pillow for kids: “I think this can be a fun way to create an association around sleep, which can be helpful,” says Winter. “They help to hold kids upright so that they don’t slump over and fall on top of each other.”
3. Calming oil: “Pack a diffuser and drop 3-4 drops of an oil in the diffuser about 15-20 minutes before it’s time for baby to sleep,” says Gournic. “I have found straight lavender products to be unpredictable in their effect on babies.”
4. Black-out blinds: “A dark room is really going to help your little one sleep in a different environment,” says Barnett. “I highly recommend packing a box of thick black garbage bags and painter’s tape or using portable stick-on blackout blinds that can be taken anywhere.”
5. Blanket or stuffed animal: “Little blankets that you can travel with or stuffed animals that they use at home could be great,” says Winter. “Try to bring those smells and feels from the bedroom. A hotel room smells kind of funny, but if they’ve got their thing to make them comfortable, that can help.”
6. Blackout canopy for Pack-n-Play: “A blackout canopy that fits over a Pack-n-Play is a great investment,” says Gournic. “It can be a game-changer in maintaining baby’s sleep, especially naps.”