Managing your Child's Sleep while Traveling
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
I always encourage parents to not let their worries and anxiety about sleep hold them back from traveling with their kids. Sure, sleep can be a little disrupted when we travel, but if you have a solid sleep foundation for your child, they should bounce back into routine fairly quickly after you return. Traveling is a great way to provide a change of scenery, spend time with family and friends, and expose our children to different people, cultures and environments.
While you can read a lot of advice about traveling with kids, I’m going to keep mine specifically related to sleep.
Usually there are two components to our travel - getting to and from the destination, and our time at the destination. So I’ve broken out my tips based on the travel days and how to best support your child’s sleep throughout the trip when you get there.
If you’re flying to your destination:
Buffer a good 30 mins or more to play and hang out at the airport before boarding. The last thing we want is the unneeded stress of racing through the airport to immediately board the plan and be confined to a tighter space. This gives your child some time to move around and get their sillies out before being in the confined space of the airplane.
If there’s anything your child associates with sleep (like a sleep sack, swaddle, lovie, pacifier), bring that in your carry on. When you’re trying to get your child to settle for sleep, bring out whatever that item is. Get them in their sleep sack, have them snuggle with their lovie. This can help to cue your child that it’s time to sleep.
Do whatever helps to lull your child to sleep. Rocking, rhythmic pats on the back, white noise, singing lullabies, shushing and stroking gently on their face can help to calm them and get them to settle for sleep.
I’ve found the toughest age of kids to travel with is toddlers between 1-2 years old. By this age they are walking (or close to walking), very aware of their surroundings and easily over-stimulated (making it harder to just fall asleep). They are not yet able to really focus on a show for an extended period of time. I’ve definitely been that exhausted mum holding back tears trying to endlessly rock and shush my child in the back of the plane just praying that he eventually closes his eyes and settles. They are long minutes and hours, but just know you’re doing your best and we can’t always force our kids to sleep if they are over stimulated.
Once you’ve made it to your destination, we can help to support our child’s sleep through a few different factors:
Find a space you can use for the crib/bed and make it as dark as possible. Depending on the type of place you’re staying, be creative - a closet, bathroom, office, etc. Just make sure there’s enough room around the crib that your child couldn’t bump themselves. There’s a solution for pack and play cribs called the SlumberPod which is like a blackout tent that goes over the crib - my number one favorite travel item. Otherwise, pull the shades, put coverings over the windows. There are some great solutions out there to help darken windows like portable blackout suction cup window covers. We want it as dark as possible to eliminate distractions and help stimulate the sleepy hormone, melatonin. White noise sound machines will also help to drown outside noise and provide a consistent calming noise to help with your child's sleep - there are some great portable options out there.
Remember that your child’s wake windows remain the same - they don’t just magically change when we go on vacation. So try and tune into your child’s sleepy cues as you would at home and try as best you can to at least time that first nap (or THE nap) well. That helps to set up the rest of the day and avoid your child from being overtired from the start.
Mimic your routines and sleep environment as much as possible. Follow similar routines at bedtime. Routines can really help to cue your child as to what is coming next. Bring anything else that can help to mimic your child’s sleep environment at home - their sleep sack, pacifiers, lovie, sound machine, even a favorite book you read before bedtime. It all helps to reinforce the message of when it’s time for sleep and helps to provide some of the comforts of home.
When in doubt, try for an emergency nap and/or an early bedtime. If you’re out and about and can’t get back for a nap in the crib, you can always try to sneak in an emergency nap with a car ride or stroller walk. There are portable white noise machines that can help to provide a consistent calming noise while you are on the go. If a nap was missed, the best thing you can do is get them to bed early as they will get their most restorative sleep in the first half of the night. An early bedtime catches your child up on lost sleep from the day.
Set expectations for yourself that schedules and sleep may not be as solid as at home. Don’t feel too stressed about schedules that you can’t enjoy your vacation. Enjoy your time, make memories and do your best to prevent your child from getting too over-tired.
If you need more help setting a solid sleep foundation for your child, let's connect! I'll help to get an action plan into place and support you along the way.