11 Sleep Tips for Traveling with Children

When a friend told me she packs a suitcase full of her daughter’s favorite stuffed animals when they travel, I wasn’t surprised.   My family resembles a traveling caravan at airports as we transport all our gear.  Although trips with kids aren’t quite as blissful and relaxing as those pre-kid vacations,  advance planning helps.

With summer vacation season around the corner,  here are my  sleep tips for babies and toddlers  to alleviate some stress while on the road.

Start your trip well-rested.  Travel, whether by car, plane, or train,  can rob anyone of shut eye,  but it especially takes  its toll on young children and babies who accumulate sleep debts quickly.   Aim to have your child well-rested before leaving for your trip, taking restorative naps, and sleeping well at night for the days preceding your departure..  Babies and children whose sleep tanks are full  can adapt much easier to schedule changes and a little lost sleep here or there.

Plan travel time around sleep time.  Because children are naturally excited, or even stimulated, by travel plans, it’s often hard for them to sleep en route.  So, try to plan your departure and arrival times around naps as much as possible.  If your child still naps in the morning,  then plan to leave after the morning nap, not before.  Remember the first nap is usually the most restorative and helps curb over-tiredness for the rest of the day.  Also, transit naps are never as restful.   As much as possible, try  to arrive  at your destination in time for the usual  bedtime;  if the naps were shorter than usual, aim for an earlier bedtime.

Think ahead about sleeping conditions. Going from having their own bedrooms to crowding everyone into one bedroom can spell disaster for everyone’s sleep.   If you plan to stay in a hotel, splurge on a suite to give you some extra living space with a pull out or a crib.  This will allow you to enjoy the evening while your little ones sleep nearby; it may  even save you on food expenses if you also have a kitchenette  to store your own milk and snacks.   Finding a condo or private home has become easier than ever with sites like vrbo.com and airbnb.  Extra sleeping space makes for a more relaxed vacation  for everyone.

But if you are in a one room hotel room, all is not lost!  Get creative and think about where you can put a crib or small bed that is separate from you as possible. .  Sometimes it may mean the bathroom, a hallway, or even a large closet.  Rearranging the furniture can help as well as hanging a sheet from the ceiling to create a physical separator.  Hotel staff are usually more than willing to help you “redecorate” in the name of sleep.

All is not lost if your toddler ends up in your bed even though that is not your ideal  sleeping arrangement.  The key to a successful transition back home is communication ahead of time:  tell them this is a special sleeping arrangement just for the trip but when you return, you will be back in your own bed,  and he will be in his.  Frequent reminders  about sleep rules, even on the trip home,  are important to avoid the temptations to join you in bed upon return.

Buy, rent or reserve the beds you’ll need.   If you stay with family on a regular basis,  buy, or ask family members to borrow or rent,  a portable crib.    If you are staying in a hotel, call in advance, so the cribs or extra pull out beds will be ready when you check in. If you’re traveling by car, BYOB, or  bring your own bed;  a pack n play or  travel bed or sleeping bags  are great portable options which you’ll use many times.

Do practice runs.  Trips cause a lot of disruptions to familiar routines, whether it’s at a hotel or your  in law’s house. And you don’t want to arrive only to have your child  go into meltdown mode.   If you take your own travel bed or portable crib, allow your child to sleep in it a few nights before you leave to get used to it.  Also, prior to departure,  talk with toddlers about the plans, including new sleeping arrangements..

Take along helpful sleep accessories. Have you ever packed a suitcase full of toys only to never unzip the bag?  I have!  But these days I have  exchanged the extra toy bag for one with some helpful sleep accessories.

Here are some lightweight and useful options:

  •  A White noise app:  Download a white noise app, such as  “Relax Melodies” .  White noise is not only extremely soothing for both babies and toddlers,  but can help drown out ambient noise which may  be unavoidable away from home.
  • A favorite stuffed animal or lovey:  Bring one or two portable stuffed animals, lovies, or dolls  your child won’t sleep without.  But not a whole menagerie!
  • Sheets:  Even when traveling without the crib, consider taking your own sheets.  The  familiar patterns, the feel, and smell can help a child transition to a new sleeping environment..  Tip:  hotels (or even family) may not have appropriately-sized  sheets, so it’s better to take along your own.
  • Black plastic bags and some painter’s tape: They won’t  win any design awards, but garbage bags make great black out “curtains”  in a pinch and can help recreate the darkness that is essential for melatonin release and hence sleep.
  • Strollers: With travel more uncertain than ever, expect delays.  Even toddlers old enough to walk easily may benefit from rest on wheels, especially at an airport when there are flight delays..  Pushing a stroller is a whole lot easier than giving shoulder rides through the airport or amusement parks.

 Recreate bedtime routines.  Despite  changes of schedules and scenery, try to keep bedtime routines constant.   If bath, books, and song are parts of your normal routine, stick to them. If Grandma or Uncle Bob want to participate, let them join in  or take over!  It’s not so much about who does it, but that the routines are as consistent and predictable as they are at home.

Squeeze in naps as much as possible.   Whether walking  through Disney World or spending time with  your family,  it’s tempting to eliminate the nap while on vacation..  But  skipping routine naps spells trouble!   If your schedule necessitates a skipped nap one day, try to schedule a  lighter schedule the next to allow for crucial day time rest.   If you do miss a nap, compensate with an earlier bedtime.  The more the sleep deficit  accumulates, the more you head for dreaded meltdowns—even if you’re at the zoo!   Be flexible, but accommodate the daytime sleep needs as much as possible,  even if it is limited to napping  in the stroller or car or at the beach.  And when your child naps, take advantage of a midday siesta yourself!  It’s a great fix for the whole family.

Anticipate time differences.  If you are traveling across time zones,  the best advice is to move your schedules to the new time zone as soon as possible. And allow a few days to get sleep back on track both when arriving or returning home.   If you are only traveling for 2-4 days across one or two time zones, it is sometimes easiest to stay on your home time zone.  If you are traveling for a longer period to a different time zone, consider shifting to the new time zone during the week before your travel.  So modify your children’s sleeping and eating routines 15 minutes earlier, or later, each day prior to the trip.  This may  take 3-4 days, so plan ahead.

If you don’t make the adjustments prior to leaving, aim to  shift your child to the new time zone from day one.  So wake your child as close as possible to the new time zone or as the case may be, leave him if he wakes early and aim to do bedtimes at your usual time in the new time zone; the same goes for  naps.  Exposure to bright light early in the morning and dim light in the early evening if you are traveling East and doing the opposite  traveling West can help shift their circadian rhythms and make the transition easier.

 Break some rules and have fun!  Try not to stress out  about strict sleep habits on vacation.   Kids are surprisingly resilient:  if they  miss a few naps and go to bed too late a few nights,  they will survive and so will you!.  Let the kids have  fun doing something they don’t usually do.   And if you disturb a few people—fellow passengers or other hotel visitors– along the way, you won’t see them again, so don’t worry!

Get back on track as soon as you get home.  Sometimes the hardest part of a trip is to resume normal routines when you return.  Staying up late eating popcorn at grandma’s is so much more fun than hitting the hay at 7:00pm every night.  But don’t bring vacation habits home with you. Try to get back to nap and bedtime routines as soon as possible – knowing that it might take a few days and cause a few tears.

Author: Dr. Rebecca Kempton, MD

After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from Dartmouth and an M.D. from Cornell Medical School, Rebecca Kempton worked for several years as a medical director for healthcare technology and pharmaceutical companies before becoming certified as an infant and toddler sleep consultant and starting her own business, Baby Sleep Pro.  With her three children, aged  seven and under, along with thousands of clients globally,  Rebecca has honed her sleep coaching skills.  Sleep training is never one size fits all!  Using a variety of behavioral techniques, she customizes sleep solutions  based on what she learns about you, your child, and your family’s goals. Rebecca  works with clients globally by phone, Skype, and email.  For more information, email rhk@babysleeppro.com; visit babysleeppro.com and follow her on facebook.com/babysleeppro and twitter @babysleeppro

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2 Replies to “11 Sleep Tips for Traveling with Children”

  1. Susan

    I always have problem while I had a stressful working day. At that time, taking a short walking or turn on the white noise machine is good way to sleep well. Thanks for sharing great tips.

  2. Jenna Jamieson

    After reading your post, I’m really glad I bought a memory foam mattress with the cooling gels. Air mattresses were just never my type. I’m just not a fan of blowing them into shape each night. I was undecided about spring mattresses. thank you for your posts.

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