The holidays are just around the corner and if you’re like most families, that means you’ll be doing some traveling. Whether you’re going by car, train, or plane, traveling with a baby can be a bit of a challenge! But with a little bit of planning and preparation, it can be a fun and memorable experience for everyone involved.
While this blog post serves as a broad overview for maintaining great sleep habits during travel, you may be interested in a deeper dive, especially if you are a family that travels with children often. Check out our Comprehensive Guide to Traveling with Children – Sleep & More. The guide includes 56 pages of tips and advice on plane and car travel with babies, toddlers and multiples, optimizing your child’s sleep while on-the-go, how to handle timezone changes, resolving sleep struggles while on vacation, the best travel products out there, getting back on track once you arrive home, and more.
The following blog post outlines our top tips for helping your baby sleep while on vacation.
Getting there: Sleep tips for car travel
If you’re driving to your destination, one trick is to schedule your driving time during your baby’s naps. Car naps aren’t ideal, but compared to no naps at all, they’re the lesser of two evils. So if at all possible, get on the road right around the time your little would normally be taking their nap.
If you’re really committed, you might even look for some parks, tourist attractions, or other activities that are on your route where you can stop when the baby wakes up. It’s a great chance to get some natural light and fresh air, and also a good opportunity to offer a feed while the car is stopped. The change in scenery, sunlight exposure, and full belly will all be helpful when it comes to the next nap.
Getting there: Sleep tips for air travel
Flying during the holidays with a baby can be daunting, but with a little bit of planning it can be a smooth process. Here are some tips to make airplane travel with a baby a little easier.
Prepare and pack in advance
If traveling with a baby, make sure you pack plenty of diapers and wipes, and a change of clothes for both you and baby (in sealable plastic bags for storing dirty laundry). You never know when your little one might have a blowout or spit up all over!
Next, make sure you have snacks, meals, bottles, and formula. For formula-fed babies, bring a formula dispenser, travel thermos with hot water, and cold (bottled) water to be able to make their bottles without waiting on flight attendants. Pack extra formula and meals just in case – it’s better to be safe than sorry in case of travel delays!
Make sure you have any toys, screens and chargers that you may need for the flight. If screens help keep your little one entertained, go for it! Do keep in mind the blue light does impact sleep and may make it difficult for your child to nap. Don’t forget your little one’s favorite blanket or lovey if they have one – and guard it with your life!
If you're traveling with a car seat, it must be airline (FAA) approved or you risk having it refused by an airline employee. If you’ve splurged on the extra seat, car seats on airplanes are a great way to keep your little one safe and secure, and to give yourself some space when it’s time for a nap or a break. Car seat dollies are also great for transporting carriers through the airport, and fold up nicely to store under the seat or in the overhead storage bins when not using them.
Finally, don’t forget to pack multiple pacifiers if your baby uses one, as the sucking function will help with the air cabin pressure changes. And you’ll want to have extras in case any get lost!
Keep calm and be flexible when traveling with a baby
The most important thing to pack before plane travel with a baby is truly a flexible, go-with-the- flow attitude. Surviving a flight with kids may not always be pretty, but as long as you’re able to remain calm and adjust to their ever-changing needs, all will be okay.
Do what you can to maintain your local sleep schedule, even if changing time zones while traveling. You don’t want your baby to become overtired while flying, so offer naps during your baby’s regular sleep times.
The only time we suggest doing “whatever you can” to get you through crying and fussiness is during plane travel. It’s a stressful time for both baby, caregivers, and can be for other passengers too, so do your best to keep baby calm, and let go of the rest. If that means extra feedings, snack bribery, or screen time, so be it! If baby is tired, they will sleep, and if not, there isn’t much you can do about it. Attempting to force a nap will result in a lot of frustration for you, baby, and, most likely, everyone around you.
Once you get to your destination, either create the time and space for a nap (if baby’s “regular” schedule aligns with that) or push through and aim for an early bedtime.
Tips for general travel with a baby
Now that we’ve covered car and airline tips, let’s dig into tips for sleep during travel once you’ve arrived at your destination.
Consistency is key to helping your baby sleep on vacation
It’s important to remember that babies are very sensitive to changes in routine and surroundings. So, if possible, try to stick to your baby’s regular sleep, feed, and play schedule as much as possible while you’re traveling. This will help your little one (and you!) to stay calm and happy during the trip.
Make sure you bring your child’s lovey and/or blanket with you on the trip! Keeping as consistent as possible with their normal sleep environment and routines will be a big help. In other words, familiarity is our friend because change can be tough on little ones.
Provide a separate sleep space
If your child is 8 months or older, our advice is to bring along a pack and play, travel crib, or a portable bassinet, and create a private space for your baby to sleep. This could be the bathroom, if it’s big enough, or even a walk-in-closet. Any way you can create a partition between you and your baby will be helpful in case they wake up in the middle of the night. Having a separate space from you will mean they are less stimulated and tempted to think that it’s play time since Mom and Dad are right there! Of course, renting a house with an extra bedroom, or staying with family or friends who have an extra space, is likely going to be best for your little one(s).
Pro tip: if you have an older baby, make sure you are not using a new travel crib or sleep product for the first time on vacation. Older babies may react poorly to a change in their sleep environment such as a new type of crib, so make sure to try it out at home a few times before using it for the first time while away.
Do not underestimate the power of darkness
Parents often underestimate the power of a dark sleep space when it comes to sleep duration and sleep quality. It is best to keep rooms as dark as possible to avoid any decrease in production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and increase in cortisol, the awake hormone.
As for products that help with darkness, the Slumber Pod is a must-have for families who travel often. It is a baby or toddler sleep pod that goes over your pack n play and helps infants, toddlers get some much-needed sleep when sharing a room with an adult. It’s like a room within a room! With the Slumber Pod and a sound machine, your little one will be able to sleep like a champ while traveling, even when room-sharing! Head over to the Slumber Pod website for a $20 discount on behalf of the Sleeper Teachers!
If you don’t have a snazzy sleep pod to darken their sleep space, this might mean packing some black trash bags and painter’s tape in your suitcase so you can make even the brightest of hotel rooms dark. You may feel silly going to this length, but I promise that you’ll feel a lot worse if you have to get up at 5:30 with the sun!
Stagger the busy
We have a tendency to overbook ourselves during the holiday season and vacations. We may try to pack in all the fun and adventure we were used to during our “child-free” days of the past, forgetting that babies are easily overstimulated and don’t have the energy that adults do to keep up in new environments.
Of course, a bit of this jam-packed schedule is just par for the course, but if you can do a little pre-planning to ensure that you aren’t stacking up busy days and late nights, your little ones will be better off. If you plan to have a day on the road with minimal opportunity for solid naps, consider taking it easy that night so that you can plan for an early bedtime. On the flip side, if you have a late night planned for an event like a family get-together, be mindful that baby will need some extra time the next day to recuperate.
This may sound limiting, but if you overdo it, you may end up with a baby who is constantly fussy and struggling to sleep, and who can enjoy their vacation in that situation? For example, if your baby misses a nap, her body starts moving into overtiredness territory. Pair that with the overstimulation from all the new faces and activity, and you have double trouble. Her body will then flood with cortisol, making it so she’s most likely to have another crummy nap. A lack of quality day sleep usually results in derailed night sleep, and before you know it you’re all exhausted on vacation from a baby who won’t sleep.
You can see how easy it can be to slip into a cycle of overtiredness!
What to do if your baby won’t sleep on vacation
If your baby is refusing to sleep on vacation, there are a few things you can do to help. First, it may be time to pencil in some extra down time so that your little one has time to slow down and rest. If you’ve been going a million miles a minute, exposing your little one to new faces and experiences, he or she may be overstimulated. This may require you to cancel a few plans, but having a well-rested baby is likely worth it.
Second, if baby has skipped a nap, they are probably going to need to play catch up. Early bedtime is your friend! If your baby is low on day sleep because of short or missed naps, put them to bed as early as 6:30pm. This will give them the opportunity to catch up on sleep overnight, and you can start over the next day.
Finally, don’t be afraid to use a little “help” to get your little one to sleep if they are struggling. If you know your baby will sleep in the car or stroller, don’t be afraid to use them as tools for getting in a nap. A nap on-the-go is better than no nap at all!
How do I fix sleep that got off track during vacation?
If you’ve made it home from your travels and your baby’s sleep is still off, it’s time to get things back on track.
First you will need to recuperate any sleep debt that your baby might have incurred during travel. This means allowing baby to sleep as long as they need to for a few days after returning. You should also make sure your child isn’t going too long between sleep periods by following his or her age appropriate wake windows. Otherwise you risk more overtiredness, and continued poor sleep!
Next, it’s time to return to your consistent sleep routines. Your baby’s bedtime routine will help signal that it's time to sleep. Try to stick to the same routine every night, including a bath, story time, and some calming cuddles.
We hope these tips are helpful as you get ready for some traveling this holiday season.
Remember, if you’re a family who travels often and are in need of a deep dive into traveling with kids and maintaining great sleep habits, our Comprehensive Guide to Traveling with Children – Sleep & More is the resource for you. The guide includes 56 pages of tips and advice on plane and car travel with babies, toddlers and multiples, optimizing your child’s sleep while on-the-go, how to handle timezone changes, resolving sleep struggles while on vacation, the best travel products out there, getting back on track once you arrive home, and more.
What to do if you’re struggling
Sometimes getting back on track with sleep after travel can be complicated. Maybe you returned to some old habits and your baby is having a hard time adjusting. Or you can’t seem to get back to the ease you had before you left on the trip. Or maybe you feel like you could use some support, accountability, and guidance in sorting your baby’s sleep struggles. Whatever it is, please know there is help and support available to you!