Consistency is the best practice for keeping kids’ sleep on track while on a trip, whether travelling by car, train or plane. Be as consistent as possible with sleep schedule, routine and environment. It’s also important to handle bedtime battles and night wakings the same way as always (assuming you have a consistent response to nighttime challenges; if you don’t, perhaps it’s time to start — kids crave consistency), to send the message that no matter where they sleep, the same rules apply.
Of course, it doesn’t always seem that simple. When you’re travelling across time zones, adjustments need to be made to schedules, and you might wonder if you should put your kids to sleep according to the time zone at home or at your vacation location. Environments are naturally going to be different. Routines might have to change slightly. Travel times aren’t always within our control. But there is a lot parents can do to keep their kids sleeping well.
Here are some of my favourite sleep tips for travelling with kids:
- Start packing and preparing to travel early. Avoid the typical last-minute running around that will wear you out. Prioritize sleep for the whole family so you start your trip well rested.
- Be prepared for some disruption in the first three days as your little ones adjust.
- Plan to travel during nap times. If possible, leave 30 minutes before naptime usually starts so their bodies have time to settle and get sleepy.
- Don’t forget naptime routine. It might not be exactly the same as at home, but even on the go, you can read a book, sing a song and say a key phrase.
- If travelling across time zones of just a few hours difference, start shifting sleep schedules about two weeks before you travel. Start with 30-minute shifts for babies and one-hour shifts for toddlers. Hold the change for a few days before making another shift so their bodies can adjust. (You’ll want to adjust mealtimes as well.)
- If some naps are poor while you’re away, make bedtime earlier on those days to compensate. For a more enjoyable trip, it’s better to sacrifice some sight-seeing and ensure a well-rested, happier baby.
- Avoid sharing a bed with baby or toddler if you don’t do so at home. This is confusing if it deviates from the sleep rules at home, and will make it difficult when you return home.
- Daylight and darkness are two strong signals for setting circadian rhythms (our internal body clocks), use them to your advantage. Keep rooms dark for sleep times to help stimulate the release of melatonin (the sleepy hormone) and expose baby to light — natural if possible — each morning.
Long car rides
If you’re planning to take a long road trip with your littles, don’t expect to do it all in one day. Kids need exercise and fresh air. Consider how little you enjoy sitting for hours in an packed car. Your kids love it even less. Babies will need to stop every few hours to be fed and snuggled; toddlers will need potty breaks; and big kids will need to stretch their legs.
Heading overseas is totally different from travelling a few hours from home.
- Make your flight overnight, when kids are naturally most tired. Plus, the plane will be darker and quieter.
- A day of rest is best. Plan for your first day to be a rest day. When you arrive, get settled in and put your baby down for a nap if it’s more than three hours before bedtime. If baby naps, try to wake them two hours before bedtime to preserve bedtime as much as possible.
- Get on prime time. Set your clocks to local time and try to keep naps and bedtime close to what they are at home.
- Take a stride outside. On your second day, get them on the new time by exposing them to natural light in the morning. Get outside, the fresh air will help give them (and you) some energy to stay awake until bedtime. Put them to bed a little early the first couple nights to help make up some sleep debt.
One last piece of advice
Lengthier trips can be easier — on parents and kids. Kids usually need a couple nights to adjust to a new environment and regain balance from the excitement of seeing family or the novelty of a new place. A short trip of 2-4 days might not be long enough for kids to adjust. If it can’t be helped, do your best to prioritize sleep and help your kids get as much sleep as they can.
Sleep is never perfect, and tends to be even less so when taking kids travelling. Regardless of where you’re going, how you’re planning to get there and how long you’re going, as soon as you get home, get back to business as usual. Gradually adjust nap times, bedtimes and morning wake times back as you did when preparing to travel; maintain the consistent, soothing bedtime routine they’re used to; and put them to sleep in their rooms.
Written by Jessica Raymond of SleepWell Baby
Jessica Raymond is a certified child sleep consultant with SleepWell Baby. She has two young daughters who help to reinforce her knowledge of babies’ and kids’ sleep needs. Jessica works with families struggling with their child’s sleep by providing education, information, tools and support to help get their kids — ages four months to eight years — sleeping better. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.