I have three kids, and I have always traveled with them. And… drum roll… it’s not miserable.
Road trips (the longest so far has been 13 hours) or in the air, we love a good adventure. I flew with my first baby when she was just six weeks old. I’ve traveled on a plane and car ride with two under two, and most recently, two connecting flights with my school-aged kids and toddler who just turned two.
I’m not exactly a travel expert, but with my real-life parenting experience and my best expert advice, I have a few sleep schedule tips for traveling this holiday season based on the age of your little one.
In addition to basing recommendations on my own travel as a mom of three, I use my expertise as a Family Nurse Practitioner and former Labor and Delivery Nurse and my current role as an IBCLC and as the founder of NAPS. I've dedicated over a decade to actively engaging with parents, empathetically listening to their concerns, and working in close collaboration with thousands of families to offer invaluable guidance in conquering these challenges.
From what to pack to navigating the airport to keeping a toddler busy on a long car ride, there are many challenges to face when traveling. Still, one aspect that you may overlook but is oh so important: sleep.
How can I help my child sleep while traveling?
Sleep, in general, can be one of the most significant stressors for a parent, throw in travel and that multiples. You finally got that baby sleeping through the night, or you’re on a consistent nap schedule, or your toddler stopped asking for extra sips of water at 1 a.m... And now, you’re about to travel. Is all your hard work going out the window?
Listen, it’s so important to live your life. I tell this to all new parents, especially after their first baby. Get out early and often, welcome help, enjoy the company of your friends and family… you know, LIVE. The same goes for traveling.
Are we going to veer from the straight path routine we have made? Yes, slightly. Are we going to bend or break our own rules? Likely. But it’s all okay.
Travel is seeing family, making connections, and experiencing life; let's make those benefits outweigh the risk that sleep might slightly derail. If it does, you can always get right back on track again when you’re home.
No matter what stage, my biggest advice: feed your baby or child and don’t let them get overtired. Make sure sleep happens even if it’s on the go. It comes down to getting back to the newborn basics. Make sure they get enough calories in, so they aren’t “hangry,” and that sleep happens in some form (even a stroller ride) so they aren’t an overtired hot mess.
Sleep Schedules with Newborns
I find newborns to be a delight to travel with. All they do is eat and sleep.
So just make that happen. Get your feeds in every 2-3 hours and watch your awake windows to avoid an overtired baby. A newborn is able to be awake about 60-90 minutes before they unravel, so at that point… make sleep happen.
If flying, check your car seat or stroller and wear your newborn through the airport and onto the plane. If driving, break every few hours for feeds, diaper changes, and leg stretches.
Sleep Schedules with Infants (4 months - 1+)
This age might have finally landed on a schedule, and now you’re worried it will all go to crap! But, again, go back to the newborn era and the basics of feeding your baby so they don’t get “hangry” or overtired. You might have to hit the hotel for a pack-n-play nap, or if your kiddo will embrace sleeping in a carrier or stroller ride, then stay out and about.
The key for this age is getting sleep in during the day to the best of your ability, but honoring bedtime. By now, your baby likely has a set bedtime. Bedtime can be flexible by 30-60 minutes on either end. This means if your bedtime is 7 pm, you might have to rock a 6-6:30 pm bedtime if your kiddo is overtired OR if you’re out enjoying something on vacation and you need to push it slightly. Sometimes you can push the limit to 7:30-8 p.m. if need be.
Keep your bedtime routine consistent. It doesn’t have to be snazzy, but find those key things you do at home that you can mimic in a hotel room or while staying at your in-laws. This is simple - like reading one book, putting on the usual sleep sack, turning on white noise, laying them down in the pack-n-play (instead of the crib), and saying your usual “it’s bedtime, goodnight, I love you.” Then go…
If you’re sharing a room but don’t at home, wait for them to fall asleep before you lie down. And, if they wake up overnight, throw a pillow over your head and hide! (OK, I’m joking.) But spot if they spot you, encourage them to lie back down where they are, and don’t engage! Remember, if your baby can just have their own space in a well-ventilated closet or bathroom in your hotel or AirBnB, make use of it!
Sleep Schedules with Todders (2-3 Years)
You might see some bedtime battles and behavior that test the limits.
Does “One more snack, one more sip of water, or one last trip to the potty” ring a bell? Keep your home routine to the best of your ability (time and steps in the process). Be the steady pilot of the plane through this turbulence, and remember, you are in charge of bedtime. If you give an inch, they’ll take the mile. Even though you're in a new place, keep the routine as close to your usual sleep schedule as possible.
Sleep Schedules with Preschool-Aged Kids
These kids may or may not be napping still. If they’re not napping, traveling is fun and exciting, but they do often get overstimulated and tired at this age. Offer quiet time once a day if you can. Even if it means going back to the hotel to relax or stepping away from a busy scene at a party, protect them and offer them some space so they can rest and re-set.
For nighttime, the same is true as when they were babies. Honor their bedtime. They might be able to stay up a little later (they might not; you know your kid best), so if you’re at a holiday party, decide what you think they’re capable of. If you know they will be a mess if they stay up late, then one parent stays, and one parent goes, or you can arrange for childcare ahead of time.
Travel Takeaways with Kids
With all of this, there needs to be an understanding of taking advantage of being on vacation and letting life happen! So let's back up for a minute and realize that you may…
- miss a nap.
- push bedtime too late.
- get out of your routine.
- Not allow time to get settled in a new place….
When you travel, set your bar lower. So low that you might trip over it.
Travel introduces CHANGE. It might not be smooth. But, if the bar is low and the expectations are set right, dealing with an overtired, whiney, overstimulated menace… Ahem, kiddo… makes dealing with repercussions easier. Build in time to recover: lay low and make sure you get a good nap or go to bed early the following day.
Vacation is fun, and it’s good to live your life. If you can score good sleep or stay within your routine while traveling, amazing! But, if you slip out of your routine or feel out of balance, give yourself some grace, enjoy your trip, and know that when you are back home again, you can always get into your routine once again!
Author: Emily Silver, NP-C, IBCLC, co-founder of NAPS
Emily Silver is a Family Nurse Practitioner, IBCLC, mom to 3 girls (8, 6, and 2 years), and the co-founder of NAPS. Through NAPS Emily educates expecting parents, supports them in all things feeding and sleep, and facilitates new mom and working mom support groups. Emily best supports families through NAPS by pulling from her vast medical background as a former Labor and Delivery RN and now NP, and through her own personal experiences as it relates to pregnancy and parenting. You can count on Emily for some solid medical advice merged with some real-life parenting advice, and always served judgment free.
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