travel sleep tips

It is that time of year again – the days are getting longer and our long-awaited travel plans are ready to be executed. Whether your plans include travel to distant places or places within an hour or two by car, the impact to your children can be the same – lost sleep!

Children are all such creatures of habit. They like routines and familiarity. This is precisely why our travels are often interrupted by our children’s sudden change in sleep habits, as well as other behavioral changes, such a potty accidents or eating less well. Of course it’s reassuring to know that this is normal, but even more helpful (I hope) are the tips that follow.

Prepare your child for the trip

It can be hard to know exactly how much our children understand at a young age because their receptive language skills (what they understand from us) develop in advance of their expressive language skills (what they communicate to us). As a general rule, I would argue that most children understand more than we give them credit for.

I raise this point because I find it very important to let children know that there is a change of routine coming. Invite their participation in preparing for the trip as much as you can, given their age. For tots 12-18 months this means just talking about going on a trip and saying bye-bye to the pets or house as you leave. With a slightly older child you can help to prepare them by letting them share the responsibility of packing their bag, specifically the things they need for sleep. This might include a cherished blanket, pacifier, tub toys, white noise machine and favorite bedtime books

Bring the unwashed crib sheet

A familiar scent can be particularly comforting for children when they are away from home. As such, I often recommend bringing along the unwashed crib sheet from home for your baby to sleep on. For older toddlers, this is not nearly as important.  If you’re planning to use a pack n’ play, sleep with the fitted sheet that fits the pack ‘n play mattress so it has your familiar and comforting scent.

Unpack together

When you arrive at your destination, spend a few minutes getting the room where your child(ren) will sleep ready. This means setting up the crib/pack ‘n play with the sheet you brought from home and any other sleep aids you may have brought with you (white noise machine, monitor). Have your child with you while you do this. Explain to them that this is where they are going to be sleeping.

Also, take a few minutes to unpack the toys and books you brought along. Play with your child in the room for at least 10-15 minutes so they develop a sense of familiarity and comfort, as well as a positive association with the space.

Leave extra time for your bedtime routine

Since most children are at least a little uneasy about falling asleep in a new environment, it makes good sense to devote extra time at the end of the day winding your child down for sleep. Ten or fifteen extra minutes should suffice. While the order of the routine should remain the same, you might spend a little extra time reading and/or snuggling.

Stay on schedule

I know that one of the great things about being on vacation is being spontaneous and free from scheduling. Unfortunately, children really do much better when they have a schedule that is predictable every day. Therefore, it works best when you are able to keep the routine of your daily schedule when you’re away from home. Of course, you should be able to have a late night here and there, but to the extent that you can preserve your schedule, the better your child will sleep and behave.

Adjust for time zone changes

Unless you intend to be gone for a week or longer, I don’t generally advise changing time zones. Instead, keep your child on local time. If your trip is a week or longer and you’ll be in a different time zone, here is how to proceed:

traveling west: This is always the hardest direction of travel for time changes. You’ll need to stretch your child a little bit every day to get closer to your normal schedule per the local clock. Children one-year-old and older can likely stretch one hour each day (less for younger babies). The first few days, however, they will have a very early bedtime and an early start to the day, per the local clock. The stretching begins from the time they first wake up until their first nap. If that interval is normally 2.5 hours, then you’ll try to make it 3 hours.  You will stretch another half hour in the afternoon.  By the end of the day, you should have gotten their bedtime one hour later than the night before. Proceed until you get them on local time, or as close to it as you deem reasonable given the length of the trip.

traveling east: This is much easier. Simply put your child to bed at their regular bedtime at home (this will be later per the local clock) and wake your child up the next morning at the normal wake up time per the local clock. This means your child will be shortchanged on sleep that night by the total number of time zones crossed. Proceed with your normal schedule per the local clock.

Above all, enjoy yourselves.