Over the river and through the woods…
Whether you are driving a few hours to grandmother’s house or you are taking advantage of a winter break to go on a family vacation, traveling over the holidays can result in some stress and anxiety for parents who want their baby or child to get great sleep, even while traveling. Sometimes, it’s even tempting to forego travel during the early years of your child’s life, but it’s not necessary if you are planful, prepared, and flexible.
The Travel Day:
Whether you are hopping in the car or on an airplane, the travel day itself can seem daunting. While it’s tempting to pack everyone in the car right before baby’s nap so she’ll sleep on the way, if you’re only going a few hours or less I recommend going either before or after naptime. When children sleep for long periods in carseats, they get less oxygen than when they are laying flat. (Extended Periods in Carseats May Trim Oxygen Levels , CNN 2009). Also, if you can be home or at your destination by naptime, you’ll be able to provide much more restorative daytime sleep and avoid evening crankiness.
If you are flying, you obviously have less control over timing and your travel-day. It’s almost impossible to avoid a really early morning, late night, or naptime transit. Be sure that you’ve dressed your baby in comfortable clothes, even pajamas, with layers to adjust to changing temperatures of airports and planes. During this day, try to provide snacks or meals at the usual time and also try to offer a nap at the usual naptime. I recommend wearing your baby during a layover so that if she falls asleep, it’s much easier to help her stay asleep while you board the plane; however, many parents prefer a stroller in an airport.
Since you’ll be holding your child in your arms for sleep on a plane, going to sleep probably won’t be a problem, but don’t expect a long, quality nap. The world is much too stimulating! On this day, any kind of rest or quiet time you can provide will help her recover on the other end. Also, be sure to allow your baby to either nurse or drink from a bottle as you take off and land to help her pop her ears and avoid painful pressure.
Whether you are staying in a hotel or a room at you in-laws’ home, I recommend creating an optimal sleep space for your baby immediately upon arrival. Make the room as dark as possible for nights and naps. I’ll often travel with thick black garbage bags and painter's tape for covering windows if needed. You can even create a “bedroom” in a walk-in closet or bathroom if you have the space (my daughter has slept in both!) If your baby is used to her own independent bed at home, I recommend using a pack-n-play or borrowing a crib from someone. There are several options for portable bassinets as well, and most hotels will provide a crib or pack-n-play upon request.
Because babies are so sensory, be sure to pack a sheet, blanket, and Lovey that smells like home. This will help your baby adjust much more quickly. Using a little lavender oil or lavender scented lotion can help calm baby to sleep and cover unfamiliar smells at the same time.
Also, I recommend bringing a portable sound machine or downloading a sound-machine App like “Sound Sleeper” by Parents2Parents (the free version will not run all night, but for a small upgrade fee it will). Having some white noise will block out surrounding noise that you have no control over like traffic, slamming doors, and loud voices. While there is only so much you can do to optimize your child’s sleep environment, it’s worth it to help her get the sleep she needs while away from home.
This is the piece of the puzzle that most parents really worry about when traveling to a different time-zone. They want to know if they should try to stay on their home time-zone or switch to the new one, if they should try to switch the time while still at home, and if they are going to destroy their child’s good sleep by taking one little trip.
I advise parents to try to get on the new time-zone as quickly as possible after arriving. Luckily, a disruptive and exhausting travel day and a new, stimulating place will make this switch happen somewhat naturally over a couple of days. Also, because meals and other activities will fall on the new time-zone’s schedule, it will help cue your baby that everything else has adjusted, too. You’ll be able to watch for sleepy signs and help adjust naps and bedtimes. The one adjustment that might take some time is wake-up time: some babies are just biologically programed to wake up at a certain time; while this will get better over a few days, sometimes it’s the last thing to adjust.
During waking hours, spend lots of time outside in natural light. Offer healthy, low-sugar snacks during the day, avoid staying out late with your baby, and follow your sleep-routine to ensure that you are providing the best opportunities for sleep during the transition.
IF you don’t believe that the adjustment will happen naturally, or the time change is really significant (4+ hours), beginning 3-5 days before you leave, start adjusting the timing of bed time, naps, and wake up times by 10-15 minutes every day. OR plan to have a little more time of adjustment once you arrive. (Read more about Time Change and Sleep here).
Remember, the extra early bedtime will help your child recover from being over-tired and set her up for a successful sleep-day tomorrow. It is very unlikely to cause an early waking, as many parents worry about. This is often the key to a happy time-zone transition!
Some parents will give their children small doses of Melatonin to help them adjust to a new time zone; as there is conflicting information regarding the safety of this practice, please speak to your child's pediatrician before trying it.
You probably know by now that you can plan…and plan, and plan…and still be taken by surprise by something that your child does while you’re traveling. It’s Murphy’s Law!
You might have set up the perfect sleep environment, but because her bed is right next to yours, you might have some difficulty asking her to stay in her own bed. If her howling will wake up Aunt Maeve in the next room, do what you can to get her back to sleep. If you have an early waker, it’s okay to pull him into your bed until it’s officially time to get up.
Your once-a-day napper might take a morning and an afternoon nap for a couple of days after arriving at your destination; for many kids, the stimulation of a new place is overwhelming and they are quickly worn out. It’s okay. Once you’ve done all you can do to replicate the environment and habits of home, you have to be a little bit flexible and know that these practices are not permanent.
That said, within your flexibility, try not to deprive your child of sleep while away from home. Yes, you are on vacation as well, and you'll no doubt want to be out and about, but as you know, you are the one who will guide your baby towards sleep in a new place; a rested baby will be far more fun than an overtired one! We usually travel with my teenaged step-kids as well, so our itinerary is typically a busy one. Sometimes, getting our toddler the sleep she needs means my husband and I take turns staying behind on any given outing that falls during nap-time. It is a small price to pay for a rested toddler, in my opinion.
If you are planning on some late nights, ask around for some reliable, documented nanny services or ask a loved one to watch your baby while you’re out. Watch for sleepy signs and try to offer a nap close to when they appear to avoid an overtired state.
While consistency and flexibility don’t usually go hand-in-hand, I think in this case they do. While being flexible and relaxed in how you handle the bumps in your child’s travel sleep, you need to be consistent in offering good, solid, restorative sleep at night and for naps. Try to be where her sleep-space is during nap time as often as you can. An extra-early bedtime can help take the edge off of really active days; some quiet time or short nap in the middle of the afternoon can provide enough battery power to help your baby or toddler make it to bedtime. Read familiar books, cuddle with a familiar blanket, sing familiar songs, and help her understand that it's time to sleep.
Be as consistent as you can in your routine and in the timing of things, and when you can’t, compensate as best as you can. If a bath is usually part of the bedtime routine, but it's gotten too late to fit one in and still hit bedtime, substitute a calming massage or a warm washcloth bath instead. Your baby might take a few naps in the stroller or carrier, and that’s okay. She might need a little more help going to sleep in a new place, but you’re putting her down before she’s overtired just like at home.
Remember, consistency is how you communicate with your baby that everything is okay, no matter where you are.
The other concern I often talk with parents about is the concern that everything involving sleep will be an absolute mess on the return to home. Again, if your time change was significant, it may take 3-5 days to adjust; however, in most cases, simply being home communicates with a baby or toddler that it’s “business as usual”. The familiarity of his room, his bed, his smells, and his sounds that he’s used to will help him get right back on track much more quickly and easily that you might imagine. The key here, again, is to follow sleep routines that you have always used, respond to wake ups the way you always have, allow him a chance to settle in. Naps might fall at slightly different times for a couple of days, but that will also return to normal as well.
I love to travel. I love to see new places and I love to visit family. In Norah’s first three years, we’ve taken about ten fairly significant trips that made it necessary for me to get creative with Norah’s sleep, and be a little flexible, too. Being a sleep consultant, it’s not something I want to leave up to chance. Hopefully, some of these tips help ease your anxiety about traveling with your child, will help you all rest well, and have a great time making memories!
As always, if you have concerns along the way, contact me anytime.