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By far my biggest concern when traveling with a toddler is how it will disrupt our normally wonderful sleep schedules. My girls and I both thrive on our predictable routine, and I’ve literally had nightmares about how a trip could ruin all of the happy sleep habits we’ve worked so hard to implement. I know some moms who are easy-going and flexible about naps and bedtimes. Not me! At home, our youngest happily plays in bed until the generously late hour of 9:00 or 9:30. She goes down for her nap at 1:30. She sleeps for 2.5-3.5 hours. Daddy puts her to bed for the night around 8:30. This is predictable and our normal. This works for us.
But an early flight messes with nap time. Strange hotel rooms make it difficult for our little one to fall (and stay) asleep. And a change in time zones throws off all of our internal clocks.
Sleep for Toddlers–Tips to Help You Rest Well During Travel
1) I’ve learned that I need to relax my (sleep) expectations when we travel. (Nate has always been easy-going about such things.) Traveling and jet lag are two of the many obstacles that kids will face as they learn how to become good sleepers. I don’t want this to be the issue that keeps us from traveling. And the experts say that the good habits will return, in time, once we’re home.
2) Similarly, I’ve learned to accept the fact that kids don’t sleep as much during trips. My girls sleep about an hour or two less EACH DAY away from home.
3) One part of “relaxed expectations” for us means a few sleep-related exceptions that wouldn’t fly at home. For instance, if our little girl could have her way, we’d hold her hand and stay by her side through every nap and night. Or, even better, she’d sleep in our bed on my face. We obviously don’t/can’t do that at home. But on the road? Sure, I’ll stretch my arm from the front seat to the back seat to hold her hand and help her relax. We’ll also let her have her pacifer more, and sing, talk, or shush as much as she needs.
4) One thing we don’t change is the pre-sleep routine. Whether we’re in the air, car, or hotel, we go through the entire routine. For us, this means a few books, snack and drink, prayer, and song. At our daughter’s age (20 months), she responds well to verbal explanations and a bit of time to transition from being awake to going to sleep. When we take our time, she adjusts well and fights sleep less.
5) We all sleep better when we’re in separate rooms, but I’m too cheap to pay for a suite! We’ve tried having our babies in our rooms and even in our bed, but they will inevitably wake up, see Mommy and Daddy, and assume it’s time to party and play. On one (awesome) trip, we had a condo with lots of space. We put the baby bed in the dark entryway where we wouldn’t disturb her either during the night or during her day-time naps.
6) If you’re in a regular hotel room, a closet, bathroom, or hallway could have just enough space to hold a baby crib and give you a degree of separation. This is also helpful if your kids need a darker room and you’d prefer to stay up to read or watch tv.
7) We’ve also rearranged hotel furniture and created an elaborate makeshift wall from curtains, sheets, and blankets to create a visual barrier. Sometimes, all our girls need to settle down is not to see us. A blanket wall (that is safely out of reach so that your little ones don’t tug it down) may be the thing you need to make sleeping in one room a surprisingly delightful experience.
8) Bring your own (baby) bed. We’ve been known to pack a Pack ‘N Play like this: Graco Pack ‘N Play Element with Stages, Oasis. But I’ve heard that there are several that are even lighter and more portable. We figure our babies sleep better in their own beds, AND this guarantees that the beds are safe and not on a recall list.
9) If you don’t want to lug around a baby bed, at least pack a sheet or bedding. Maybe babies and toddlers aren’t REALLY that sensitive to scent, but I like to think that a sheet that smells like home has to be more comfortable to little ones.
10) Don’t forget the favorite comfort item. For us, that’s a pacifier.
11) The most we’ve attempted is a three-hour time difference. And because it was “only” a three- hour time difference, we decided to put our kids to bed about halfway between their normal bedtimes and what bedtime would be if we switched completely to local time. That is to say, we split the time difference. With this setup, we were all able to enjoy a few peaceful nights of completely uninterrupted sleep. Yes, they wake up early according to local time, but 6:00 a.m. felt like 9:00 a.m. to us, so it wasn’t a big deal.
12) One thing that is (now) a permanent fixture in our life is this video monitor that we bought off Amazon (of course): Motorola Digital Video Baby Monitor with 1.5 Inch Color LCD Screen. We love that thing! With the monitor, we can “peek” into her room and see if she’s really awake or if she’s just talking/fussing in her sleepy way. Before we had this monitor, I can’t tell you how many times I went into her room to get her up from a nap only to find she was actually settling herself back to sleep! The other bonus for both travel and home is that it has a 2-way microphone; we can comfort her, sing, or shush her without disturbing her with our physical presence. It’s by far our favorite baby “splurge.”
My final sleep-related fear is that a time change will throw things off when we return home. I’ve read that parents should give their children four or five nights to adjust before they freak out about how messed up things seem. While it does take our girls some time to get back into their usual routine, they also often sleep MORE for a few days since they’re exhausted from the travel and the trip. With an outcome like that, what’s not to love about family travel?
Did you catch some of our other favorite family travel posts?
- Tips for making it through the airport with little ones.
- How we keep our kiddo busy and happy on the plane or car.
- And for those brave enough to travel with an infant, check out 15+ Must-Read Tips for Flying with a Baby.
For a complete list of items we consider to be essential travel gear, check out our travel gear page!