How To Get A Baby On A Sleep Schedule When Traveling

How to get a baby on a sleep schedule when traveling

Traveling is one of the most amazing things in life. New places, foods, cultures – ahhh, what could be better? Traveling with children or to visit family can feel daunting and overwhelming but it’s a great way to make memories and new experiences with your family. Baby sleep and travel can be tough- but with advanced preparation and planning, you can keep your child’s sleep problems to a minimum. Getting enough sleep is so important for all of us, but especially babies, and when traveling, babies need their naps and bedtimes to be consistent to make their travels more enjoyable. Let’s jump in on how to get a baby on a sleep schedule when traveling! 

How To Get A Baby On A Sleep Schedule

Plan ahead!

Don’t wait until the day before to make a list of what you need for your trip. Walk through a typical day with your baby and write out all of the things that you use throughout the day. Think of foods, utensils, toys, clothes, and most importantly, what you use during their sleep routine. Bringing the items that you use at home during your sleep routine will help signal to your child that it’s time to fall asleep when you’re traveling! Another pro tip for traveling is to remember that your child’s immune system will be exposed to new places which means new germs. I’d recommend bringing a thermometer, saline drops, children’s fever and pain reliever and any other medications as needed.

How To Get A Baby On A Sleep Schedule When Traveling

Plan travel around baby naps 

If possible, try to plan your travel around your child’s nap schedule. For example, if your baby sleeps at 9 a.m., try to have them sleep at that time either in the car or on a plane. It’s not common that babies take longer naps when traveling so I would expect their nap to be shorter. With the added sleep pressure of traveling and that stimulation, it will help improve their chances of falling asleep. If your child uses a sleep aid like a pacifier, lovey, sleep sack, etc. bring those items with you so they feel comfortable.

Taking a car seat nap is better than no nap, so plan ahead! If your baby has good sleep habits at home, it will make the process easier when traveling! Make sure to pack a white noise machine and if naps will be in the car or on the go, I HIGHLY recommend this portable white noise machine, it’s a game changer! You can use it as a sound machine for nighttime sleep too.

Planning feedings/meals

Meals can get wonky when traveling so plan to bring meals, snacks, bottles, and MORE SNACKS. Don’t rely on airport or rest stop food, they don’t always have the best options and when your kids and hungry, they want to eat immediately. Bring a smaller cooler or cooler bag and bring sandwiches, apple slices, fruit, yogurt, and lots of snacks. If you’re looking for advice on feeding and sleep in general, check out my 3-12 Month Feedings and Sleep Schedules Guide.

Plan one nap in a crib/bassinet 

When you get to your destination (yay!) and get settled, try to plan for at least one nap of the day to be in your child’s sleep space. This helps get them comfortable in their new space and improves their sleep. Plan your days so you know which nap will be in the crib. Sleep on a flat surface helps to ensure your child is getting good sleep, naps on the go are not as restorative so move bedtime up on days when naps are short or on the go.  

travel essentials for babies

Don’t forget the essentials

Bring your child’s blanket, stuffed animal or lovey, crib sheet from home, sleep sack, and a white noise machine for relaxation. Bring books from home that you typically use during your bedtime routine to ensure your baby is feeling some sense of home. Try to set up a sleep space that is dark and separate from you. If you are in a hotel room, bathrooms or closets are always great options as they are dark, quiet, and cool. Yes, this means you may need to use the lobby bathroom or forgo closet space. It’s either that or sharing a room with a baby that will see, hear, and smell you every time you roll over, I’ll let you decide! 

These are my favorite blackout shades. They are paper and can be cut to fit any window size – they are great for travel. Pro-tip: ship them directly to your destination (one less thing to pack!) Another AMAZING travel item is the SlumberPod which is a portable blackout canopy that can fit over a pack-n-play, mini crib, toddler cot, or inflatable toddler mattress. (use code sleep.shore for 5% off purchase!) This helps limit light exposure (goodbye 30-minute naps!) and helps minimize sleep disruptions. If you have a toddler, make the most of your family vacation with these 16 travel essentials for toddlers!

If you want to pack smarter, not harder, consider renting baby equipment from BabyQuip. BabyQuip is a baby equipment rental site where you can order anything, and I mean anything, from their certified rental agents. I have used them many times and have been thrilled with the experience. I highly recommend this so that you can pack lighter! You can rent strollers, bassinets, cribs, white noise machines, monitors, etc. Use code MOLLY20 for $20 off any order of $100 or more!

Don’t overschedule

Respect your child’s sleep needs and do not over-schedule. Plan for some downtime in the afternoon when your child can have a nap that is not on the go. It is tempting to do as much as possible, but it will just leave everyone miserable at the end of the day. Try to prioritize napping for your child so that their nighttime sleep isn’t impacted.

Stay consistent!

Your child may test the boundaries and protest more in their new sleep environment until they get used to it. This is especially true for toddler sleep, based on the age they can test the limits. Deal with it the same way you would at home. Be very consistent for the first few days and nights and your child will be used to their new sleep space and go back to sleeping well, which will make for an enjoyable vacation for everyone. When you get home, you may need to restart the sleep training process for a few days to get your child sleeping through the night again!

Time zones and jet lag

Most people have a circadian rhythm or internal clock that delays slightly each day, which is why it is easier to travel west than to travel east. Well-rested children handle jet lag better. If your baby has been sleeping well and already has established sleep skills, it should slide into the new time zone without too much trouble. It is best to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as you can. Lots of exposure to bright, natural sunlight in the morning is best.

baby travel and sleep

Traveling West Coast to East Coast

If you’re traveling from west to east and will have a time difference of 3 hours or more, here are my tips. We will use traveling from California to Boston as our example. That would be 3 hours of time difference but you could also use the same guidance when traveling from Boston to Dublin (a 5-hour time difference) for example.

If your child’s bedtime is usually around 7 p.m. in California, that means when you arrive in Boston, the clock may say 7 p.m. but your child’s body won’t feel like it’s bedtime until 10 p.m. We are going to use that to our advantage.

  • Try to keep your child up until 10 p.m. Boston time (which will feel like 7 p.m. CA time). This shouldn’t be too hard, given how our bodies are wired but it will feel counterintuitive.
  • Then you’re going to let them sleep in the next morning as long as they’d like. They may sleep all the way until 10 a.m. and get 12 hours or they may be awake earlier. Either way is okay.
  • Shift bedtime each day accordingly. So if they slept in until 10 a.m., you’re going to have a later bedtime again. If they naturally shifted and woke up earlier, you’ll shift bedtime a little earlier too. Every child will adapt to this differently!
  • They will not continue to wake up at 10 a.m. every day while you’re there. This wake-up will naturally shift earlier and earlier which is why I suggest taking it slowly. That way they are regulating how much sleep they need/want rather than being forced into a new schedule.

Traveling East Coast to West Coast

Again we’ll use the example of traveling from Boston to California but you can use this same framework for longer time differences like Paris to Boston for example.

If your child’s bedtime is usually around 7 p.m. in Boston, that means when you arrive in California, your child will feel ready for bedtime as early as 4 p.m. This means we will need to be stretching them to stay up later.

  • Try to keep your child up until what would be their usual bedtime on the clock. So even though they will want to treat 4 p.m. as bedtime, you want to hold off bedtime until as close to 7 p.m. as you can. This will take time and work.
  • Then you’re going to keep their room pitch black until 11-12 hours after they go down for the night. If you did bedtime at 7 p.m., then they need to stay in darkness until 6-7 a.m., even if they start waking at 4 a.m. If they wake earlier, respond how you usually would at home (leaving them, doing a check-in, feeding, etc).
  • It’s really important to avoid outside stimulation and light until 11-12 hours after your child falls asleep. This is where the adjusting happens!

In both cases above, when you arrive back home, you will adjust back to your local time schedule. Things may be off and wonky for a bit but they will adjust in a matter of days. Get lots of outdoor time, the sunshine will help adjust your child’s circadian rhythm and internal clock.

My travel guide has other great information on how to prep and handle travel and manage sleep schedules.

Accept help from family and friends

If your family offers to watch your child or stay back with them while they nap, JUST SAY YES. I’d encourage accepting this offer or asking for it especially if your child didn’t sleep well at night or had a short nap earlier in the daytime. It’s okay for our child to hang back and catch up on sleep, it’ll make things more enjoyable for all!

Reset when you get home

Sleep can suffer while traveling (for adults too!) and some old habits can resurface. No problem, just get back on track as soon as you return home! Get consistent with your schedule and method; you’ll be surprised at how fast they fall back in line. For your baby to sleep through the night again, you will need to be consistent with their schedule and how you put them to sleep for at least a week to get their sleep cycle back to normal.

Baby Bedtime By Age

The best tool you can use when on vacation or when you return home is to ensure your baby is going to bed at an age-appropriate time. If your child’s naps were short or thrown off, try to get them to an ideal bedtime. See below for the ideal bedtime by age.

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