Vacation and Your Child's Sleep
Updated: Jun 27
Vacations with young children are fun. These little people are so interested in the world around them that even the smallest trip feels big and exciting. It can also feel overwhelming for parents to figure out what to pack for their newest addition(s) to the family, and then to try and manage their sleep while in a completely different environment with travel and possibly time changes - it’s a lot.
I always recommend focusing on the fun, but being prepared for how to best manage sleep - because life is more fun when children are well rested!
My first tip for preparing for a trip - whether it’s a weekend getaway or an international adventure, is to teach or reinforce healthy independent sleep skills.
A baby who is confident, comfortable, and skilled with falling asleep unassisted is going to be more adaptable to occasional changes and have a better ability to lean into their own sleep needs wherever they are.
If your child is not skilled in independent sleep just yet, take the time to learn about what I refer to as gentle sleep training, which includes all of the evidence-based ways to support your child in learning and mastering sustainable healthy sleep skills.
If you don’t have enough time to sleep train before this upcoming vacation, no problem at all! Support your little one in the ways you usually do at home while you are away too. Consider supporting them in learning independent sleep skills later- if and when you do have the time and the desire.
It’s never too late to teach healthy independent sleep skills, and the right time is when you are willing and able to prioritize healthy sleep for at least a 2 week period.
If your child is already skilled in independent sleep, take time to reinforce those habits and fill their 'sleep cup' by ensuring you have a well-rested child in advance of the trip.
3 STEPS TO A WELL RESTED VACATION
Now let’s review the most important elements to consider in regard to managing sleep while away!
Recognize what will be within your control and plan ahead in regard to the sleep environment, sleep schedule, and sleep routines.
The Sleep Environment.
Consider what the options will be for sleeping arrangements during your vacation. Will you have the option to have your child sleep in a room all to themselves or will you only have the option for room sharing? It helps to know what you’re going to be working with before you get there.
Bring a safe sleep location for your child. This might be a bassinet, pack n' play, or toddler blow up mattress.
Have a plan for fully blacking out the room. This is the single most important aspect of improving vacation sleep. Take the necessary steps to ensure that the room your child sleeps in will be completely dark during sleep times. This might mean bringing an extra bag of heavy duty black trash bags and duct tape to block window light. This might mean investing in products specifically designed for blacking out windows, such as BlackoutEZ, Velimax Cling, or Sleepout curtains.
My favorite product for vacation sleep is the Slumberpod, which is a safe black out tent that easily fits over a packnplay or toddler blow up mattress. This is ideal for a room sharing environment so you are free to turn on the lights in your room without disturbing your sleeping child.
Bring one or even two portable continuous white noise machines to minimize the ambient house or hotel noises.
Bring a video or audio baby monitor and consider the distance you will need it to cover so you can safely enjoy after bedtime and nap time activities. This is an important one if you are hoping to have fun after bedtime, so do a little research and find a long range monitor if needed!
Don’t forget your child’s special security stuffy if they have one :)
The timing of a sleep is always a significant factor in our children’s ability to fall asleep easily and sleep well. Babies over the age of 4 months have their own fully functioning circadian rhythms. This means there are certain times of the day when your baby, toddler or big kid will simply have an easier time leaning into deep restorative and consolidated sleep compared to other times of the day that will be much harder.
The goal is always to align the times of day we are offering sleep with the times of the day they are naturally inclined to sleep. Usually, it’s a no brainer!
However, vacation often means long days, late nights, and less control over the day’s activities. It can be tough or even unrealistic to maintain your child’s usual sleep schedule while on vacation. Please know that children who sleep well most of the time tend to be more adaptable during periods of change, such as missed naps and late bedtimes. While different children, like people in general, tend to be more or less adaptable to changes, children with strong independent sleep skills are more likely to handle the changes with surprising ease.
Still, our babies, toddlers, and preschool aged children do still need quite a lot of sleep to function their best, and it’s worth putting some effort into maintaining a sleep schedule that is not too far off from the usual if you’re hoping for the most cooperative and fun version of your child while away.
Aim for maintaining their usual sleep schedule as often as possible, so that when it is not possible, realistic, or even your preference to keep the usual schedule, it’s not going to be a big deal.
Plan to maintain their usual pre-sleep routines within reason. A predictable bedtime and pre-sleep routines help children to feel safe and secure, which eases the transition from wake time to sleep time significantly. There are likely a lot that is going to be different and unpredictable while away, so keep the pre-sleep routines mostly consistent and predictable in order to make falling asleep in a new place as easy as possible.
Bring their usual white noise machine, books, sleep wear, and any other security items that will help them feel safe and increase familiarity.
And another reminder that the single most important thing you can do is to consider and prepare your method for fully blacking out the room!
Lower your expectations for perfection.
Vacation means days that are out of the ordinary. Routines and schedules are disrupted. There’s increased excitement, new people, different activities, a different sleep environment, and different boundaries. It is highly likely that sleep will be impacted in some way, and that’s OK! Vacation is temporary, and it needs to be enjoyed even in the midst of imperfect sleep.
Be prepared to use your best tools for resetting healthy sleep habits upon your return home.
Listed below are your most effective tools for ensuring that sleep does not spiral out of control even if vacation sleep was somewhat or even seriously disrupted.
Temporarily shift bedtime earlier. If sleep has been messy while away, the most helpful thing you can do is to shift bedtime even 15-30 minutes earlier than usual for 1-3 days to help them catch up on lost sleep and minimize further sleep issues.
Ensure their home sleep environment screams “SLEEP”
Firm up on your usual routines around sleep.
If you have a big kid, remind them well in advance about your usual boundaries around sleep at home and support them while they re-adjust.
NOTE ON TRAVEL:
Worried about the actual travel day? Please don’t!
My biggest piece of advice is to minimize the time and energy you’re wasting by worrying about this component here. Travel is like a huge wrench thrown into your usual sleep schedules, environments, and routines all in one. It removes all of the major elements that are usually within our control. Essentially, you’re crossing your fingers here and managing your expectations. There’s absolutely no way you can perfect this, and it doesn’t really matter at all in the big picture. What is more important is to plan ahead for how you can support your little one in the healthy and restorative they will need once you arrive at your destination.
Travel day tips
Ideally plan your trip around sleep periods if possible so you can ensure your little one has at least one solid period of sleep before travel.
Be prepared with how you are going to get them into a safe and comfortable sleep space once travel is over and they might be past due for a sleep.
If you’re interested in improving your child’s sleep before or after a big vacation, it helps to work with a professional. I work with families one on one to support parents in teaching their children healthy and sustainable independent sleep habits. I work with parents of children 4 months through 5 years. Check out my services here, and then book a free 15 minute discovery call to learn more about which package is best for your situation.