By Kim West LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady ®
Are you planning a family getaway this summer and curious how you will juggle your child’s sleep needs? It can be challenging to travel (by air or car), stay in a new place, and squeeze in some family fun between naps. Here are my top ten sleep tips for keeping summer travel fun this summer (and not too stressful!).
#1 Call It What It Is ~ A Family Adventure.
The word “vacation” typically connotes rest and relaxation. But, in my experience, it may be a better idea to call a summer trip with children a family adventure! Traveling with young kids to new places, or even a favorite old one like the same beach house each year, may be a little more on the adventurous side than completely relaxing!
That being said, it really is possible to maintain your child’s healthy sleep rhythm even while on summer vaca……Family Adventure!
#2 Start Off On the Right Foot.
One of the best ways to maintain normal sleep for your child on your trip is to be sure they are well-napped the few days before your trip. You don’t want to start your adventure in sleep deficit! The same goes for parents, too.
An already exhausted child makes having fun difficult; starting off on the right foot means a well-rested child will be more adaptable to a new environment so that a slightly later bedtime here and there won’t throw things completely off. Ideally, try to make sure that the whole family is well-rested before your trip begins.
#3 Make A Plan and Stay Flexible.
Flexibility is essential when traveling with young children. I have often talked about the importance of a flexible schedule for your baby. When you’re on your upcoming family adventure you will definitely need to have a plan for the order of your day (including your destination and activities as well as plans for naps and eating).
But stay flexible because traveling is often unpredictable and each day may be different. With your plan in hand each day as well as a dose of flexibility you will be ready to get your child the sleep he needs while fitting in as much fun as you can.
Maybe your child will nap in the car, or a stroller, or even take a nap with you or a sibling. The important thing during this temporary change is that your usually napping child at home continues to nap while on vacation.
It is important to stay tuned into your baby’s sleep cues while out and about so that you can make time for a nap before he becomes overtired and unable to easily fall asleep. Of course, a later bedtime or nap one day is fine as long as you don’t make that a habit every day and for every nap or bedtime. He will still need just as much sleep in one way or another. Once you are back at home you can get back into your normal flexible routine.
#4 Keep It Real.
Make your time away more familiar by bringing your baby’s favorite items with you. Some essentials might be:
- A white noise machine
- A favorite lovey or blanket
- A few critical toys
- Some well-loved books (especially a bedtime favorite)
- His own bed sheets and coverings. If he is a newborn he will associate the smells and sights with home so that bedtime will be less stressful.
- Comfortable or well-loved clothes
#5 Prep for Travel Time.
No one likes to be confined with straps to a small space for hours! Bring some age-appropriate music cds, stories on cd, and books to read. Put up a baby mirror if you are traveling by car so that he can see himself and be amazed with his own good looks. Plan some good snacks and enough liquids for hydration. Make time to play some simple games when he is awake:
- Peek-a boo
- Tickle games
- “This Little Piggy”
- Car seat link toys
- “Where is your ___?” Nose, eyes, cheek, ears, for example. “There it is!”
- Older children can use crayons and coloring book, play with small toys, or other hand-held games.
#6 Check Out Your Surroundings Together & Get Settled.
After arrival at your destination take some time to check out your hotel room or walk around the house. If your child is older, take a walk with them and have fun exploring the hallway and room of the hotel or the grounds of the resort thoroughly so that they have a sense of where they are.
Then take some time to unpack and get settled. Set up your child’s sleep space and let him become acquainted with it by playing quietly his bed . Use the items you brought from home to make the space and the bed comfortable and familiar.
After you have spent some awake time in the room he will sleep in, go through your normal soothing bedtime routine when you are ready to put him down to sleep.
When a child feels like he knows where he is he will be more able to settle down for sleep. Be sure to close the curtains and make the room a nice, cool temperature for sleep.
#7 Give Extra Attention At Bedtime.
Most children need extra attention at bedtime in order to fall asleep in a new environment. While you may be exhausted upon arrival (and they are too!), take the extra time to comfort and assure them that you are nearby.
It’s ok to sit by their crib or by the door even though you no longer need to do that at home it’s just temporary to help them feel more comfortable. You may even have to share a bed with your child in a hotel.
Toddlers and older children will benefit from talking about how bedtime is different on vacation. Let them know that when you get back home they will go back to “sleeping in their own bed” and whatever else is typical for them that is not the same in your new location.
Talking about this will make it easier when you return home and return to your typical routine, though most children will need a reminder when you get home.
#8 Consistency is Critical.
If at all possible I would keep your child’s sleep space consistent. There are two facets to this:
- His Own Sleep Space. Dedicate a private place for sleep. Is there a guest room with an attached room or walk-in closet big enough to accommodate your child?
- A Consistent Sleep Space. Ideally, try to stay at the same place for the entire trip if you can. If you are visiting family this summer do they expect for you to move from house to house just to see everybody? Maybe you could consider having one “home base” instead. Ask family to visit you during the day or make shorter trips out to them. Let them know this is a way to avoid some of the stress of travel for your child.
#9 Help Him Get Needed Sleep Even When He Seems To Be Having Fun.
Keep a light schedule on your first day of vacation so that you can catch up rest you lost during travel. You will really enjoy the rest of your time if you are all well-rested.
I find it can be tempting for parents to let their kids go beyond their normal limits while traveling and away from home. It is easy to lose track of time when away from our normal routine. There may be so many engaging activities or family members to visit with. It is just easy to be distracted and forget to watch out for your child’s sleep needs.
Make every effort to keep track of the clock as well as your child’s sleep cues so that you can maintain your flexible plan for your child’s sleep as much as possible. If we let our child become overtired it can derail the next day’s sleep as well…not to mention that night’s sleep!
#10 Don’t Create A New Sleep Crutch.
If you have just stopped nursing at night, comfort and assure your child if he wakes up, but don’t go back to nursing him. Find some way of soothing that won’t lead you back to where you started and won’t set up a new sleep crutch (such as I used to feed you to sleep and now I will rock you to sleep). The same applies to typical sleep crutches you may have already overcome like rocking, bouncing, or patting till they are asleep.
That being said, don’t be surprised if your child ends up in bed with you at some point. Let him know that this is a special circumstance (if it is) and he’s old enough to understand this. Explain to your older child how sharing a bed is okay in a strange place, but once you are back home, they will be sleeping in their crib or big boy bed, and you will be sleeping in your own bed. You can remind children of the sleep rules even while you’re breaking them. They will have an easier time understanding your expectations once you are back home.
Once you get back home you can get right back to your normal bedtime routine. If your child experiences some sleep regression after your family adventure this is normal. My book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, can remind you of the steps of The Shuffle so you can gently yet quickly get right back on schedule.
I hope you have a safe and wonderful adventure as a family this summer!