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Travel Survival Guide: Sleeping in an Unfamiliar Environment

(Updated and revised from an earlier version.)

Going away for the holidays? Going to be sleeping in a living room on an air mattress one foot away from your baby? Siblings or cousins sharing a bed? Sharing a hotel room? No separate room or bed for your baby to sleep in? Have relatives with very different parenting styles from yours? Or maybe you’re just terrified that your once-great sleeper will regress during your travels. No worries! Baby Sleep Science is here to help.

The Science

We are supposed to wake up when we fall asleep in the “wrong” place. Sleep is organized so that there is a bout of deep sleep at the beginning of the night and then every hour to hour-and-a-half thereafter, there is a brief wake-up (review sleep basics here). If your baby falls asleep in one place (like your arms) and wakes in another (like a crib), then he or she will be more likely to alert at one of those wakings and fully wake up. Many parents learn about this firsthand during the four-month regression, when sleep cycles begin to form this pattern. Adults do this also, but the reason we don’t generally wake several times a night is because we perceive that we are in our own bed and that everything is ok. When you or your child falls asleep in another location, you’ll be much more likely to wake up due to sleeping in an unfamiliar environment. Personality comes into play with how you and your baby respond to sleeping in a new place. Some children adapt very quickly to sleeping in a new space, while other children have more difficulty adjusting.

What can you do about this when you travel with babies?

You need to figure out what your baby is capable of doing. Has your baby been falling asleep on his or her own at home? Does he or she sleep through the night? How old is your baby? Where are you staying? These questions are all key to figuring out what to do while you are away.

Where will your baby sleep?

First, you need to make sure your baby’s sleep space is safe and suitable for sleep. If your relatives have only a 20-year-old crib to offer, then consider purchasing or renting something newer that is up to safety standards. There are a few great product options that are easy to take with you when you travel (see our recommendations here).

Also, consider bringing your white noise machine or getting a white noise app for your phone. Since babies go to sleep before adults and older children, having white noise buffer noisy relatives should help prevent your baby from waking due to unfamiliar noises. Most hotel rooms have nice dark curtains, but Aunt Alice’s house might not. Darkness is really important for naps, so consider bringing some temporary Redi-Shades to block out the light during the day if you are in someone else’s house. Finally, don’t forget your child’s swaddle or sleep sack and lovey if he or she uses one.

If you are room-sharing in a hotel or relative’s house, then try to place your baby’s sleep space in a location that is not too close to windows, radiators or fans. If you are in a hotel, then it may be helpful to create a nook by partially opening a closet.

When does your baby sleep?

Try to keep your baby’s schedule while you are away. It’s ok to let your little one stay up a little later than normal, but in general a sleep-deprived baby is not a happy, engaged baby. The other benefit to putting your baby down at the usual sleep times is that you maintain predictability and you can be confident that your baby is able to sleep when you are asking him or her to sleep.

If your travels involve jet-lag, then check out our jet-lag blogs (three hours or less: eastward and westward; four to eight hours: eastward) for advice on how to deal with that.

How does your baby normally fall asleep?

If your baby has been able to fall asleep independently at bedtime prior to your trip, then you should be prepared to ask him or her to do the same while you are away. To do this you’ll want to provide him/her with very strong sleep cues by doing a bedtime routine as much the same as you have at home. Then, put your baby down awake as normal. If you normally leave after you put him or her down, then do the same when you put him/her down this time. In this case, you may need to hide out in the bathroom if you are staying in a hotel. If your baby cries in a way that suggests that he or she is stressed or needs you, then go back, repeat your bedtime cues, put him/her down again and leave again. If he or she wakes at an odd time during the night, then do the same thing. This bedtime routine and your familiar response is your way of telling your baby “this is a safe place to sleep. I am available if you need me, but there is no reason to worry.”

If your baby doesn’t settle and go to sleep, then it’s ok to do something to help him or her fall asleep (e.g., rocking/nursing/bouncing/shushing). Just know that this will create a sleep association, and you will want to go back to your normal routine as soon as you get home in order to prevent further regression. If you previously did a sleep intervention to get your baby back to sleep, then you may need to revisit your intervention after you return home to remind your baby that you are back to normal.

If your baby doesn’t already fall asleep independently, then it’s generally a good idea to keep doing what you do at home to help your baby fall asleep. It may take longer than normal to get him or her down, and he/she may wake up more during the night than usual, but that’s normal during travel.

If you are staying in a hotel room, then you will need to hang out in the bathroom for about 20 minutes until your baby goes into deep sleep. After that time you can go back in the room, because your baby will be in deep sleep and unlikely to wake up for a few hours, even if you have the television on. That said, don’t tempt fate! If you do turn on the TV, keep the volume low.

We generally wouldn’t recommend doing any intervention while you are away, but in special circumstances a trip can be a good time to work on breaking sleep associations. (See our “grandma” intervention post for advice on what that looks like.)

What do you do about naps?

In general, naps are the most likely sleep to suffer when you are away from home. The sleep drive is weak during the day, making it very hard for a baby to fall asleep in an unfamiliar place. It’s still worth trying to put your child down in the usual way if you are able to do that. In that case, do your usual routine and put your baby down. If the usual way of doing things doesn’t work, then don’t be afraid to break your normal rules. Take your baby for a walk for a stroller nap or let a grandma hold your baby for a nap. If things just don’t work out as you’d planned, then don’t worry. Do what works as long as it doesn’t compromise your baby’s safety. Once you get home you can start with a clean slate and guide your baby to better sleep.

See Also:

Getting Sleep Back on Track After Travel or Illness