(Updated and revised from an earlier version.)
Going away for the holidays? Will you be sleeping in a living room on an air mattress one foot away from your baby? Will your baby be in an unfamiliar rental crib? Will your toddler be sleeping in a 'big kid bed' for the first time while you are away? Will older siblings or cousins need to share a bed? Are you all sharing a hotel room? Staying with relatives who have 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.
Did you know that it is normal to wake up when sleeping in an unfamiliar location? 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 your child falls asleep in an unfamiliar location like a hotel crib s/he will be much more likely to wake up because it won't feel like the right place to be. Personality can come into play too-- some children adapt very quickly to sleeping in a new space, while other children have more difficulty adjusting.
How can you prepare your child to sleep in a new location?
1. What should you pack for sleep?
Travel crib. If you travel a lot, then purchasing a travel crib is a must. Your child will sleep much better if the sleep space that you use while away from home is familiar. You can prepare your baby or toddler for travel by setting up the travel crib at home and letting your child sleep there for a few nights during the week before your trip. We are fans of the Lotus travel crib with nap shade and the Slumber Pod, but what works best for your situation may be different.
White noise. Consider bringing your white noise machine or getting a white noise app for your phone. Since babies and toddlers go to sleep before adults and older children, having white noise buffer noisy relatives or other hotel guests should help minimize the likelihood that your child wakes up due to unfamiliar noises.
Blackout curtains. Most hotel rooms have nice dark curtains, but your 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.
Swaddle or sleep sack. Don't forget your child’s usual sleep attire. If your child uses a swaddle or sleep sack, then be sure to pack it for your trip.
Lovey. Even if your child hasn't really attached to a lovey, having a familiar object from home can be quite comforting while away. If your child is under a year old, confirm with your pediatrician that it is appropriate to give your child a lovey.
Books for your bedtime routine. If you always read the same books as part of your bedtime routine, then bring them along on your trip.
Monitor. Even if your child isn't sleeping in a separate room, it can be very helpful to have a monitor so that you can hear your child if s/he wakes up while you are socializing with friends or family.
2. Prep your child's sleep space at your destination
Safety first! Make sure your child’s sleep space is safe and suitable for sleep. If you don't have a travel crib and your relatives have only a 20-year-old crib to offer, then consider purchasing or renting something newer that is up-to-date with safety standards. There are a few great product options that are easy to take with you when you travel. If you have a toddler be sure that there are no hazards around the room, especially if your child will be in a bed instead of a crib.
If you are room-sharing in a hotel or relative’s house, then try to place your child’s sleep space in a location that is not too close to windows, radiators, or fans (both for safety and temperature control).
Don't allow an infant to bed-share or room share with siblings or cousins (although this is probably fine for older children).
Make the space as similar to home as possible. If you normally room share at home, then place your child's sleep space in the same position relative to your bed. If your child normally sleeps in a separate room but must room share during the trip, then consider something like a travel crib with a shade or get creative and put your child's bed in a walk-in closet (if that can be done safely, of course).
3. Keep your child's schedule stable
Try to keep your child’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 or toddler is not a fun travel companion.
4. Keep your child's routine stable
Complete your typical bedtime routine. Your bedtime routine is your way of telling your child that it's time for sleep.
Put your child down for sleep in the same way that you do at home. If you normally rock/feed your child to sleep, then do that while you are away. If you are normally able to put your baby down awake and walk away, then plan to do the same while you are away. In this case, you may need to hide in the bathroom if you are staying in a hotel. If your child cries in a way that suggests that s/he is stressed or needs you, then go back, repeat your bedtime cues, put him/her down and leave again. If s/he 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 child “this is a safe place to sleep. I am available if you need me, but there is no reason to worry.”
5. Be flexible with naps.
Try to put your child down for naps in the usual way if you can. Naps are the most likely aspect of sleep to suffer when you are away from home. The sleep drive is weak during the day, making it very hard for a baby or toddler 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 child down.
Don't stress about naps 'on the go.' If your travel situation involves moving from house to house to visit relatives and getting a perfect nap is not likely, don’t be afraid to break your normal rules. Take your toddler for a walk for a stroller nap or let a grandma hold your baby for a nap. Do what works as long as it doesn’t compromise your child’s safety. Once you get home you can start with a clean slate and guide your baby to better sleep.
If things don't go as planned...
Sometimes things just don't work, even with careful planning. Your child might go through a phase of development that coincides with your trip (like the 4-month, 9-month, or 18-month sleep regressions). Or, your child might develop situational separation anxiety and sleep poorly for the entire trip. If your child doesn’t easily settle and go to sleep, then it’s ok to do something that you might not do at home (e.g., rocking/nursing/bouncing/shushing). Just know that this will create a sleep association, and you will need to go back to your normal routine as soon as you get home in order to prevent further regression. If you previously did sleep training to teach your child to sleep, then you may need to revisit your intervention after you return home to get back on track.
We generally wouldn’t recommend doing sleep training while you are away, but in special circumstances, a trip can be a good time to work on breaking sleep associations. Check out our self-paced sleep class to create a sleep training plan to suit your situation.
Finally, if you are having trouble figuring out how to plan for travel or if you need help getting back on track after travel, then we would be happy to help in a personal consultation.
Hall, W.A. and Nethery, E., 2019. What does sleep hygiene have to offer children’s sleep problems?. Paediatric respiratory reviews, 31, pp.64-74.
Mindell, J.A., Meltzer, L.J., Carskadon, M.A. and Chervin, R.D., 2009. Developmental aspects of sleep hygiene: findings from the 2004 National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America Poll. Sleep medicine, 10(7), pp.771-779.
Lee, K.A. and Gay, C.L., 2011. Can modifications to the bedroom environment improve the sleep of new parents? Two randomized controlled trials. Research in nursing & health, 34(1), pp.7-19.