Travel Survival Guide: Prep your baby or toddler to sleep away from home

Travel Survival Guide: Prep your baby or toddler to sleep away from home

(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.

The Science

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.

  • Adjust for jet lag. If your travel involves jet lag, then check out our jet lag blogs (three hours or less: eastward and