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Getting Sleep Back on Track After Travel or Illness

(Updated and revised from an earlier version.)

If you follow our blogs, then you probably know that we support the idea that you just do what works (as long as it’s safe) to help your baby sleep during travel or illness. Although slipping into survival mode is usually the right thing to do in these situations, deviating from your baby’s good sleep habits will often lead to new sleep associations.

The Science

If you taught your baby how to fall asleep at one point and he or she was sleeping great, but then you traveled and ended up rocking/nursing to sleep in order to avoid having him/her wake up others, then your baby may have re-developed a sleep association. As a reminder, a sleep association is simply the series of experiences or tools that your baby needs to fall asleep. A sleep association could be your baby’s crib, rocking, nursing, a pacifier or any combination of those or other things. Sleep associations can also re-develop or get worse during illness, when just getting your baby to be comfortable enough to sleep at all is a victory.

How do you get back on track?

Did you travel? If so, did your baby experience any major schedule changes (late nights up with cousins, for example) or jet-lag? If so, then first you need to make sure your baby is ready for sleep when you are asking him or her to sleep. To do this, read through our jet-lag blogs (short eastward, short westward and long eastward) to calculate your baby’s biological bedtime. Don’t go by the clock. If you put your baby down by clock time, he or she might not be ready for sleep and will likely continue to need your help to fall asleep.

Was your baby sick?

If so, make sure he or she is really well before you make a change. There is nothing worse than starting a sleep intervention, only to find out that your baby has an ear infection. If you aren’t sure if your baby is healthy enough for sleep work, then talk to your pediatrician to get the green light. If your baby has only residual sniffles, then he or she can probably be guided back on track (see our blog on illness here).

Did your baby know how to fall asleep independently before you left?

If so, then as soon as the disruption is over, go immediately back to your “home” way of doing things. For example, let’s imagine that you traveled and ended up rocking your baby to sleep, because he or she got overtired and overstimulated from all of the action and couldn’t wind down on his/her own. Then, your baby developed a sleep association and started waking during the night at sleep cycles looking for you to rock him or her back to sleep again. When you get home, you might feel tempted to rock your baby to sleep in order to readjust him/her to sleeping at home, but that’s not a good idea and will just reinforce the interaction that is causing the extra waking. Since your baby already knew how to fall asleep before you left, you can take advantage of that understanding and put him/her down awake at bedtime (adjusted as needed for jet-lag) as if the travel had never happened. Your little one might not go to sleep really easily, but if you go back to him/her, repeat the last few steps in your routine and then leave again, he/she should fall back into the swing of good sleep pretty quickly. By going in and repeating some of his or her bedtime steps, you are basically saying “Hey sweetie, I know you enjoyed being rocked to sleep, but we’re home now and I know you know how to do this.” Your baby might wake during the night on the first few nights home, in which case you would just repeat what you did at bedtime. Although the dynamic is a bit different with illness, your baby can learn that his or her condition no longer requires your support at night. In situations like this, it typically only takes 1–3 days for a historically good sleeper to get back on track.

If your baby didn’t know how to fall asleep independently before you left: Sometimes your baby will be dependent on sleep associations that are manageable, but then sleep will take a turn for the worse during travel or illness. For example, let’s imagine that prior to illness you nursed your eight-month-old to sleep and he or she woke up three times during the night, but because he/she was sleeping in your room, it wasn’t too bad, and everyone was getting reasonable sleep. Then, your baby got sick and started waking as much as hourly and wanting to stay latched while sleeping (perhaps due to a sore throat or for comfort). Now, your baby is well again, but wants to stay latched continuously in order to sleep. In situations like this, you need to make a plan to teach your baby how to fall asleep on his/her own in order to alleviate the sleep association, but you also need to manage his or her increased nighttime calorie intake. Here's what you can do to get back on track:

1) Make a plan to teach your baby how to fall asleep on his/her own at bedtime (you can schedule a consult with us if you need help developing a plan).

2) Work on re-balancing those extra night time calories back to daytime (see our blog on reducing feedings for how to do that).

3) Teach her new ways to fall asleep after being unlatched.

A simple way to do this is by immediately rocking and comforting her after you unlatch her. She might not love that interaction, but imagine that you are telling her through your actions, “I know you would prefer to stay latched, but I know that you can fall asleep without nursing.” You may also need to do some additional sleep intervention where you put her down awake after night feedings or to teach her to fall asleep without being rocked during the night.

Did your baby’s needs change?

Babies change fast! Sometimes travel and illness can coincide with, or even trigger, developmental milestones. For example, your baby might need a different amount of sleep (maybe fewer naps, for example) than before. See our sleep chart to make sure your baby’s needs are in line with what you are asking him or her to do. Similarly, if you traveled right before your baby’s four month birthday, he/she may have gone through the four-month regression during your travel. Other sleep regressions happen with explosive development around nine months, around 18 months, and during development of new motor skills. In all of these cases, it’s important to reassess your baby’s changing understanding of what you are doing.