Getting sleep back on track after travel


Travelling with baby on airplane.

Photo Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds

(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. Although slipping into survival mode is usually ok when you are on vacation, deviating from your baby’s good sleep habits will often lead to new sleep associations.

The Science

There are two major issues that can lead to a sleep regression after travel 1) your child's circadian rhythm can shift due to jet lag or a lax schedule, 2) sleep associations can form.


When your child's schedule shifts due to jet lag or late nights up playing with cousins, your child's internal clock will become mismatched from the time on your clock at home. Circadian biology can be hard to understand, but here's a simple example: if you traveled from New York to California and put your child to bed at 7 pm while away, your child won't be ready to sleep until 10 pm when you get home (i.e., 7 pm California time!). You must account for schedule adjustments when helping your child get back on track after travel.


If you taught your baby or toddler how to fall asleep at one point and he or she was sleeping great, but then you traveled and ended up rocking/feeding/co-sleeping/using a stroller 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, bouncing, feeding, going for a walk in a carrier or stroller, a pacifier or any combination of those or other things. You will need to teach your child to fall asleep independently in order to reduce frequent night waking when you return home.

 

Need More Help?

We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:

SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)


PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)


THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)

 

How do you adjust your child's schedule back to normal?

The best way to get back on track depends on how your child's sleep was before travel and also what factors changed during your trip. Each section below covers how to get back on track for different situations in detail, but here's a simple framework for getting back on track:


Step 1: Adjust your child's schedule for jet lag or bed/nap times that drifted later.

Step 2: Put your child down awake at bedtime and nap time using your preferred sleep training method (our class offers four different options).

Step 3: Rebalance your child's calorie intake if you ended up offering more night feedings while away.


For more detail on how to accomplish those changes, read the sections that apply to your situation below.


Step 1

Did your child's bedtime drift late during travel?

If so, then first you need to make sure your baby is ready for sleep when you are asking him or her to sleep. If you stayed in the same time zone but your child's bedtime drifted late, then begin bedtime at the time your little one has been falling asleep. For example, if fun times with older cousins meant bedtime was at 9 pm instead of 7 pm, then put your child down at 9 pm when you get home and move bedtime earlier by 15 minutes every day or every few days. In order to help adjust your child's circadian rhythm, earlier, bring the lights down starting at your target bedtime and wake your child progressively earlier each day. In the morning, expose your child to bright light by taking a morning walk or playing in a sun-filled room.


Did your travel involve jet lag?

If so, then the best way to help your child adjust depends on the direction and number of time zones that you traveled. Check out our jet-lag blogs to calculate your child's biological bedtime (short eastward, short westward, and long eastward). If your child experienced jet lag, then 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.

Step 2

For babies and toddlers who were sleep trained before travel

As soon as you return home, begin "reminder" sleep training (this is covered in our sleep training class). 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 to expect to be held for naps and began 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 whatever sleep training method you used to teach your child to fall asleep, then your child should quickly re-learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep independently again. By doing this, 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 your sleep training. In situations like this, it typically only takes 1–3 days for a historically good sleeper to get back on track.


If you sleep trained your child as a baby, but your child regressed as a toddler, then you may need to shift to an age-appropriate strategy to get your child back on track. Our blog on toddler bedtime battles should help with this, but we can also help devise a plan with you in a one-on-one consultation if you aren't sure what to do.

For babies and toddlers who do not know how to fall asleep independently

Sometimes your child will be dependent on sleep associations that are manageable, but then sleep will take a turn for the worse during travel. For example, let’s imagine that prior to travel you nursed your eight-month-old to sleep and he or she woke up twice during the night, but because he/she was sleeping in your room it wasn’t too bad, and everyone was getting reasonable sleep. Then, you traveled and your baby started waking hourly or wanting to stay latched while sleeping. Now you are home, but your baby 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. In this case, you will need to make a plan to teach your baby how to fall asleep on his/her own at bedtime (our sleep training class offers four different options on how to do this). If you aren't ready to sleep train, then work on giving your child practice lying in bed awake and try to slowly work up to having your baby fall asleep independently.

Step 3

If your baby started eating a lot more overnight, then work on re-balancing those extra nighttime calories back to daytime (see our blog on reducing feedings or make a night weaning plan using our self-paced class).

In brief, you will need to reduce your child's nursing time or bottle size, while increasing your child's daytime calorie intake. Some babies will be awake after a shorter nursing session or smaller bottle and you will need to teach your baby how to fall asleep after the reduced feeding. You can do this by using your preferred sleep training method, but if you aren't quite ready to take that step, then you can begin by rocking and comforting your baby after the feeding. Your baby might not love that interaction, but imagine that you are telling your baby through your actions, “I know you would prefer to stay latched, but I know that you can fall asleep without nursing.” Rocking is still a sleep association, of course, but some babies will get back on track simply by moving away from all-night feedings.

Other things to consider:

Did your child experience situational separation anxiety or go through a developmental change while you were away?

Babies and toddlers 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 the 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. As always, if you just need to have a conversation to work through what's happening with your child's sleep, then we are happy to help.

References:

Simpkin, C.T., Jenni, O.G., Carskadon, M.A., Wright Jr, K.P., Akacem, L.D., Garlo, K.G. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2014. Chronotype is associated with the timing of the circadian clock and sleep in toddlers. Journal of sleep research, 23(4), pp.397-405.


Price, A.M., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O.C. and Hiscock, H., 2012. Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial. Pediatrics, 130(4), pp.643-651.


O’Shea, K.J., Ferguson, M.C., Esposito, L., Hammer, L.D., Avelis, C., Hertenstein, D., Gonzales, M.S., Bartsch, S.M., Wedlock, P.T., Siegmund, S.S. and Lee, B.Y., 2021. The impact of reducing the frequency of night feeding on infant BMI. Pediatric Research, pp.1-7.