Traveling with a baby by airplane will almost certainly disrupt their sleep routine, potentially leading to a stressful start to a trip. From flight delays to cramped seats, there are so many things that you can't control when it comes to air travel, that you might feel that there is nothing that you can do to help your baby sleep on a plane. This blog provides you with recommendations for what to pack and provides evidence-based tips and insights to help you navigate how to help your baby sleep. Whether your little one has their own space or is sharing a seat with a parent, we hope you find these tips helpful! If you are looking for general travel advice, check out our travel survival guide.
Sleeping in an unfamiliar environment, especially in the cramped quarters of an airplane seat, can affect the quality and duration of sleep for both infants and adults. Research shows that individuals experience fragmented sleep when exposed to novel surroundings due to an adaptive mechanism known as the "first-night effect." The first-night effect refers to the tendency for one hemisphere of the brain to remain more alert during the initial night of sleep in a new environment, likely as a protective mechanism against potential threats. Obviously, an airplane is a really unusual sleep environment, so it's no surprise that it would be difficult for a baby to settle to sleep.
What can you do to help your baby sleep on an airplane?
1. purchase the right tickets
Book the best seat location you can afford, especially for overnight or very long flights.
Studies support the idea that having a flat surface and separate sleep space is optimal for sleep. If you can afford it, consider purchasing a lie-flat seat.
BSS Hot Tip! If you are traveling with multiple family members and
buying premium seats is unrealistic, consider purchasing one lie-flat
seat and rotating between parents.
If you aren't able to purchase a lie-flat seat, consider reserving bulkhead seats whenever possible. Many airlines offer bassinets for passengers in these areas, providing a designated space for babies to sleep (e.g., see an example here). Make sure you check with your airline to ensure that they offer this service before booking.
If you aren't able to book a bassinet, consider booking a separate ticket for your baby if your flight is long. This will give you more options for your baby's sleep location.
If you only have a short flight or if you purchase an economy ticket and share a seat with your baby, consider the best seat location carefully. For example, does your baby like to be walked? If so, you'll probably want to book an aisle seat to ensure that you can quickly and easily get in and out of the seat with your little one. On the other hand, if your baby is a champ at nursing to sleep, then you might consider a window seat in order to have more space for a pillow or support to help you hold your baby.
Timing of travel
It's true that you can't control whether your flight will be on time or delayed, but if you pick a sub-optimal flight, it will be that much harder for your baby to make it through the travel in good form. We know that sometimes you don't have many options when you travel, but when you do, consider these tips:
Avoid overnight flights or redeye flights if you can. Skipping a nap isn't ideal, but it's easier for babies to recover from a missed nap than a very fragmented night.
If you can't avoid a redeye, then choose a flight that leaves as late as possible. Redeye flights typically involve traveling eastward or north/south. When traveling eastward, many redeye flights will land in the middle of your baby's biological night, which is not a great time to start the day! Overnight flights that leave later increase the chances that your baby will sleep and also position you to adjust to the time zone changes better (more on adjusting to jet lag in these blogs: eastward, westward).
Avoid flights that leave early in the morning. Remember, if you book a flight that leaves at 6 am, you'll have to be at the airport by 5 am or earlier. This means you'll have to get your baby up in the middle of the night. Not fun!
Don't worry about timing the flight relative to naps. Almost any daytime flight will affect naps in some way. Chances are good that your baby won't be able to sleep at his/her exact naptime anyway, so don't stress about trying to find the exact right daytime flight.
2. prep your baby in advance
There are so many things that are outside of your control when it comes to travel, but you can prepare your baby before a trip. A rested baby is usually a very pleasant travel companion, so make sure your baby is prepared by:
Ensuring your baby is getting enough sleep in the few days before a trip. If your baby doesn't sleep well independently, then it's ok to use existing sleep associations to help your baby sleep (as long as they are safe, of course). For example, hold your baby to get nice long naps the day before your trip if needed.
Consider an early bedtime (30-60 minutes earlier) the day before a flight. An early bedtime can help your baby catch up on any residual sleep debt. Note that this wouldn't make sense if you are preparing your baby for a large westward jet lag. See our blog on how to shift westward here.
3. Maintain your sleep routine as much as possible on the plane
To mitigate the impact of the unfamiliar airplane environment on your baby's sleep, recreating elements of your baby's familiar sleep routine is vital. If you don't yet have a sleep routine, check out our blogs on baby and toddler sleep routines to get started.
Bring along any lovey or blanket that you use during your bedtime routine at home. Having a familiar object that smells like home will be comforting to your baby, even if s/he isn't attached to it as a sleep object (more on loveys here).
Bring your baby's sleep attire. It may seem unnecessary to change your baby into pajamas and a sleep sack or swaddle on an airplane, but remember, getting ready for bed helps your baby understand that it's time to sleep.
Provide strong sleep cues. If you always sing your baby a lullaby before sleep, be prepared to sing it over and over again to help cue your baby for sleep.
4. Optimize the environment as much as you can
You won't be able to quiet the overhead announcements or the people around you, but there are a few things that you can do to optimize your baby's sleep environment:
Download a white noise app on your phone. This won't block out all noises, but it will help minimize sounds from nearby passengers.
Create a "tent" out of a blanket to block visual stimulation and darken the environment. Of course, please use common sense and do not put a blanket on your baby's face. The best way to do this is by putting the blanket over your head and cradling your baby in your arms. You can remove the blanket once your baby is asleep.
Gently cover your baby's eyes. This may seem strange, but if you don't have another way to darken your baby's environment, consider rubbing your baby's nose with your thumb, while gently covering his/her eyes with the rest of your hand (note that you don't have to physically touch your baby's eyes, just shield the light).
When holding a baby in a parent's seat, finding a comfortable position is crucial. Ask flight attendants for extra airplane pillows to help you support your baby during sleep. If the aircraft doesn't have pillows, preposition your jacket, diapers, or other items that you brought to allow you to remain comfortable while holding your baby.
5. keep your baby's schedule in mind
The best time to put your baby down is at or slightly after his/her usual sleep time (our schedule blog might help if you aren't sure what's optimal). This will help prevent your baby from becoming overtired, but aiming slightly later than normal sleep times will allow your baby to have a little more sleep pressure to fall asleep. Remember, you should think of your baby's schedule in the time zone where you started, not the time zone where you are going.
6. Helping your baby fall asleep and stay asleep on an airplane
Even when your flight is on time and you have prepared everything perfectly, your baby may not have an easy time falling asleep (How many adults do you know that sleep well on an airplane?). The main thing to keep in mind is that you do not need to worry about sleep associations on an airplane. Your first priority should be helping your baby fall asleep. It doesn't matter if that happens in a manner that's different from how you do it at home. Here are some ideas for how to soothe your baby on an airplane:
Get up and walk up and down the aisle with your baby
Feed your baby to sleep
Offer a pacifier
Bounce your baby on your knees
Rub your baby's nose
Once your baby falls asleep, be ready to provide resettling after one sleep cycle, which can be as little as 30 minutes (more on short naps/sleep cycles here). As soon as your baby starts to stir, return to the sleep cues that you used to help your baby fall asleep. Again, don't worry about creating new associations.
Unforeseen Challenges and Staying Positive
In many situations, flight delays or a baby's resistance to sleep may arise despite your best efforts. Try to stay positive and remember that babies are resilient! One terrible day or night of sleep will not ruin everything. Trust in your ability to adapt and provide a nurturing sleep environment once you've arrived. For tips on how to prepare your baby to sleep in a hotel, AirBnB, or other sleep environment, check out our companion Travel Survival Guide.
By implementing these evidence-based tips and recognizing the significance of maintaining a sleep routine, you can create a more peaceful and sleep-friendly environment for your baby during airplane travel. Remember, each journey provides an opportunity for bonding and creating lasting memories, so embrace the adventure even if sleep isn't perfect. Safe travels!
We hope this blog helps you manage air travel with your child. If you're new to us, welcome! We're moms with backgrounds in sleep medicine, public health, nursing, and behavior analysis (Ph.D. and master's level). Our passion is translating the scientific literature into actionable strategies that you can use to achieve better sleep.
As always, we are here to help. Let us know if you don't see a blog on an issue that you are facing by contacting us on social media or through email@example.com (note that while our goal is to help, we can't keep up with personal questions via e-mail. It takes away from our time with our own little ones). If you are struggling, then feel free to book a one-on-one consultation with us or check out our sleep class. We developed the class based on our work with parents and offer many different approaches to sleep problems. We have lots of positive feedback on the class and you can join our private Facebook group for extra support while taking the class.
Tamaki, M., Bang, J.W., Watanabe, T. and Sasaki, Y., 2016. Night watch in one brain hemisphere during sleep associated with the first-night effect in humans. Current biology, 26(9), pp.1190-1194.
Bathory, E. and Tomopoulos, S., 2017. Sleep regulation, physiology and development, sleep duration and patterns, and sleep hygiene in infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children. Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care, 47(2), pp.29-42.
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.