This is every parents’ nightmare when traveling with children – their sleep routine will be disrupted, no one will get any sleep, and everyone will be miserable. This rings true especially when you know you’ll be crossing time zones. But, from experience, we can tell you that children are very adaptable, and worrying about their sleep schedule shouldn’t keep you from traveling. Yes, you may have some trying times, but overall, things will likely go more smoothly than you thought. We’ve compiled a few tips that we’ve learned along the way and that can help you feel more confident when traveling with young kids.
First, we have a quick disclaimer: our son is typically a pretty good sleeper. If your child is not, you may face other challenges and have to adapt these strategies to fit your needs or situation.
Sleeping on the Plane
Whether you’re flying to another state or another country, you’re going to be faced with being cooped up on the plane. It can be tough to keep your kids entertained in such a confined space, so getting them to sleep during the flight can be a life saver. If you know the flight will be long, plan for an overnight or late-night flight. Your child will already be tired, and they’ll burn off more energy running around the airport before you take off. They’ll fall asleep on the flight and (hopefully) sleep until you arrive at your destination. This also allows you to catch some sleep as well, and you’re not stressed out trying to entertain and manage your child during the flight. This works well for long drives too!
If your child is under 2, most airlines do not require them to have their own seat. Try to pick a bulkhead seat so you have extra room and can set up a bassinet or have more space to hold them. If your child is tall – like ours, we found that getting him his own seat was worth the investment. He could lay across our lap and his seat to sleep, plus had space of his own to move around. It can be easier than trying to contain a young child on your lap the whole time.
Another tip is to feed your child ahead of time if you know they’re tired and will likely fall asleep before food is served. This way they’ll have a full belly before drifting off and can sleep more soundly. When our son was young, we’d change him into pajamas and wrap him in a swaddle on the plane so it felt more like bedtime and he associated it with sleeping.
Coping with Time Zone Differences
This is what keeps a lot of parents from traveling to countries they’re yearning to see. If it’s 7 p.m. in the Eastern United States (when your child might typically go to bed), it’s already 1 a.m. in Spain or 4:30 a.m. in India. That is sure to throw a kink in things.
For instance, in Spain, the culture is much different. People don’t often start eating dinner until 8 or 9 p.m. By the time dinner is over, you’re back at your hotel, and your child has had time to unwind, it may be around 1 a.m., which is close to their bedtime in the U.S. anyway. Not much adjusting to do. And, by allowing them to stay up later, they can taste the local cuisine and not be stuck eating McDonald’s or snack food because they’re going to bed before dinner is served.
But when you’re traveling somewhere that the time difference will be noticeable, and when the travel schedule may not align with the routine you expect at the destination, it’s a good idea to start preparing a day or so in advance to get your child on the schedule of where you’re going. For instance, when we went to Iceland, it was a four-hour time change, and they ate dinner around 7 p.m., so we wanted our son to go to bed soon after. However, it would still be pretty early in the U.S., so we took steps to help him adjust. Even though it can make for a crazier day, wake your child up two or three hours earlier than normal and have them go to bed earlier as well. This will help with the transition. Plus, it also helps to keep them active during the day of travel so they’re exhausted and ready to sleep earlier.
If it is a major time change and you couldn’t adjust beforehand – like when we flew from Dubai to Beijing – your best bet is to simply go with the flow. When we arrived in Beijing, it was around midnight, but it was only 8 p.m. in Dubai where we had just been. Our son was not tired yet because he was used to going to bed in another three or four hours. Don’t try to force your child to go to sleep. You’ll be frustrated, they’ll be frustrated, and it rarely works out. Instead, stay up and go to bed when you and they tired. For us, that meant going to sleep at 4 a.m. However, we made sure to wake up by 11 a.m. and start our day. Yes, we were tired, but that meant everyone would go to sleep earlier that night. Within a day or two, we had all adjusted, our child included. Don’t stress out over your child’s sleep schedule being disrupted. They will adjust and everything will be fine.
Should You Pause for an Afternoon Nap?
This is a question many parents struggle with. At home, your child takes a nap every afternoon. Do you travel in the morning, head back to the hotel or Airbnb for a nap, then continue your sightseeing in the evening? Or do you forego the scheduled nap time and push through with your day?
We encourage you to stick with your travel plans for the day and do your sightseeing. If you take a break for a few hours in the middle of the day, it can be very limiting and you miss out on a lot. If your child is tired, they will sleep wherever they are. Bring a stroller so they have somewhere comfortable to sleep and you’re not stuck holding them. For young children, you can use a baby carrier if that is more comfortable and convenient.
No matter how close or far you are traveling, have that stroller or carrier handy. Our son fell asleep at the Vatican, Victoria Falls, and even surrounded by kangaroos in Australia. Don’t interrupt your plans to go back to the hotel and miss out on what you want to do; let them sleep wherever you are. And if they don’t sleep, you know they’ll go to bed early and can adjust dinner or evening plans accordingly. One perk is that if your child falls asleep earlier, you can take advantage of enjoying a quiet dinner together.
Another thing that we’ve found helpful when it comes to sleep is opting for an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Your child can have their own room so they’re not disturbed by or disturbing anyone else when it’s time to go to bed. You can also create a routine similar to home with getting a bath, reading a story, and going to bed. If you use a travel crib like we did, your child will be familiar with it and associate it with sleep already.
Readjusting at Home
Now you may be thinking, if your child’s sleep schedule was completely different while traveling, what happens once you return home? As we said earlier, kids are remarkably adaptable. It may take a day or two, but your child will get back to their normal routine pretty quickly. In the meantime, be flexible and adjust your schedule a bit until things are back on track.
Once again, try to plan ahead as you’re getting ready to head home. This may mean waking your child up a little earlier so they’ll sleep on the plane, or letting them sleep in late or have a nap so they’re not overly tired when you arrive. When we traveled from Europe back to the United States, the nap was helpful because then our son was more awake when we got home and could stay up longer to try to ease back into his normal schedule.
Don’t Let Sleep Stop You
The major takeaway from all of this is – don’t let worrying about your child’s sleep schedule keep you from traveling. Be flexible. Plan ahead when possible. Go with the flow and don’t stress out. Your kids will adjust and so will you, and you’ll be so glad that you decided to travel now instead of putting it off.