Travelling with a little one can be difficult in many ways, but often it is not as taxing as you imagine it will be. Here are my tips to help you manage your child’s sleep whilst you travel, so that you can all get as much rest as possible and enjoy your time away.
Changing time zones
If you travel to a different time zone with your child, you need to decide in advance how you’re going to manage the change. If the time difference is only an hour or two, then it is usually better to keep your child on home time, even though this may mean a late bedtime or early rise whilst you are away. Sometimes you will naturally slip into the new time or close to it over the course of a couple of days. Just try to make sure your child doesn’t get too overtired and use his familiar routines to help him know what to expect.
If the time difference is going to be more than a couple of hours, then it can help to prepare in advance. You can do this by starting a couple of weeks before you go away and moving your child’s schedule (wake time, naps, feeds and bedtime) forward or backwards as necessary by 15 minutes each day.
For some parents with adaptable children, or for families where a changed schedule at home doesn’t fit with other commitments, it is easier to just deal with the time difference once they arrive on holiday. If you are in this position, then it’s extra important to think about your child’s routine during the time you are travelling. If you are travelling to a country whose time is ahead of your own, then it may be helpful to wake your child early on the day of travel and/or to limit your child’s naps to build up sleep pressure so that they are more ready for sleep earlier. You must be careful not to get carried away though, as an overtired child will sleep poorly during the night. In the first few days you are away you will need to wake your child earlier each day, to move their schedule in line with the new time zone. If you are travelling to country whose time is behind your own, then add in an extra nap where necessary and allow your child to sleep later in the morning to move their schedule.
In all cases use the fact that our bodies respond to light and dark, and use this to help to regulate the circadian rhythm. In the morning, expose your child to daylight as soon as possible and get out into the fresh air if you can. For nap times and bedtime, reduce the lighting during your wind-down routine, and use black-out curtains to create a dark sleep environment.
It’s really important that you shift your child’s feed schedule to mirror wake-sleep schedules and ensure that they are taking enough calories during the day. You may need to add in an extra meal initially, if you are expecting to keep them up a bit later. If you are breastfeeding, it may take a little while for your supply to adjust to the new timings.
It’s not always possible to arrange travel to fit in with your child’s routine, but it is good to consider whether your child falls asleep easily for naps and is likely to nap well in the car or on the plane, etc., and try to plan accordingly. If possible, plan to arrive at your destination so that there is plenty of time for your child to adjust before he is due for a sleep.
Settling into the new environment
Take anything with you that usually helps to settle your child for sleep, e.g.;
bed sheets (don’t wash just before travel, so that it still has a familiar smell of home)
a few familiar story books
Once you’ve got settled, make a point of taking your child on a tour of the accommodation and pointing out where you will be sleeping and where they will be sleeping. Repeat the process several times so that they can see that you are all together and close by. Consider whether or not you will be sharing a room with your child. If he normally has his own room, then it is preferable that he has his own room whilst you are away. If this is not possible, then think about options for separating the space in some way - perhaps a room divider, for example.
If your child is unsettled in his new environment, then it is best not to deviate too much from his usual routine. His familiar bedtime routine will help him to feel secure, and whilst you may need to go into him to reassure him, remember that he also needs his space to fall asleep and stay asleep. As he gets older, bedtime fears may become more real and communication again will be vital.
Most of all, make sure you enjoy yourselves. If a few ‘bad’ sleep habits sneak in, then don’t stress about it. Get back to normal when you return home and, often, you will find that the habits are easy to break as they weren’t formed in the usual home sleep environment.