How to Get Your Child to Sleep on Vacation
A vacation isn’t a vacation if nobody is sleeping. And as we all know – if your child isn’t sleeping, there’s no way you’re getting any sleep.
Getting your baby or toddler to sleep while travelling can be daunting. Unfamiliar places, changes to your schedule and routine, and more excitement than normal can make sleep challenging for even the best sleepers.
We’ve had some disastrous sleep on vacations. Once, when my oldest was a toddler, we were up for so long in the middle of the night that we seriously contemplated packing up and going home. There was a trip to Hawaii where we rented a three bedroom townhouse with two kids, and my husband and I didn’t make it through a single night with both of us sleeping in the master bedroom. And, in moments of desperation, we have absolutely resorted to going for a drive in the early morning hours, in hopes of lulling restless babies to sleep.
Based on these stories, it may seem that I’m the last person that should be giving advice on how to get your child to sleep while travelling. But, through trial and error, we eventually figured out some tricks that work for us. These tips aren’t foolproof, and they certainly won’t work for everyone, but there’s a chance that they might work for you. And as somebody who has suffered through my share of terrible nights trying to get a child to sleep on vacation, I know all too well the desperate feeling of I’ll try anything.
1. Make it familiar
My number one tip for good sleep on the road is to make it familiar. Young children are creatures of habit and routine, so you want to replicate their sleeping environment at home as much as you can.
It goes without saying that special sleep objects, like their lovey, pacifier, sleepsack, and any favourite blankies, are necessities. I also recommend doing what you can to replicate the light conditions at home. If your child is used to dim light, bring a nightlight. If they’re used to blackout blinds, do what you can to make the place they’re going to sleep as dark as possible (I’ve heard great things about the Gro-Anywhere blind). If your child uses white noise, bring their white noise machine, or download a white noise app.
2. Figure out where they’re going to sleep
Assuming that your child is not yet old enough to sleep in a bed – and/or you prefer not to co-sleep – you’ll need to figure out where they’re going to sleep. Again, familiarity is going to help you out here. If your child is used to the crib or bed that they’re sleeping in, chances are things are going to go much smoother.
Does the hotel or vacation rental include a crib or playpen? Can you rent one at your destination? Is it simpler to bring one from home? Does it make sense to buy one on Amazon and ship it directly to your destination? (this is what we did to make visits to grandparents’ houses a little bit easier)
We use a basic Pack ’n Play as our go-to travel crib. This works fine when we’re travelling by car, but is a bit bulky for airplane trips. When travelling by plane, we either utilize a Pack ’n Play at our destination, or – when our kids are over one – use a Kidco Peapod. We got them used to napping in the Peapod at home, and it gave them a familiar place to sleep in when we were travelling. There are also a number of lightweight travel crib options – the Lotus Travel Crib gets great reviews.
If your child is old enough for a bed, but not quite guaranteed to stay in one place all night, we use a few tricks to minimize the chances of them falling out of bed. A pool noodle or pillows tucked under the fitted sheet form a perfect barrier to keep them from falling out. Or, depending how the bed is set up and who’s sharing it, you can have them sleep sideways and put your toddler up against the wall or a headboard.
3. Give them their own space
The question of where to set up your child’s bed is particularly relevant for older babies and toddlers. Once our kids were past the newborn stage, they did much better if they weren’t sleeping in the same room as us. As older babies and toddlers, our kids would be too excited to sleep when they realized that Mom and Dad were in the same room.
Because of this, Airbnb and VRBO vacation rentals are our first choice when travelling. They give everyone more room to spread out, and ideally there’s a separate bedroom for the kids. When we stay in a hotel, we try to choose suite hotels whenever possible.
If a separate room isn’t possible, you may have to get creative to carve out some space for your little one. Walk-in closets, bathrooms, or even hallways can be a perfect place to set up their bed out of sight of Mom and Dad. Worst case scenario, a make-shift barrier with furniture or blankets can create a tucked-away spot for them to sleep.
4. Bring your baby monitor
I know – it’s one more thing to pack on an already very long list, but we’ve never regretted bringing our baby monitor. It gives us a bit more freedom to enjoy our time while baby is sleeping.
5. Tire them out
On the rare occasion that we’ve ended up in a standard hotel room with our kids, our goal is to get everyone to fall asleep quickly – and stay asleep – so they don’t wake each other up. Before bed, we’ll do our best to tire them out. Hotel pools are perfect for this – my kids are always exhausted after swimming. If a pool isn’t an option, any kind of physical activity will do.
6. Nap on the go
Travelling with a little one who needs to nap one or more times during the day can put a serious damper on the daily schedule. The only way around it (other than skipping a nap, which is always disastrous for us!) is to try to get your baby or toddler to nap on the go.
Stroller naps, car naps, and naps in the baby carrier are all options that we’ve used at one time or another. On vacation, it’s not uncommon for one of us to be camped out in the car waiting for a sleeping toddler to wake up, while the other parent goes ahead with our other two kids.
7. Consistency is key
Vacations mean a deviation from the normal routine – that’s inevitable. But for our kids, things always go better when we stick as closely as possible to our regular schedule and routine.
This doesn’t mean that we live and die by a 7:00 bedtime – we do recognize that there needs to be some leeway when we’re on vacation. But it makes everyone’s life easier if we give our nappers a chance to nap and we don’t keep kids up to the point of being overtired.
Similarly, we keep the bedtime routine as consistent as possible. Ours is simple – brush teeth, book, cuddle, bedtime – but we stick to it as much as we can when we’re travelling.
8. Relax your standards and expectations
Finally, perhaps the single most important thing you can do when you’re taking your child on vacation – relax your standards and your expectations.
Some nights, they might stay up later than normal (and if they’re like mine, they’ll still wake up at 6:00 a.m. the next day!). You may end up co-sleeping – even if you swore you wouldn’t – because bringing them into your bed is more appealing than trying to get them to sleep on their own.
You might end up going to great lengths just to get your baby to nap – hauling the baby swing with you (we’ve done that!), driving around for hours (done that too!), or deciding that holding them while they nap is better than the alternative of not napping at all (yep!).
Do what you need to do to get everyone as much sleep as possible. Yes, you may need to do some work to re-establish good habits when you get home, but I find that that’s often the case in any event. I’d much rather put in a few days of work when I get home than ruin the entire vacation!
Do you have any secrets to getting your baby or toddler to sleep on vacation? I’d love to hear them!