Before kids, vacation used to mean sleeping in and coming home from a trip well-rested. Then you become a parent and learn (the hard way) that sometimes, vacation sleep is actually a lot worse than it is at home.
So why is it such a common struggle for families with little kids? For one, in general, people don’t sleep well in unfamiliar places, said baby sleep expert Alexis Dubief, the founder of Precious Little Sleep. In adults, this is known as the “first night effect,” but kids seem to be even more impacted by it, she said.
“We take longer to fall asleep and we struggle navigating the normal, brief arousals that all kids have during the night,” Dubief told HuffPost.
Then there are all of the schedule changes to contend with — normal nap and bedtime timetables are often thrown off when you’re traveling.
“Especially for babies and little kids, even small schedule disruptions can lead to accumulated debt and the dreaded ‘overtired’ kicks in,” Dubief said. “Being overtired can ironically make it harder to fall and stay asleep. When you combine this with the ‘strange location’ issue, it’s a perfect storm for troubled sleep.”
Plus, it’s really hard to maintain consistent sleep practices when you’re not on your home turf — “especially when you’re a guest in other people’s homes or if you’re sharing a rental with friends or families,” Dubief said.
For example, bedtime may be a breeze at home for your 2-year-old, but when you’re visiting your in-laws, it turns into a nightly meltdown.
“Suddenly a toddler who was falling asleep independently like a champ at home will only fall asleep with a parent present, which leads to them waking up throughout the night because the parent is no longer present,” Dubief said.
Below, experts and parents alike share their advice to help kids (and, in turn, adults) sleep better on vacation.
1. Stick to your normal bedtime routine as much as you can.
“As challenging as it is being on the road, if you can replicate the basics of your routine at home, it can help babies’ and toddlers’ brains signal that it’s almost time for bed. Even if you go to bed later on vacation, try to keep the same routine doing bath time, drinking milk and reading books.” — Lina Forrestal, host of the “New Mamas Podcast”
2. Don’t forget to pack comfort items like a special blanket or stuffed animal.
“When my kids were smaller, they each had a blanket they cuddled with at night. It was small enough to pack in our suitcases. It gave them extra comfort and a little piece of home when they went to bed in an unfamiliar place.” — Katrina Morrison, family travel expert and owner of Mocha Travel
3. Bring a sound machine to drown out the noise.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve traveled, laying in my hotel room at night feeling like it’s unsettlingly quiet. A portable white noise machine is a game-changer. My little one is used to sleeping with a white noise machine, and the familiar noises help block out any strange noises you get while traveling: doors slamming, people walking up and down the hallway at the hotel, etc.” — Forrestal
4. And throw some travel black-out curtains in your suitcase.
“We have all stayed in hotels where an annoying amount of light gets into the room, especially early in the morning. My wife and I started packing travel blackout curtains with suction cups that easily attach to any window. They are cheap, easy to pack and a lifesaver. Can’t recommend this enough. If you’re in a pinch, you can also tape a black trash bag to your window. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing, but it does the trick.” — Aaron Martin, writer and @stayathomedad on Instagram
5. Embrace naps on the go.
“If naps are a challenge while you’re traveling, stroller or car naps are a valid choice! Sleep drive is low at nap time, and napping in a strange location is even more difficult than falling asleep at bedtime. Stroller or car naps are generally effective for most toddlers, can easily be squeezed into outings, and are least likely to create new, unwanted sleep associations.” — Dubief
6. Make the idea of sleeping in a new bed seem fun.
“My daughter is almost 3 and still sleeps in a crib. When we travel, my wife and I bring a toddler air mattress with us. We start talking it up a day or two before our trip. Once we get to the hotel or house we are staying in, Adley is so excited to sleep in her big girl bed that we have very little trouble! I’m no child psychologist, but getting her excited certainly has made our lives on the road much easier.” — Martin
7. Spend time outside during the day.
“Whether at home or on vacation, kids need outdoor play. Find a park or safe outdoor area to enjoy together. Hike a small trail or take a nice walk in a pedestrian-friendly place to burn off the extra energy that comes with the excitement of travel.” — Morrison
8. Make sure they’re eating enough throughout the day.
“It can be hard to get toddlers to eat regularly while you’re traveling or on vacation, especially at restaurants where the menu is different than at home. Don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant for their favorites. Even if it’s not on the menu, most establishments will accommodate children if you ask nicely. For example, some nights, all my toddler wants is a piece of toast with butter and a banana. Or, if you have to warm up a bottle of milk, the restaurant can help with that as well.” — Forrestal
9. For long-distance trips, be realistic about the time change.
“If you’re only traveling one to two time zones away, you might want to keep your child on their home time zone. So if home bedtime is 7 p.m., vacation bedtime might be 9 p.m. local time.
If you’re traveling more than one to two time zones away, sticking to your home time zone will be all but impossible. We are heavily influenced by sun and light exposure, so children naturally shift to the local time if it’s vastly different from home. If you’re traveling from New York City to London, don’t expect to hold on to your home sleep schedule.” — Dubief
10. Before you depart, try moving bedtime a bit to sync up with the time at your destination.
“Traveling across time zones can be especially challenging when it comes to sleep and children. If possible, try to shift your child’s sleep schedule gradually a few days before your trip so they’re more likely to fall asleep and wake up at the right times in the new location. This will help minimize disruptions of the sleep rhythm and improve sleep.”— Li Åslund, clinical psychologist and sleep expert at Sleep Cycle
11. Try not to stress too much about your kid’s sleep on the trip (hard, we know)!
“It’s important to remember that disrupted sleep is a common occurrence when traveling with young children and that a few nights of disrupted sleep are unlikely to have long-term effects on your child’s sleep habits. Plan for some downtime during the day to recharge, especially if the nights are less restful than usual.” — Åslund
12. Give yourselves a few days to adjust once you get home.
“If your schedule and sleep associations got tossed out the window, don’t despair! You aren’t the only ones! Give yourself two to three days after you get home to help your child catch up on lost sleep, get back on home time zone and settle back into the normal flow. Then create a plan to reestablish independent sleep. Your child is capable!” — Dubief