Traveling with (young) children is absolutely one of the best experiences for you as a family. But I’ll be honest: before I became a sleep consultant and I knew little about sleep, we’ve had some insanely sleep deprived family vacations. We tried everything but they struggled to sleep anywhere, no matter what we did.
This torture, of course, followed us on any trip we took. Now that I know more about sleep and our kids are a little older (3 & 5), we all sleep better, but there are still nights when we need some extra help getting everyone enough rest.
While it does take some planning (like anything with kids), with the right tools and knowledge you can feel at ease going on vacation, while ensuring that your time away is fun and relaxing for everyone.
1. Stick to your regular schedule as much as possible.
If your child normally takes an afternoon nap at home, it will be really helpful to maintain this afternoon nap. Preferably your little one sleeps in a bed/travel crib, but sometimes it’s not that easy for a kid to fall asleep and a stroller or car nap might be a fine plan B. And although it might seem tempting to let your child play way until it’s way over bedtime, I would recommend to not shift bedtime too late (max 1 hr later than normal). Not all children are avid late sleepers and this way you prevent sleep deprivation if your child rises at his normal wake-up time.
2. Try the travel crib at home.
If your baby or toddler is going to sleep in a travel crib on your holiday, you could probably get your child adjusted by letting him sleep in this crib for a few nights at home, in his familiar environment. That way, the vacation environment is totally new, but your child is already familiar with his new bed, which encourages a peaceful night.
3. Implement a holiday bedtime routine.
You probably have a bedtime routine at home to put your children to bed. This may involve taking a bath, brushing teeth, and reading a story. This routine might look a little different while you’re away, but I would highly recommend introducing a new bedtime ritual that you can keep up with your entire vacation. Children thrive by consistency and repetition and even their bodies respond to it by starting to produce melatonin (sleep hormone). (By the way, avoid melatonin pills. Children are very capable of producing this hormone themselves and using it will inhibit its production. Trust the natural strength of your child. Ask your doctor for advice.)
4. Pay attention to sleep signals.
Your preschooler might have stopped sleeping during the day for a while, but a holiday and all the new adventures can be exhausting. He may also go to bed an hour later than normal and then taking a nap during the day is not so bad after all. If he rubs his eyes or becomes groggy after lunch, let him take an afternoon nap. Put a cot in the shade or he could lie in a hammock. It’s not uncommon that your toddler starts yawning at 6:30 pm. after a few long days on you trip. It might seem very early for a holiday, but your little one’s body doesn’t take that into account of course. Just put him in bed at that moment, he needs his sleep more than ever and he will be completely refreshed the next day.
5. Darken the windows.
If you’re camping, this might be a challenge, slumber pods for babies are very useful though. But if you stay in a rental home you could bring black garbage bags and tape to cover the windows. The curtains used in these homes are often not very dark, garbage bags or towels can help blacken out. Especially in the summer when the days are longer, it can be difficult to fall asleep when it is light. Blacking out also helps with afternoon naps.
6. Sleep begets sleep.
It’s an old ‘rule’: sleep begets sleep. If your child often wakes up during the night, he might be overtired. Too little sleep can lead to restless nights with the result that your child has difficulty falling asleep and wakes-up often or early in the morning. It may sound counterintuitive, but sufficient sleep during the day leads to a better night’s sleep. Well-rested children generally sleep better, so go to bed a little earlier. It really helps!
Take some time to relax before going to sleep. After a exciting day at the pool with their new friends, your child might be completely aroused at bedtime. Take a moment to read, chat or make a puzzle to reduce all excitement to a calmer level.
8. Be realistic about what your child can handle.
Too much fun adventures on a day may be quite overwhelming. Visiting a zoo or theme park three days in a row and ending your days with late dinners in restaurants or late night storytelling at the camp fire can be too much too ask of your child. Take an occasional ‘rest day’ where you don’t plan too much and take the time to really relax. And definitely take the chance to go to bed early to recharge.
9. Back home: Pick up your old routines as soon as possible.
You might have shared a room at the hotel as a family and now your kid has to get used to sleeping in his own room again. Take some extra time to tuck your little one into bed and you could pretend to be ‘busy’ in the hallway until your child is asleep. That way he knows you’re nearby which makes him feel less alone. Try to adjust bedtime to your regular time as soon as possible so they will fit in the preschool/daycare rhythm right away.
10. Last but not least: Enjoy!
Enjoy spending so much time together as a family, enjoy being outside and explore your new surroundings. Even if sleeping is not always going that well, the new adventures and making memories will bring a huge smile on everyone’s face.