Baby Sleep When Traveling: Interview With An Expert

February 15, 2022

baby in suitcase; tips for maximizing baby sleep when traveling

For the first few months with a new baby, one topic dominates our thoughts: Sleep. We agonize over the sleep schedule, wake windows, swaddling techniques, and night-feeding patterns. Careful routines maximize the chance that our baby will sleep independently. We would do anything to get naps longer than a 43-minute sleep cycle. 

So, when someone suggests a family vacation, our first feeling may be anxiety rather than enthusiasm.  How would the baby sleep when traveling? Can we possibly be expected to throw our carefully constructed sleep schedule out the window and leave home with this child? After all that work, we can’t mess it up! 

Yes, you can. You can do it. I sat down for an interview with Maddy Travers, certified sleep consultant, co-founder of Littlest Learners, and fellow world-traveling mom. Read on to get her tips for minimizing anxiety and conquering baby sleep when travelling.

Maddy Travers co-founder of Littlest Learners
Maddy and her co-founder, Margot, created sleep training company Littlest Learners after they struggled through baby sleep together as new moms.

Hi Maddy! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.  Baby sleep while traveling: This is a topic that creates anxiety for a lot of parents that want to travel during baby’s first year. Did you travel with your kids while they were still in the early stages of learning to sleep independently? 

Absolutely. I am a mom of two and I traveled with both boys when they were babies. My oldest son was on a plane 10 times before he was 6 months old! We took a very memorable trip to Mexico City when he was 5 months – he slept through most of our sight-seeing. Our second was born during COVID, so we haven’t had quite as many opportunities to travel, but we did squeeze in a Caribbean vacation during his first few months.

So you’ve lived through this. How do you recommend approaching baby sleep in a hotel room?  

First, do the legwork – plan your hotel choices carefully. If your baby is used to their own room at home, try to give them their own space wherever you stay. Room-sharing while traveling can be tough on nighttime sleep if it’s not your practice at home. This can mean getting a larger hotel room, or finding a hotel where you can fit the crib in a closet or bathroom. When room sharing is a must, we recommend using a product like the SlumberPod to block out light and create some separation.

baby sleep when traveling - help your baby stay rested
To keep your baby rested while traveling, aim for a solid morning nap.

I have used the crib-in-bathroom strategy on so many occasions. Sometimes it’s hard to find hotel rooms with big enough bathrooms—but that’s my job, not yours. So, what about the daily routine; do you keep it up when traveling?

We recommend trying to maintain baby’s routine as much as possible, within reason, course.  Don’t let it ruin your vacation, but try to get one good nap in the crib each day. If your little one is taking more than one nap a day, it may not be practical to get them all at the hotel or home where you’re staying. But aim for a solid morning nap at the hotel so the baby can start the day rested.  Then, if the rest of your naps are on the go, in someone’s arms or the stroller or car seat, that’s OK.  But, even for those naps, try your best to stick to your wake windows to avoid an overtired, cranky baby. Trust me, it will make for a more enjoyable trip for the whole family.

And how about the bedtime routine?

Same thing.  Implement your baby’s familiar bedtime routine as you usually do to cue them that it is time to go down for the night. If your baby has a favorite bedtime book, bring it. Try to make time for a bath when traveling if that’s part of your baby’s routine at home.  Dim the lights. Do your bedtime routine in the same order you would at home. 

Then, once you put your baby down, leave the “room” – meaning, leave the space where the crib is.  That could mean sitting on a patio, or sitting quietly in a separate part of the room. The point is to create some separation so your baby knows you’re no longer available, and that it’s bed time.

What travel gear do you recommend to traveling parents?

The best thing you can do while traveling with babies is to try to recreate the baby’s sleep environment as much as possible. This includes bringing their swaddle/sleep sack, pacifiers, and a portable white noise machine—whatever you use at home. Perhaps most important, if your baby sleeps in a dark room at home, make that happen when you travel.

Lots of AirBNBs, in particular, do not have blinds on the windows—especially in the bathroom. The SlumberPod has been our favorite piece of baby travel gear because it allows us to create a separate space for our sleeping kids, and black out all distractions, just as we do at home.

Travel with baby sleep: bring the right gear
To help your baby sleep when traveling, bring his favorite sleep gear from home

Let’s talk for a few minutes about airplane travel, since I’m particularly focused on Caribbean travel these days. Do you recommend purchasing your baby his or her own seat during plane travel?

It depends on your baby. Some babies will nap better if you put them in a car seat in their own seat. Others will nap best in your arms. Think about your own baby – if he sleeps better in a baby carrier, you may do best without the extra seat. But if you have a baby that’s not wild about the carrier, and prefers car or stroller naps, you may have better luck with baby in her own seat. We recommend using this as the deciding factor when considering whether to purchase the extra seat or to travel with a lap infant while your baby is under the age of 2.  

Any tips for getting babies to sleep on an airplane during long flights?

Most children tend to do best with naps—and overall behavior, really—when traveling in the morning. I recommend morning flights, and direct flights, to maximize your chances of a good travel day. 

And what about time zone changes? Any advice there?

Time zone changes are tricky. If your trip is 3-4 days or less, you’ll probably just want to keep your baby on his own time zone. For vacations lasting longer, you may need to make some adjustments to help your little one adapt to the time change.  If you need to keep your baby up later than his normal bedtime due to the time change, for example, try adding an extra catnap.  Or, split the difference between your home time zone and the new one, to adjust the baby only part of the way.

Travel baby sleep - Tips for airplane flights with baby
To help make travel days go as smoothly as possible, take morning flights if you can.

Last question: What’s your biggest piece of advice for traveling parents?

Try to relax and let yourself have fun—you’ve earned it! If you have been consistent at home with your baby’s sleep, travel is the time to let go a bit, even if it means “breaking the rules.” You can jump right back into your routine when you get home.  And let me emphasize – you should jump back in the moment you get home, and avoid bringing home bad habits. Meanwhile, enjoy your family time while you’re away.  See the things you want to see, and don’t let baby sleep hold you back. Will you have to deal with a sleep regression when you return home? Maybe—but you can handle it, it will resolve itself within a few days, and it will be totally worth it.

Thanks, Maddy! If readers want to get more information from you about sleep training programs, how should they reach you?

You can visit LittlestLearners.com or find us on Instagram. We’re here for all your baby and toddler sleep related questions and personalized sleep coaching!

travel with baby - photo with mom
Don't let concerns about baby sleep dominate your vacation -- even if you're tired, it'll still be totally worth it. I love this photo of me on the beach with my four month old, and wish I could relive that trip, even though I was tired.

I hope this interview helped put your mind at ease about baby sleep when traveling!  Coming soon, Mango Tree will be able to help you find the perfect hotel rooms in dream Caribbean destinations to help you craft a vacation the whole family will enjoy.  Sign up for launch updates! 

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