Five Tips for Travel with a Child

Travel with a child

 Tip #1 When you travel with a child try to maintain the same timing for meals and sleep that you follow at home.

 The first step to prevent tears and meltdowns is to avoid your child becoming overtired or hungry.  

For adults, vacation is time to sleep in and not be tied to an early morning start each day. Unfortunately you cannot turn off that internal alarm clock in your child. It is best to start your morning within a half hour of your child’s normal wake time to help maintain their same sleep schedule.

Children thrive on consistency and predictability in their lives. They find security in knowing what is going to happen next. Provide meals and snacks at their regular times. It is not fun to be near a hungry baby or toddler. Skipping a meal or delaying a meal is inviting your toddler to have a meltdown. A hungry toddler has a difficult time controlling their emotions. Pack healthy snacks to prevent your child getting too hungry wherever you might be, especially if the meal is going to be late.

Adequate sleep is necessary for your child to handle the unpredictability of traveling. If possible, provide naps in their bed. Sleep in the car seat or stroller will not be as restorative. Motion sleep prevents the child from going into deep, restorative sleep. The child is not well-rested when they wake up and could be grumpy.

If the naps are in the stroller or car seat one day, try to provide a nap in their bed the following day. Poor naps for several days in a row will lead to an overtired child. Try to space out those days with less nap opportunities. An early bedtime on those days with not great naps will also help prevent an overtired child.

If you keep sleep a priority on your vacation, you will be rewarded with a happier child during the fun times of your vacation.

Tip #2 Use the same bedtime routine.

A bedtime routine is very valuable for your child to cope with the changes of vacation. If you do not have a bedtime routine, I strongly encourage you to choose one. Check out how to choose a good bedtime routine for your child.

Doing the same things in the same order is a signal to your child that it is time to sleep. Children love to know what is going to happen next. When you begin the bedtime routine your child will recognize that sleep is the next thing on the agenda. That helps their body prepare for and anticipate sleep.

If your child is familiar with a bedtime routine at home it brings security for the child to have the same thing while on vacation. I encourage parents to choose a bedtime routine which is easy to use wherever you will be putting your child to bed. It should also be a routine that either parent or another person would be able to follow. The familiarity of a routine will help the child to cope with the changes which come with a vacation environment or unfamiliar people.

Keep in mind that the goal of a bedtime routine is not to get your child asleep; the goal is relax your child and let them know that sleep is coming.

Toddlers have a difficult time ending a fun activity. Stopping their play to go to bed can invite a melt-down from a tired toddler. Don’t spoil a fun vacation day with tears. Give your toddler a warning that the activity will be ending in five minutes instead of an abrupt end. The bedtime routine provides a calming and familiar activity to transition to sleep. While preparing for bed is a good time to talk about and remember the fun activities of that vacation day with your child.

Tip # 3 Bring familiar comfort items when you travel with a child.

Our babies and toddlers are trying to emotionally handle the changes of vacation. Bring along the items which normally help them cope.

For babies, try to bring a crib sheet from home to put on their bed. Do not wash it first because you want the sheet to have familiar smells from home for your baby.
If your baby is being held by many new and unfamiliar people, periodically give your baby a break to enjoy the familiar comfort of your arms. Babies can get stressed and tired out dealing with unknown people. Let your baby relax in your arms after socializing with others.

Around their first birthday, many children begin to attach to a comfort item. It could be a stuffed animal, a blanket or any object they might choose. Bring that item with you on vacation. (If possible, have a duplicate of that item in case it gets lost which could be a terrible day for everyone.)

Use their comfort item if you are traveling for long periods of time. Give your child that item to hold or play with in the car or on an airplane. It is also very helpful at bedtime. Some children find courage to face unknown people or situations with their comfort item in tow.

A toddler is trying to grow in independence. A favorite stuffed animal or blanket can help the toddler learn to manage their own emotions and cope with the changes and challenges of life. Vacation is fun, but it brings a lot of challenges to our children.

Finally, don’t forget that you are your child’s favorite comfort item!

Tip #4  Avoid Motion Sleep

Motion sleep is when your child sleeps in their car seat, stroller, swing, or your arms. Basically it is sleep that is not in their bed.

Motion sleep keeps the child in light sleep. The majority of sleep for newborns is light sleep so motion sleep works for babies younger than 3 months.

Any child over 4 months old needs deep sleep to become well-rested. Motion sleep prevents restorative deep sleep. A child needs to sleep in a bed to go through more than an entire sleep cycle for restorative sleep.

I think of motion sleep as similar to junk food. Junk food takes away your hunger, but it does not provide health for your body. Motion sleep does the same thing. It takes away the need to go to sleep, but it does not restore the body and mind. That is the reason when you fell asleep in the car or on an airplane, you still did not feel rested. The sleep was light sleep and it did not restore your body or brain.

A little bit of junk food does not hurt anyone, but a steady diet of junk food is not healthy. This is similar for sleep; some junk sleep is not going to hurt your child, but a steady diet of it is not healthy and gives you a grouchy child.

It is usually impossible to avoid all motion sleep on vacation, but I suggest that you try to limit the amount of it.
Do not choose a red-eye flight thinking your child will handle it better at night. Your child could be a mess when you reach your destination.
When possible, provide naps in a bed. Stagger the days when naps are in the stroller or car seat.
If your child appears to be getting overtired from your activities, try to provide an earlier bedtime and/or a quiet day the following day.

Respecting your child’s need for sleep in a bed will reward you with a happier, more cooperative child.

Tip #5 Make the Sleep Environment inviting to Sleep

You can help your child sleep on vacation by providing an environment that invites sleep.

         1.) Make sure the room is dark.

Making the room dark in the evening will help your child sleep instead of trying to figure out what they might be missing. Cover the windows so that the sun coming up in the morning does not wake your little one too soon. There are portable blackout covers for windows which you can bring on vacation. You can also tape a black garbage bag over the window.

        2.) Use white noise. 

If you use a white noise machine at home, bring it on vacation. The sound is familiar and will help prepare your child for sleep. The white noise will also help block the unfamiliar noises of a new environment.

It could be helpful to use portable white noise on a stroller or car-seat.

         3.) Try to make the room a comfortable temperature.

The ideal temperature for sleep is 67 – 72 degrees. Remember that babies and toddlers heat up faster than adults and usually have a harder time cooling off. It will be more difficult for your child to sleep if they are too warm. Use fans, if needed. Dress your child lightly. Try a cool bath before bedtime.

Enjoy vacationing with your baby or toddler. A well-rested child is a much more pleasant traveling companion.

Contact me for help with traveling across time zones, especially those of three hours or more.

Have a happy and fun time traveling with your little one! 






Arlene Fryling

Arlene is a registered nurse and certified sleep consultant for children 0-5 years. She has cared for premature, sick, and many healthy babies. For over 15 years she has taught expectant parents how to care for their newborns through classes teaching basic baby care, infant massage classes, and moderating support groups for new moms as they deal with parenting issues.

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