Planning to travel with a baby? You’ve probably worked hard to establish good sleep habits and a naptime schedule back home. Many parents naturally fear that the schedule changes that come with traveling with their little one will undo all that hard work. But naps and early bedtimes can really eat into the time you’d prefer to spend exploring your destination when you do travel. Traveling parents often feel quite torn about how to navigate these competing needs and desires.
I’ve traveled with both of my kids nearly every month in their infant years, so we’ve certainly had our fair share of sleep disruptions and challenges. But we’ve had plenty of successes too. I’m happy to report that it is possible to travel with a baby and not experience any major derailments in sleep progress, with the right preparation and execution of course.
Once your baby transitions to the toddler stage and also to one nap (usually some time around 12-18 months), the travel schedule does get easier. A good option many days is to take a mid-day break after lunch for a nap. One parent can even take older children out on a separate adventure during nap time.
But what do you do when you have a younger baby on a fairly rigid two or more nap schedule? Here are some of my very best tips for managing baby sleep schedules successfully while still having time to experience your family travels.
Tips for Naps & Sleep When Traveling with Babies
1. Pick sleep-friendly destinations.
While I’m certainly a big believer in taking a baby wherever in the world you want to go, the reality is that some destinations and vacation types are more supportive of baby sleep. Locations where you can go at a slower pace and not feel like you are missing out on everything because of naps and early bedtimes usually work better at this stage.
The time that babies need naps (particularly two naps) is really quite short in the grand scheme of your family’s travel life. For that reason, we waited to travel to certain destinations (especially expensive ones!) until our kids were out of this stage. We felt those were better left to times when we could really get full value out of those trips. But we certainly didn’t wait to travel.
My husband and I spent a lot of time with our babies at beach destinations, closer to home staycations and weekend getaways, and trips that didn’t involve enormous time zone changes. We also avoided trips where we would need to hotel hop every day or two. Late hotel check-in times meant we often couldn’t get into our room until late in the day, forcing our kids to miss afternoon nap time. Staying in one place for multiple days gave us fewer transitions to navigate.
2. Make sure your baby gets one good nap a day.
If your babies are like mine, the best naps are ones in a crib in a quiet and dark room. But if you try to do this twice a day every day on a trip, you will likely spend 3-5 hours of the best part of the day in a hotel room while your baby sleeps. This is not a recipe for travel happiness or success.
Instead, commit to getting one good nap a day, either in the morning or the afternoon. The other nap can be taken on the go, either in a stroller or baby carrier, or it can be skipped altogether.
To be sure, you probably can’t maintain this schedule every day for longer trips for days on end. But for a few days, or even every other day on longer vacations, most babies will adapt just fine.
3. Try to stick to bedtime most days.
If your baby isn’t getting great daytime sleep, it is important to stick to bedtime most nights. This is your baby’s chance to catch up. Retiring for the day at 7 or 8 pm, however, can cause you and your older kids to miss out on night time sights at your destination. So that’s one more reason to perhaps pick a destination that isn’t all about the after dark events!
If you do manage to fit two quality naps into your schedule one day, give yourself permission to stay out late one evening. We regularly allowed our little ones to stay up an hour or two late on trips when we knew they had gotten ample sleep.
4. Take turns – divide and conquer.
Often, the burden of dealing with naps and bedtimes falls much more on one parent. In my family’s case, that definitely was me! As the primary caregiver back home, I was more in tune with my kids’ nap needs and sleep routine. But I quickly found that this didn’t mean I had to be the only person shouldering this burden on trips.
My husband and I were successful in trading off naptime and bedtime duties on vacations. That way, one of us would retire to our hotel room with our little one while the other was able to continue to see the sights a bit longer. This was especially important when we had two kids, as our older daughter wanted to stay out and about while her little brother slept.
5. Accept help.
We also navigated these baby sleep years by accepting or hiring help. We loved traveling with grandma and grandpa when we had babies, as they were often willing to take on a few naptime or early bedtime duties (and we still love traveling with them years later!).
We also regularly hired a babysitter on some vacations for an evening or two so our little ones could sleep and we could have a night out. I know many families are skittish about letting strangers take care of their kids in an unknown destination, but it’s easier than ever to find trusted help. So many hotel concierges maintain a recommended list of sitters that guests use time and time again. There are also a number of local nanny agencies that background check all their sitters. We’ve had great luck connecting with and using these agencies in destinations like Disneyland and in Hawaii.
6. Bring the supplies you need for sleep success.
You have probably already thought about where baby should sleep on your trip (Pack N Play, hotel crib etc.). But don’t forget other sleep-related gear. Since you will be aiming for naps on the go, be sure to bring tools to make those naps possible: baby carriers, reclining strollers, blankets, loveys, and more.
When my son was 9 months old when we traveled with him to Montreal, I remember well that all he wanted to do was snooze on my chest in a carrier. We were glad we packed one! Some of my friends’ babies prefer sleeping in a stroller with a blanket covering the hood to block light and sound. My daughter was a master napper in her car seat during road trips. Whatever your baby’s preferences, be sure to bring the gear you will need to make naps happen. If you aren’t sure what will work, try a few options at home before your trip as a dry run.
7. Take advantage of time zone changes.
On some travels with baby, changing time zones can be a real challenge. Babies get jetlag too! But on some trips, time zone changes can really work to your advantage.
For example, I live on the West Coast and often travel to the East Coast to visit family. I have usually just kept my little ones on West Coast time during our trips. This allows them to stay up until 9 or 10 pm on the East Coast and then “sleep in” the next day until about 9 am on East Coast time. This schedule works much better for maximizing our sightseeing. Better yet – there is no need to readjust back to a new time zone when we get home.
8. Get right back into your normal sleep schedule when you get home.
When you return home, your little one may be out of whack after days of sleeping on the go or as a result of trying to readjust to a time change. It is important to try to get your baby back on schedule as soon as possible. It’s easy to fall into bad habits when you are tired from a long trip too!
Of course, sometimes parents find they may have to revisit sleep training after a trip. Usually if you do, it is nowhere near as hard as the first time around. Other times, your baby’s adaptability may surprise you. Some babies never miss a beat and return right to their prior routines.
9. Don’t stress about it.
I always say babies – like dogs! – can smell fear. If you stress about how much or how little sleep your baby is getting on a trip, your baby will too. Relax and it will go better for everyone. Yes, sleep is very important for babies. But having a few days off from your normal routine will not harm your baby’s development or permanently destroy your child’s ability to sleep. Here’s my proof a few years later:
What has worked for your family when it comes to traveling with babies and sleep? Share your tips in the comments.