Travelling with your small person can be a daunting prospect – especially when it comes to sleep! If you have a tricky little sleeper already, the prospect of a time-zone change or different sleep environment can cause anxiety that our “holiday” will more accurately resemble an SAS-level endurance-test, where we become reluctant contenders for the world record of the longest period without sleep. And for those little ones who now sleep beautifully at home (often having got there via a rocky path that we're not keen to climb again), the prospect of returning to days of Sleep Siberia is enough to make anyone shred their passport immediately. But, as I tell my client families all the time, life is for living – and trips away, whether for some R&R in the sunshine, or catching up with friends and extended family, add much to the rich tapestry of family life. The good news is that it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a holiday with even the trickiest of sleepers…
One of the best tools for sound holiday sleep, is a well-established bedtime routine. Studies, across several counties, have shown that having a consistent bedtime routine is associated with better sleep in children aged 6 and under, in a number of ways, including: being asleep earlier; finding it easier to fall asleep; reduced night waking and sleeping for longer. But, bedtime routines are dose-dependent – which means they work more effectively the more you do them. So, to prepare a little one for sleeping in a new environment, establishing a practiced bedtime routine at home is a great tool - and the longer this in place before you travel, the better.
If you already have a great pre-bed routine, it’s still worth thinking whether you can add any further multisensory sleep cues – things that you can easily take to/replicate in a different environment. Some of my favourites are an essential oil pillow spray such as THIS beauty from Childs Farm; an age-appropriate comforter/bedtime buddy and either white noise for babies or a sleep story such as Moshi Twilight for toddlers and upwards.
When planning your holiday, there are some aspects of your trip that will have more influence on how much your little one’s sleep is likely to be impacted, namely:
If you are travelling further afield, one concern can be the possibility of jet-lag – for you and your little one(s)! It’s important to know that not everyone will suffer from jet-lag and if ten people flew the exact same route at the exact time, only some would experience the phenomenon. With this in mind, there is every chance that a little one can fly halfway across the world and tolerate it really well. When jet-lag does occur, it’s essentially because we have physically moved across time-zones faster than our internal clock can adapt, causing a misalignment between what time it feels like (according to our body clock) and the time it actually is in our destination location.
There is evidence to suggest that jet-lag is more likely when a person travels east, across three or more time zones, and also that it may be less prevalent with arrivals into the destination time-zone that occur in the afternoon. However, whilst I would bear these things in mind, I wouldn’t plan my entire itinerary around them! I often find that it’s the best-laid plans that can create the most stress if things take a detour. No matter how meticulously you try to coincide flights with nap times for example, delays can happen and little ones often don’t sleep on schedule – when we’ve arranged everything around their usual sleep times, this tends to be far more stressful than if we always felt we were on a wing and a prayer. So, if you can travel at sleep-convenient times for the same ease/cost as not doing, then absolutely it makes sense to do so – but it you can’t, it’s not something to lose sleep over...no pun intended!
On the day(s) you travel, whether that’s by plane, train or automobile, try to go with the flow in terms of your little one’s sleep. Often, they will fall asleep at the “wrong” time by virtue of being in a moving vehicle, and other times they won’t sleep at the “right” time because whatever is going on is all just too stimulating. You can’t force your child to sleep. And whilst you, arguably, can keep them awake, spending your travel time constantly distracting your tired child from nodding off isn’t going to be either fun or relaxing – and holidays should be both!
The first thing to consider when arriving in a new time zone, is whether you need to adjust your child’s body-clock at all. As an example, if your child usually goes to bed around 7pm at home and you are holidaying somewhere that is two or three hours ahead of that, it is an option to keep your child on their “home” times, meaning it would be 9-10pm on the local clock when you put them down. If this would actually suit your schedule better whilst you are away e.g. so you can eat out as a family in the evenings, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a child having a “holiday” routine for the duration of your trip – I promise that they won’t expect to stay up to 10pm once back home!
If you do have an adjustment to make, the best advice is to adopt local time, or as close to it as you can, as soon as possible. Of course, if it’s a huge leap and you’d be trying to put your child down for the night at what would be lunchtime at home, you most likely can’t get there in one fell swoop – and putting your little one down too early is likely to lead to them treating bedtime as a nap, waking after an hour or two and then being awake much later into the evening. So, aim for the biggest gains in the right direction that you can, whilst still noting your baby’s cues. The aim would be to have adjusted fully to local time within two-to-three days.
To some extent, you likely need to weather the first night, and children often actually sleep well after a day of travelling, but a key anchoring point for the new pattern will be your child’s wake up time on the first morning in the new destination. Start the day at the time you want the day to start whilst you are away, even if that means waking your little one, and even if that means they have less overnight sleep than normal. Once they are up, get them outside in the natural daylight to have breakfast, or straight after it. This is because broad spectrum daylight is one of the main regulators of our circadian rhythm and so early morning exposure effectively kickstarts the body-clock into its new cycle.
As part of the adjustment, your little one may try to bulk up their daytime sleep – and after a tricky night, it can be really tempting to let them (and us!), “catch up” on their lost overnight sleep. But there is a limit on how much a child can sleep in 24 hours, and sleeping too much in the day will make it harder rather than easier for your little one to get into their sleep groove, so keeping naps roughly on a par with their usual duration at home ends to be for the best.
Alongside environmental influences such as light, our body-clock also takes note of social cues such as mealtimes – the more regular these are day-to-day, and the more they align with our mealtimes at home (in terms of the time on the clock), the more likely 7pm local time, is going to feel like 7pm at home. Given that babies and young children cannot tell the time, they rely much more heavily on their physiological sleep drivers than adults do - and so what time it feels like is hugely influential for little ones.
Whilst your child adjusts, almost certainly there will be some waking at random times of the night. Even if your child is older, they aren’t doing this to annoy you! The time on the clock means a lot less to children than it does to adults, and until the middle of the night feels like the middle of night, a child is going to have a really hard time overriding their body-clock. Keep in mind that they will adjust and that this process typically takes a couple of days. In the meantime, being understanding and patient if your little one is awake in the night, whilst holding the boundary that it’s night-time rather than playtime, is key. For long periods of night-time wakefulness, reading to your child whilst they are in bed strikes a balance between what is physically possible for your child in that moment, and what will help them adjust to the new time. On the other hand, as tempting as it may be when you’re travel-fatigued yourself, a child watching TV or using a tablet at 2am will hinder their transition to the local time, and ultimately extend the pain for you all.
It is always worth considering that the first few days of your break almost certainly will be impacted by travel recovery – so if you are going to travel a significant distance across multiple time-zones it makes sense to do so when you can be away long enough to enjoy yourselves on the other side of the bumpy part!
If you are adopting a “holiday” routine that is different to your timings at home, adopt that pattern for the duration of your trip. Children manage well with later bedtimes etc whilst on holiday, but invariably struggle to go to bed early one night, late for a night or two then back to early and so on. Their body-clock needs to anchor to a pattern, so decide what will work for you, and stick to it. Bear in mind that where your child sleeps can be flexible and so if you want to settle them to sleep at 7pm then head out for dinner taking them with you, lots of children are open to either settling in their buggy from the outset and some can even be in their bed and then scooped up and transferred to the pram or stroller – it’s all about finding out what your child’s flexibility is.
Travelling by car, and without a time difference to factor in is, in many ways, easier than taking an overseas trip – but any sleeping away from home benefits from some prior preparation. For UK-based holidays, my top tips for sound sleep are:
By way of a last word, if you are reading this after a trip that resulted in sleep Armageddon and you fear you will never enjoy a holiday again, take heart from the fact that even though some babies and young children struggle to sleep well away from home, things do improve as they get older, and they become more invested in the upsides of going on holiday - even the trickiest little sleepers can become holiday sleep pros!