The holidays are a time when we get together with friends and family, and that sometimes involves traveling. The mere mention of travel with little ones can immediately raise your blood pressure! You’re concerned that all the gains you have made with your child’s sleep habits are in jeopardy if you change time zones or sleep in a strange place. And travel naps? That sounds impossible.
Well, you may be right. Sleeping in a strange bed in an unfamiliar room can easily unsettle most children for at least a few days. And babies certainly don’t automatically adjust their sleep when we cross time zones.
Naps While Traveling? Is That Realistic?
The most common problem when you travel with a small child is that their nap schedule falls by the wayside. The reality is that naps can be hard to fit in while visiting family or on a different schedule. And who really likes to sleep in strange places? Not me! Children easily become overstimulated and have a difficult time settling down for sleep in the middle of the day, especially in a new environment. You end up with an exhausted child during the very days you would like everyone well-rested and at their best.
Here are some ways that you can prepare for holiday travel while not disrupting your child’s nap schedule too much.
Preparation Is Half the Battle
The first thing to do is to start your trip with a well-rested child. The trip will take a toll on your child, and you really don’t want to start with your child in sleep-deficit. He will be much more equipped to endure the stressors of travel — a strange schedule and sleeping arrangements while traveling, a different room and bed, potentially, and a whole lot of new faces and noises — if he begins the trip well-rested. Your child is even more likely to be affected to changes in his routine than you are. Does this sound easier said than done? Well, I give you permission to get those naps in any way you can. Use a stroller, a carrier, or a swing to help him get to sleep, or even go for a ride in the car if that is the magic bullet for your child.
Plan Your Sleeping Arrangements
Staying with relatives or friends? Ask if they have a crib or pack-n-play you can use and if there’s a room that is large enough for you and your child to share.
Staying at a hotel? Some hotels offer cribs, but these amenities are not always reliable. Reserve one ahead of time so you can be sure it’s available when you arrive. To be safe you can also bring a pack-n-play along with you. You can even set it up at home before you go to “test-drive” it.
Once at the hotel or home, set up your child’s sleep space as far from the flow of traffic and out of the way as possible. Make room in your luggage for your white noise machine — it’s worth the space.
The goal here is to provide as much consistency and comfort as possible in your child’s sleep space so that he can successfully nap every day.
Upgrade If Possible
Will you be staying in a hotel? Consider upgrading to a suite so that there is a bedroom with a door that can be closed. This can make all the difference when helping an easily-distracted child settle down for a nap. The extra cost isn’t ideal, but it can also provide you a respite while your child sleeps in another room.
Travel Like a Pro
If you will be traveling a long distance, consider breaking up your drive into pieces so that naptime is the core portion. You can start early, before their wake-up time, to get a head start.
At nap time, convert the car into a nap zone. Turn off all music and radio noise, cover up a bright window or two with a window shade, give your child his favorite lovey, and drape a blanket over the upper part of the seats as if they are in a tent. Sing a familiar song and say “night night” just like at home. Just be sure you and your car are ready to travel without stopping for a while. You may be able to leave a little later and keep older children very engaged all morning so that they are more apt to take their afternoon nap. If you aren’t going too far, consider leaving just after lunch so that the afternoon nap happens more naturally at its normal time.
Juggling Food, Travel, and Naps
Sometimes you just need to eat fast food on the road and feed your child on the go. But toddlers and older children really need to stretch their legs or they get stir crazy on long trips. When you can manage it, consider bringing your food along in a cooler. If weather permits it, look for playgrounds along your route, or find restaurants with indoor playlands. Getting their wiggles out will help them settle down for a nap.
Make Naps a Priority
Once at your destination, make your child’s nap time a priority in your schedule. Gently explain to your family or friends how important it is to your whole family that your child fits in his nap(s).
Take the time in the morning and/or afternoon to do your normal nap routine in your room. If you begin to short change your child on his naps, it won’t pay off in the end. He will become cranky or even unmanageable.
Siblings with Different Nap Needs?
If you have an afternoon napper and one who has graduated from naps, you will need to get a little creative. First of all, your non-napper may revert to needing vacation naps. Don’t rule that possibility out. Set them up with a truly relaxing quiet time and ask them to lie down and shut their eyes for a while. You may be surprised at what happens!
If the non-napper is a good bit older and insistent that she will not nap, she may still need some downtime. Who doesn’t? Provide a quiet place for her. You could consider saving up any allowed screen time and coordinating it with your other child’s naptime. In a hotel with a napper and a non-napper? Use that second room, or move some furniture around to separate the space.
Make Time for Extra Comfort and Communication
Expect that your child will need some extra time from you and lots of love and comfort in a new place. Plan to spend some time with them at naptime and bedtime, letting them know you understand it is a new place to get used to. Just don’t revert to any old sleep crutches that will be hard to break when you get back.
The Professional Traveler’s Best Kept Secret
Ok, you’re not going to like this one but it really is the secret sauce to helping you stay happy during travel when staying in a hotel: Mom and Dad have to go to bed early too. If they see you still awake, guess what? They will want to stay up too.
Naps Still Elusive?
Sometimes no matter what you do, your child refuses to nap. You may get the sense that insisting on a nap will work if you stay at it long enough. Or maybe you have the sense that you could spend the whole afternoon in one place and he still won’t sleep a wink.
Be prepared to get creative while on vacation so that you can get those naps in. Infants need naps no matter what! A three-year-old can probably skip naps for a few days if you just get him to bed at night earlier than usual.
For those who must nap, get them any way you can. Strollers, babywearing, car rides — they are all fair game on a trip.
Back to Normal
Once you get home you can return right back to your normal nap routine. It’s a good idea to keep the calendar free of extra activities for a few days so that you can help your child return to his normal routine. That being said, it’s ok if he needs some extra sleep because of all of excitement. You may even find that your child jumps right back to their schedule once they are back to familiar territory.
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