Traveling Sleep Hierarchy for Babies

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Traveling to see family or to go on vacations is (usually) a whole lot of fun! Great memories are made and bonds are strengthened. There is always concern, however, of how it will impact your life and your baby’s life both during the vacation and after the vacation. Chances are you have made a lot of sacrifices to have your baby sleeping how she is, and the idea of negating that effort is scary.

There is also a very real, and justified, concern over how the baby will be while on vacation. Will baby sleep, or will baby be up all night crying? How will that impact the other people in the house? You don’t want to keep everyone up. Will you even have fun if you are up all night with the baby (I have been on those trips that are not so fun for me because of things not going well with baby!)? Is it worth it?!? I mean, the packing list alone is enough to keep people home.

Despite those fears, concerns, and work, you have decided to go on a trip. I think that is a wise choice. At least give it a try and see how it works out. Now you are left wondering what you should do about sleep while traveling. What do you do if baby wakes early from a nap? What if baby won’t even fall asleep for a nap? What about night sleep? Will all of baby’s progress be totally ruined?!? Aaahhh! 

Take a deep breath. Go in with a game plan. It will work out. This post contains affiliate links.

GOAL #1: Baby Sleeps When She Should

This is the same as my first goal in the Newborn Sleep Hierarchy. Your first goal when traveling is just to get baby to take a nap at nap time and go to bed at bed time. You don’t want an overly tired baby. Overly tired babies have a hard time sleeping and also aren’t fun. They cry a lot, which means people can’t enjoy baby and you can’t enjoy yourself, not to mention your poor baby who can’t stop crying. 

If baby will go to sleep as he usually does at home, fantastic! That is ideal, of course. 

Not all babies will do that, however. The house might be super noisy and make it hard for your baby to sleep. Your baby might not be as flexible of a personality type and might find it hard to sleep in a new environment. You might be out and about and not have a bed available for your baby to sleep in. 

So you might find baby sleeping in a car seat, in the arms of someone, or even in a swing. When Kaitlyn was a baby, we literally brought her big old swing with us to Nate’s family’s house when we went. It was super noisy and she wasn’t used to sleeping with noise. A swing was a way for us to make sure she could fall asleep when needed. Side note, I had dreams of a travel swing after Kaitlyn, but it turned out my next two babies both hated the swing, so we never traveled with a swing again.

We have been known to bring a pack and play, bassinet, or pea pod with us so our baby can sleep. Once I discovered white noise, I also brought that along with me to help block out noise. I have often nursed a baby back to sleep in the night who has previously been sleeping through the night with no feedings for months. 

If you are out and about, see if you can get baby to fall asleep at nap time in the carseat, in your arms, or in your baby carrier. 

Even if your baby only takes a 45 minute nap, it is better than zero nap. 

The point is, you often have to do what it takes to get your baby to sleep while on vacation. Doing those things is better than your baby not getting sleep. That doesn’t mean you will face zero consequences when you get home. Just because you had to doesn’t mean it won’t take some retraining once you get home. Just do not be afraid to do what your baby needs to get the sleep she needs. Sleep is most important here. 

GOAL #2: Baby Sleeps in a Bed When She Should

If you are able, a nap in a bed is always preferable to a nap on the move. It is more restorative. It will help keep your baby on track so that when you go home, you don’t spend 1-3 weeks trying to get back to where things were before you left.

Goal #1 is the most important for traveling and sleep. You might not even broach goal #2 at all, and that is okay. This is your call and you will make it based on a whole myriad of factors. Some trips are short and you might choose to not worry so much about sleep while on that trip. Some might be weeks and you want to keep things as normal as possible so life isn’t so disrupted when you get home. Some babies are flexible and adaptable while others just aren’t. Some can be tired and still content while others will scream. Sometimes you are visiting family that you might only visit once in a very great while. Decide what is best overall based on your unique travel situation.

Know your child and be an advocate for your child. If you baby is more flexible, you might allow her sleep to be disrupted to give family more time with her. If your child is not flexible, however, make sure you do what she needs you to do as her parent. I always say, baby’s needs come before adult’s wants. 

What To Bring

Over-packing with a baby is a very easy thing to do. The struggle is real! You don’t want to take more than you need, but you also don’t want to be left without something you really need! So far as sleep goes, keep these things in mind:

  • Place to sleep (pack and play, bassinet, pea pod, moses basket…a place your baby would ideally sleep on her own while you are traveling).
  • Back-up sleep location (sling, carrier, swing…what are your back-ups at home? You might like something on the road).
  • Normal sleep attire. Swaddle blanket, lovie, types of pajamas, socks, pacifier…whatever your baby normally sleeps in and with, have it with you. 
  • Alternative sleep attire. Also, have an alternative to what your baby is sleeping in at the moment. When Kaitlyn was a baby, we traveled to my grandmother’s funeral. At the time, it was July and Kaitlyn’s room at home was very hot. We traveled to a state where the nights even in July are often in the 30s. We ended up sleeping in my aunt’s basement. Kaitlyn woke up a couple of times that night because she was cold. We should have brought warm pajamas, not just the light pajamas she was sleeping with at home. 
  • Stimulation blockers (sound machine, something to cover a window, something to block you at night from eyesight…). 

What to Expect When You Get Home

People often worry that they will negate all forward progress by going on vacation or having some disruption of some sort. That is not the case. Like I said, different babies respond differently. Some get home and slip right back into the normal routine. Some take a day or two of fussiness to get back to normal. Some might take a couple of weeks. No matter how long it takes, it won’t negate everything you had previously achieved. Plan on taking a few days to be super consistent when you get home so your baby has the best chance at bouncing back quickly. 

Tips for Traveling and Keeping Baby on a Schedule

Question from Mrs. Martin: Ok, I need help again, big time! So here it is: we have been having to travel a LOT the past month and it’s not even close to being over. The first 2 trips went alright, we were staying in people’s homes so I could keep him on schedule pretty well. But this past trip (#3), we were in a totally different time zone for a week and I had to keep him quiet for most of the time, so as you can imagine, he got pretty “snacky” REAL fast, not to mention, very used to being held 24/7! We will not be home more than a week or 2 at a time for the next 3 months and I don’t really know what to do. We have 5 days before the next trip and then a week and a half before the next. I’m trying so hard to get him back on schedule somehow but I just don’t have any idea where to start!
He is 5 mos. Sleeps through the night perfectly still (the only thing that didn’t change), but naps and feedings are all over the place- absolutely no consistency. How do I get him back to normal? Any previous posts on this that might help? As always, thank you SO MUCH for this blog and all your help to us new moms!

BabywiseMom said:

The best thing to do is maintain your “normal” as much as possible.

Then you have to expect there will be some setback and that you will need to do some retraining once things settle down.

See also the posts on “traveling”

Beyond that, I don’t have experience with this exact situation. If you like, I can do this as a “help a reader out” question so you can get input from others who have faced similar circumstances.

Question: Val,
That would be great! It would certainly be helpful to see what others did to train/re-train/maintain some consistency while on the go for extended periods of time. Especially with a lot of switching time zones, it would be great if anyone had experience with that! Fortunately, we were able to keep him on schedule-ish during Thanksgiving because we were in one place the whole time but we will not be so lucky with the rest of the next few months. Oh well, live, learn and be flexible I guess! Thanks for your continued help and advice!

Amber said: I’m afraid I can’t help much. We’re in a similar situation–though, dare I say, a bit more stressful. My husband has been out of work since May, and we are currently without a home. Therefore, we have now been reduced to staying with those who are generous enough to keep us, which means we’re literally moving everry 1 week to 2 months. It is wreaking havoc on my little ones (ages 2-1/2 and 10 months). The 10 month old is handling it better than our 2 year old, but she hasn’t slept through the night consistently in several weeks. She keeps waking up crying in the night. I would also love to know some tips and tricks if anyone has any!

Serra said: I can’t help either 🙂 Since having children we have learned that we simply can’t travel as much. One to two late nights in the week are fine, but more then that throws our 2 year old outta wack- so we’ve resolved to the fact that this is life with children. If we go stay somewhere for more then a couple days we simply try to bring objects that are familiar to help with sleeping and usually it works fine (blanket, crib packnplay, stuffed animal). But if you’re living in different places and changing often, I can understand how your children are stressed. I would be… it may just come down to next year choosing one to two places to visit, and telling everyone you’ll just have to wait a couple years until your kids are old enough to handle that much frequent change.I know this probably wasn’t helpful, but… there it is.Good luck, and happy holidays!

Jenny said: Unfortunately, nothing is going to replace being at home. Our LO isn’t a great napper in public, and when we travel it’s just about the same. I do make sure to take our monitor if we’re staying in a family members’ home. I also travel with her sound machine. I know it’s a prop, but she had bad colic and we found that it did help. Even now that colic is over, I think it helps, especially when we’re away from home. We have the Sleep Sheep from Cloud B. Unlike most it has the heartbeat which has always been her favorite. They even sell a travel size on that easily clips onto strollers and car seats. One last thing…the one time we traveled to a different time zone (from central to eastern) I kept her feedings on central time. However, about 5 days into our 8 day trip I found she was starting to adjust to eastern time all on her own. Safe traveling!

Kelle said: I actually have a lot of experience in this since we are in the military and also traveled for vacation all over Europe when we lived there for three years. I have experience with big time zone changes too. I have three children and have traveled with all of them and done Babywise too. I do bring along or make sure there is a fan or something to give the white noise too. That’s one sleep prop that my husband doesn’t like, but it is the price he pays for all the traveling. I try my best to keep the naps the same time when they are under 2 yrs. This doesn’t man they are always in a crib. Each of my children needed different aids to help them go to sleep in public. One was in the stroller covered up when I saw her sleep cues, one was in the Bjorn around the regular nap time and the other was the sling when he got sleepy. When we traveled in Europe to Itally for a week, there was no walking all the way back to our room to nap and missing out on all those sites, so this is the way it went. Occasionally they wouldn’t fall asleep on schedule and so we just adjusted the rest of the day, kind of how you do with a newborn. I never nursed them to keep them quiet even when they needed to be quiet (exception: on the airplane), my husband or I just left the quiet area until we got control. I kept the nursing schedule the same and did not switch to nursing to sleep or pacify ever.As for time changes, I don’t do CIO for the first week after a large time change like overseas, but just work towards getting back on schedule with the things I could control. I remember letting my one year old sleep in a pack-n-play next to my bed because she woke up so much in the night the first couple of nights. I wake them up from naps in order to help get back on schedule. The only time I had a real problem was when my 4 month old got really sick while on a two month visit to the states. I don’t know if I did the right thing there, but I just nursed him way too much at night during those two months (kept day time nursings the same) and it took me a month when we got back home to get him back STTN via CIO multiple times throughout the night. Basically, when you travel you have to deal with more sleep problems, but retraining isn’t as bad as training them the first time (although in the beginning it seems like it is, it is usually over faster.) I think keeping nursings the same helps make the transition easier. If I were you, I wouldn’t do major retraining for a week’s time, but two weeks (depending on your baby) might be worth it so you don’t get too far off. I have a different lifestyle than most and our philosophy is that we don’t altar the universe for our children. They have to adapt to us and our schedules somewhat just as we have had to adapt to theirs somewhat. Give and take. And since we are in the military adaptation is a skill they will need the rest of their childhood.

Jessica said: My husband and I are missionaries and we are traveling around the USA to raise our support so I completely understand what you are going through. With my son, who will be 5 months tomorrow, I try and keep him on a regular feeding schedule (every 3-4 hours). We bring all his own things and I use the purex 3-in-1 laundry sheets when I have to wash his stuff somewhere else so it still smells the same for him. As for being held 24/7 my son gets used to it but I try and put him down in his pack and play or in his carseat so I’m not holding him all the time. We also have a infant travel bed that we bought from target http://tinyurl.com/388by26 if we are going to be somewhere for a longer period of time. I try to make sure that even if I have to hold my son for his nap (I know that is not the best thing) that he gets a good nap in. I think it is very important more important than him sleeping in his crib. I only use this as a rule if we are on the road not while we are home. I dont know if this helps at all. I hope that things get better for you.

Tom and Steph said: I second EVERYTHING that Kelle said. I have spend a lot of time traveling both in the US and overseas with my kids and I seriously did everything the same as Kelle.Jet lag is a killer but I think just lots of flexibility and understanding is needed.I have since decided that BW isn’t great for people travel. I feel that there a immense benefits, but if your life involves a lot of traveling, it can almost become a situation where you are giving more time and energy to preserving BW things than you would just letting go a little more and just doing the best you can with what you have.

Becca said: In our travels we’ve done very similar to what Kelle mentioned, probably because she gave me similar advice back when my son was tiny! 🙂 I knew she managed to get BW to work even with the travelling. The only areas where I deviated from what she said, I later wished I hadn’t!

Mrs. Martin said: Kelle and Jessica:THANK YOU!!! Yall’s input helps more than you know! We have to travel to a different time zone at least once a month (usually more) and I have kept his feedings/naps the same. It was difficult when he started making it really obvious that he was ready for the four hour schedule because I didn’t want to change anything while we were away from home. But then I figured “oh well, being away from home is more ‘normal’ for him at this point than being at home is, so let’s just give it a shot!” It worked and he did fine. Kelle, very good point, “since we are in the military adaptation is a skill they will need the rest of their childhood.” We are in the same situation, but right now, have all sorts of other stuff going on so we are traveling even more than usual. So did you adjust them for each different time zone change? Or did it vary depending on how long you were there? So far we have been just trying to keep him on our “home time” but I think he gets a little confused when the sun comes up at a different time for him every other week. Time zones have been our biggest issue for the past 2 months.Jessica, I have been lugging our detergent around too so that he has the same smells 🙂 I feel like it is helping! We are just really thankful that he likes his car seat and his pack-n-play!Happy side note: I have to say that, no matter where we are or who we are staying with, EVERYONE keeps commenting on what a good baby he is and that we are “so lucky to have such a happy baby”! And like the book says, my husband and I just look at each other and we both know that we weren’t lucky, it is babywise!

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