There is always a brief moment of panic that every parent of small children experiences in those moments before the family sets off on a trip. Whether it be a long-haul flight to the other side of the planet, half a day of driving to the next state or county, or something in between the two – there is that moment of:
“Do we have everything…? What if…? How will the kids cope with the new time zone/ the new food/ the new sleeping arrangements? What if my baby screams the whole flight? What if they get sick? How are we going to deal with all the luggage AND the kids?”
For most parents, their biggest concern while traveling is helping their baby cope with the new time zone.
So, with summer vacation upon us, we have put together a checklist of tips to help make things easier. Some of these are sleep training support tips, others are general tips to make travel easier and more enjoyable.
We will start with sleep tips first- after all, we are a sleep training site!
1.) Choose your travel times to avoid middle of the night or extremely early morning starts.
I know it’s not always possible, but when traveling with small children and babies, try to start your journey either when their day usually starts, or when it usually ends. This means you have to choose whether you want your child to be awake or asleep for the majority of your journey. Either choice will help you to keep your child’s sleep schedule as close to normal as is reasonably possible.
2.) Operate on the time zone you are in.
Changing time zones can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “oh it’s early back home, they won’t be tired yet.” If the clock says it’s bed time – it’s bed time. This is the fastest way to get your child to adjust to the new time zone- follow your usual schedule in the new time zone, even if there are a few unusual wake ups/really early mornings. For irregular wake ups, follow your usual chosen sleep training method, making sure that you keep lights in the middle of the night to an absolute minimum to signal to the pituitary gland that it is still nighttime/sleeping time. It usually takes up to 72 hours to completely re-adjust to the new time zone, so don’t panic! For older children simply tell them that it is still nighttime and time to sleep- don’t allow easy fixes like letting them watch TV, use smartphones or iPads in the middle of the night- all this will do is prolong the time it takes to adjust.
3.) Make your first few days active.
This is especially true for older children. The extra walking/exercise and sensory input will help them be physically tired and they will fall asleep faster at bedtime. Keep an eye out for sleepy cues/signals and start your baby’s bedtime routine as soon as you see those tell-tale signs. Over-tiredness is not what we are aiming for! Make sure that your younger babies aren’t over-stimulated as this can make it harder for them to fall asleep. It is important that you try to keep to their regular daytime nap schedule if you can. (I know it’s not always possible, but do your best)
4.) Make sure vacation sleeping rooms are as familiar as you can make them.
I don’t mean that you should completely redecorate! All you need to do is follow a few simple steps to bring familiarity to a strange place.
Keep the sleeping room as dark as possible. A dark room is a dark room – it doesn’t matter where you are. If you have taught your child to sleep in a dark room with no visual stimulation, it won’t matter too much that the room is different. Make sure you check all the little blinking lights in the room, like alarm clocks etc… you would be surprised at how irritating and distracting your baby/toddler will find these. Hotel rooms can have distinctive smells which may interfere with your baby’s sense of security. Familiar smells will help your baby/child to feel safe and at home, so if you use an essential oil at bath time (which can be a great sleep cue) make sure you use it when you are on vacation. Be sure to keep the temperature of the room the same as it is at home or as close as you can make it. Being too cold or too hot can impact your baby’s sleep more than you realize. The idea is to make the new room seem as much like their room at home as you can reasonably make it.
5.) Try to keep to your baby/toddler’s normal eating habits as much as possible.
One of the most wonderful things about traveling is getting to experience new foods. While you should certainly encourage your children to try new things, don’t go completely overboard. If your toddler is not used to eating a lot of dairy and suddenly they are eating an ice cream every afternoon, they may experience digestive discomfort which can lead to interrupted sleep. Meal times that are more sporadic than usual and include a lot of “vacation foods” ie; foods that are less healthy than you would normally choose, can also lead to interruptions to your baby’s sleep routine. If you are going to be relying on commercially prepared jars or pouches for your baby’s solid foods, make sure that you test them at home and make sure that your baby not only likes them but doesn’t experience any digestive discomfort. Finding out in the middle of the night that your choice of baby food has not agreed with your baby does not make for the most relaxing vacation!
6.) Keep luggage to a minimum.
It sounds obvious, but I have witnessed the logistics and stress of balancing huge amounts of luggage and children cause more meltdowns and fights than I care to mention. There is a tendency to over pack with the “just in case” mentality. The simple truth is this- if you didn’t use it while you were out-and-about this week at home, you aren’t going to use it next week on vacation. Gadgets and gimmicks that promise to make life easier when traveling (with some very few exceptions) are just a waste of space and one extra thing to carry. Do yourself a favor and ditch them!
7.) Take a baby carrier instead of a stroller or pram.
Not only does this help keep your luggage weight and size down, it also keeps your hands free for other tasks like holding hands with other children, taking photos etc… There are some great carriers available for both very small babies and older toddlers. Many options have separate compartments for baby change essentials, snacks, bottles, etc… which eliminates the need to take a diaper/nappy bag on your day trips. You can take baby carriers as carry-on luggage. If you feel you really MUST have a stroller or pram, leave yours at home and rent one at your destination. It really is inexpensive and most companies will meet you at the airport, saving you the headache of traveling with outsized luggage (unfortunately, not every airline will provide you with a gate check option). Another thing to be aware of if you do choose to gate check your own stroller, is that it will take at least ten minutes for it to be delivered to the jetway which can be an uncomfortable wait in very hot or very cold weather- it will also mean that you are last to the customs queue.
**please be aware that if you have a gate checked stroller on arriving at London Heathrow, it will NOT be delivered to the jetway- but to baggage claim. If London Heathrow is not your destination airport, you will have to clear customs, collect your stroller, go through customs and security again, before your next flight. This is a total pain, and if you do not have a long layover, you will not be able to manage it.**
8.) Pack 24-hour’s worth of your baby’s food and changing needs in your carry-on luggage.
Air travel and long distance car journeys can occasionally be unpredictable, and the last thing that you need is to be stranded at an airport or stuck for hours in accident traffic with no diapers/nappies or milk for your baby. A good rule of thumb is to pack what your baby would typically need in a 24-hour period, plus one extra. Be sure to pack each fresh set of baby clothes in a Ziplock bag, that way if you a have a very soiled outfit you can seal it in the bag- helping to eliminate smells and mess inside your change bag. Traveling can have a funny effect on baby’s regular bodily functions and in this instance, the “just in case” mentality is warranted. It is better to be safe than sorry!
9.) Take advantage of disposable bottles.
While you are in transit, if you are not breastfeeding your baby, disposable bottles and tetra pack formula will eliminate the need for sterilizing and messy mixing of powdered milk. You also don’t have to cart around the dirty bottles when you are done, which will prevent nasty smells.
10.) Pack antiseptic wipes.
If you have a crawling baby or a toddler, flights can seem like an eternity if you are trying to keep them constrained. If the seat belt sign is turned off and it’s not meal-time, most airlines are happy to let you and your mobile little one explore up and down the aisles. Be sure to have antiseptic wipes on hand for wiping tiny hands after each exploration. Airlines have strict regulations on the amount of liquids you may take on board, so wipes are a better option.
11.) Know that you can take your baby’s car seat on your flight with you.
Taking a car seat is a great way to establish familiarity cues for your infant/toddler- they will already associate the car seat with traveling and know that it means sitting in one place – it is also especially useful on long-haul flights if your child is used to sleeping in their car seat. If you have paid for your child’s seat you can take your regular car seat on board as long as it is FAA approved (if it’s not, it will not be allowed). You may be met with resistance, but the law is on your side, you have the right to make your child’s travel as safe as possible. If you are worried about an altercation with the flight attendant or the gate staff allowing you to bring your car seat on board, take with you a printed letter that clearly states that your car seat is approved. There are a lot of staff who are well behind the times when it comes to child safety and car seats! Always check with your airline that the seats are wide enough at their narrowest point to accommodate your car seat.
I know you are thinking – “but won’t that mean I have to cart the car seat all around the airport?”. There aren’t many travel gimmicks that I recommend, but the Go-Go Babyz mini Travelmate is a relatively inexpensive, genuinely useful and versatile tool. It basically converts your car seat (or indeed any luggage without wheels) into an easily manageable piece of wheeled luggage. You can also strap your baby into the car seat and wheel them around the airport while you are waiting for your flight. I cannot tell you how useful this tip has been while I have been traveling alone with an infant when simple things like going to the bathroom mid-flight become a juggling act! If you know your infant is safely strapped into their car seat, a trip to the bathroom is fast and stress-free!
12.) Take large empty water bottles on board with you.
Keeping yourself and your little ones hydrated while traveling is important but always a bit of a challenge. This is especially true if you are flying and the restrictions on liquids come into play. Even if you have purchased bottled water after you have gone through security, (depending on the country and the airline) you will not be allowed to take it on board with you. Empty bottles, however, are fine and your flight attendant will happily fill it for you once the seatbelt sign is turned off and service starts. This will help keep spills to a minimum (most airlines serve plastic cups of water) and eliminates the need to constantly call for your flight attendant every time you want a drink of water.