Anyone who’s ever toted a toddler through a busy airport knows that vacations wreak havoc on kids’ sleep patterns. The travel trauma can begin before even reaching your destination, with whining and airplane meltdowns. Upon arrival, unfamiliar surroundings and possibly a new time zone, usher in skipped naps and bedtime drama. Add a chronic case of crankiness that follows you home, and you end up craving another getaway — without the kids.
You don’t have to sacrifice sleep in the name of vacation fun, however. Experts say that with some advance preparation, your kids can stay rested on the road. Helping little ones get the rest they need keeps them happy and at their best for sightseeing, family visits, and everything else on your vacation agenda.
Before you leave: Time-zone tweak
It’s worth adjusting to a new time zone if you’ll be gone for more than a week, says W. Joseph Leuschke, M.D., of the East Alabama Medical Center Sleep Disorders Center.
To do so, Danna Tauber, M.D., recommends beginning the adjustment two to three days in advance. If your travels are taking you east to an earlier time zone, help prepare your child for earlier mornings on the trip. A few days before departure, wake children up 30 minutes earlier than normal in the morning, and adjust naps and bedtimes accordingly, so that their day ends about 30 minutes earlier than normal. The next day, repeat the process, moving wake-up time up by another 30 minutes. When departure day arrives, they’ll be ready to rise and shine.
Pre-trip, you can prepare for a westward travel destination, where your little one will be staying up later than normal, by focusing on bedtime. Several days before departure, push bedtime later by 30 minutes or so. Encourage your child to sleep in by keeping the room dark and quiet in the morning. If your child still wakes at his normal hour, stay with it. Kids’ internal clocks can take a few days to respond to a schedule change. Repeat the process over the next several days, until he’s staying up an hour or two later than normal.
En route: Stay on track
Plan air travel during an infant’s sleep times, says Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the best-selling Happiest Baby on the Block books and DVDs. “The white noise created by the plane’s engines will probably soothe them to sleep, especially if they’ve just had a meal,” he says. He recommends feeding a baby during takeoff (the sucking motion will help normalize ear pressure) and use swaddling to summon sleep.
In some cases, you may not want an older baby or toddler to sleep on the plane. If your trip is on the shorter side and doesn’t fall during a normal sleep time, keeping him awake may make for an easier bedtime at your destination.
On vacation: Smooth landing
Once you reach your destination, help your child adjust to a new time zone with a few schedule tweaks. The key to a smooth time-zone adjustment is to adjust a child’s entire routine, not just his sleep times, says Leuschke. “The things that drive our circadian rhythms are sunlight, activity, and feeding times. So if a child will be napping and going to bed earlier or later than normal, it’s important to also adjust their mealtimes as well.”
Maintain the same sequence of events throughout the day, and a consistent amount of time between sleep times and meals; if your child usually eats lunch an hour before afternoon naptime at home, try to feed him lunch an hour before his adjusted naptime on vacation.
Light helps to regulate the biological clock, and can help children adjust to a new time zone quickly. (Hint: this also applies after you return home.) “It’s helpful to have children participate in outdoor activities during the day and get exposure to sunlight,” says Tauber. For time-zone adjustment, children should get sunlight exposure in the morning when traveling eastward and sunlight exposure in the afternoon when traveling westward, she notes.
For easier sleep on vacation, don’t forget to prep kids’ sleep environment. Tauber recommends keeping kids’ bedrooms cool, dark, and free from distractions including televisions and computers. Hotel rooms are often bright; inexpensive flat sheets in dark colors can serve as portable, temporary window shades. Travel with a small white-noise machine or a digital recording to block out unfamiliar, noisy surroundings.
With a bit of advance preparation, you can help ensure a restful, enjoyable vacation for the entire clan. Bon voyage!
— Malia Jacobson is a nationally published sleep and health journalist and author of Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.