Sleep Challenges in Babies and Toddlers: Adjusting to Traveling, Seasonal, and Holiday Time Changes

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Read time: 5 minutes

What to know about helping your child get sleep well during travel or a time change

  • Getting good sleep most of the time is important for your child’s growth and development

  • 11 tips to help your child adjust to a time change

Helping your child achieve a predictable sleep pattern and then helping them maintain it is no easy feat. And just when you think you both have the whole sleep thing figured out, you’re bound to experience disruptions to your schedule, not to mention changes due to growth and development.

Whether it’s travel, a special occasion, holiday, or time change, the key to navigating through these inevitable sleep challenges is to expect some element of disruption in your baby’s sleep, and to have a plan in place, including how to get your child back on track.

While such vacations, holidays, and special occasions can wreak havoc on your child’s sleep (and yours!), keep in mind that these experiences are also often filled with adventure and memories for your family. Read on for tips on how to be prepared.

Why is sleep important for babies and toddlers?

Sleep is foundational for a child’s developing brain. Their ability to learn – from motor skills to vocabulary to memory – is all dependent on getting enough quality sleep consistently.1

While short-term sleep disturbances may not make a profound long-term impact on your little one’s health and learning abilities, it could very well impact their (and your!) everyday life. Losing sleep may affect your child’s daytime behavior, causing crankiness and difficulty concentrating.2,3,4

Learn more: Setting up a Safe Sleep Environment

11 Tips to help your child adjust to a time change

1. Plan your travel to align with your child’s naps or night sleep

This way, your child’s body will be biologically ready for sleep. This will help ensure your child still gets at least some of their regular sleep needs met, even if they’re sleeping on-the-go in a car seat, stroller, or carrier.

2. Bring familiar items from home

If your child uses a pacifier or lovey to sleep at home, they will likely need these special items when traveling outside of their familiar surroundings. Be sure to pack extras!

Bring anything you need to help keep your child’s bedtime routine as close to normal as possible. This may include sound machines, special night lights, cherished stuffed animals, or favorite books.

Read more: How do I Create a Bedtime Routine for my Infant and Toddler?

3. Don’t change a thing for short trips with small time changes

If you’re traveling to a place with only an hour or two time difference for just a few days, consider not making any changes at all.

For example, if your child normally sleeps from 7:30pm to 6:30am at home, and your destination is an hour ahead, perhaps sleeping from 8:30pm to 7:30am will work. This way, your little one’s internal clock and circadian pattern won’t actually have to adjust because they’ll still be sleeping when they feel it’s time for bed.

Remember that nap times will also be off by one hour as well.

4. Adjust slowly for longer trips

Shift your child’s circadian pattern slowly so that their body is able to better handle the time difference during longer trips. Changes in 15- to 30-minute increments are best, and you can even begin adjusting before you leave.

For example, if you’re traveling from New York to California (a 3-hour time difference), begin shifting your child’s sleep about a week before your trip by making bedtime, waketime, and naps 30 minutes later each day.

You probably already know from your own experience that the farther out of your time zone you travel, the more difficult it is for the body to adjust. A good rule of thumb is that it will take about one full day for every hour you travel away from your regular time zone.5 But for some adults and children, the symptoms of jet lag may last longer or shorter.6

Learn about:

What are Typical Sleep Patterns for 4 to 12 Month Old Babies?

What are Typical Sleep Patterns for Toddlers?

5. Utilize exposure to light and dark to trick the body

Sunlight and darkness have a powerful impact on our body’s circadian rhythm.7 Use this to your advantage!

Whenever possible, use blackout shades when you’re trying to help your child sleep earlier or later. To help your little one rise and shine in a new time zone, open the shades and let the light in to show your baby it’s time to wake up.

Read about:

How Can I Help my Baby (4-12 Months) Sleep Well at Night?

How Can I Help my Toddler Sleep Well at Night?

6. Prepare for seasonal time changes in advance

If you are preparing your baby for an earlier time shift, put them to bed in a dark room 15 to 30 minutes earlier than their normal bedtime. Shift another 15 to 30 minutes earlier again on following days until your child is fully adjusted.

A later shift looks the same, only in reverse.

Remember to make the same adjustments for wake up and nap times.

7. Maintain elements of your child’s regular sleep patterns and bedtime routine

Even if the setting is different (your child is in a car seat, on a plane, or in a guest room portable crib), try to keep their regular bedtime routine and timing for sleep regular.

If a special occasion falls during your baby’s regular sleep time, try to fit in an extra nap earlier in the day so that their overall total sleep time is maintained.

8. Utilize white noise

White noise can help your baby settle into sleep on-the-go by drowning out the loud chatter of guests at a party or extended family’s home. Consider traveling with a portable white noise machine or download an app for your mobile device.

Be aware, however, that some of these sleep machines produce sounds that are a higher noise level (decibel) than what is safe for your child’s sensitive ears.8 To keep your little one safe, keep the sound machine on a low setting and place it at least 6 feet (200cm) away from where they are sleeping.8

9. Keep your expectations realistic

Having realistic expectations about how your baby may respond to an irregular day (or days) will help everyone take the disruptions in stride.

10. Offer quiet times

Even if you can’t fit in a regular nap, do your best to offer your child some quiet times with very low stimulation. Perhaps you can sneak off for a walk with your child in a stroller or take a short drive to help wind down.

11. Return to your regular routine as soon as possible

The more consistent you are with offering sleep at regular times when you return home, the faster your baby will re-adjust.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

How to Manage Your Tot’s Early Morning Wake Ups

Sleep Patterns: What’s Typical for a Toddler?

When Should Your Child Stop Taking Naps?

How do I Transition my Child to a New Nap Time?

What are Sleep Regressions?

How can I Drop my Baby’s Night Feedings?