MS, RDN, CDN
Allison is a registered dietitian who holds a Master’s in Nutrition and Physical Fitness. She also loves helping families get creative with their wellness choices.
Helping your baby achieve a predictable sleep pattern and then helping her 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 her back on track.
While such vacations, holidays and special occasions can wreak havoc on your baby’s sleep (and yours!), keep in mind that these experiences are also often filled with adventure and memories for your family. So follow along with our tips in the What to Do section to be prepared and stay sane.
Plan your travel to align with your baby’s naps or night sleep
This way, your baby’s body will be biologically ready for sleep and she will still get at least some of her regular sleep needs met even if she’s sleeping on-the-go in a car seat, stroller, or carrier.
Bring familiar items from home
If your baby uses a pacifier or lovey to sleep at home, she will likely need these items when traveling outside of her familiar surroundings. Be sure to pack extras!
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 baby normally sleeps from 7:30pm to 6:30am at home, and your destination is an hour ahead, perhaps her sleeping from 8:30pm to 7:30am will work. This way, her internal clock and circadian pattern won’t actually have to adjust because she’ll still be sleeping when she feels it’s time for bed. Remember that nap times will also be off by one hour.
Adjust slowly for longer trips
Shift your child’s circadian pattern slowly so that her body is able to better handle the time difference during longer trips. Changes in 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 baby’s sleep about a week before your trip with bedtime, wake time 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 a full day for every hour you travel away from your regular time zone.
Utilize exposure to light and dark to trick the body
Whenever possible, use blackout shades when you’re trying to help your baby sleep earlier or later. To help your baby 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.
Prepare for seasonal time changes in advance
If you are preparing your baby for an earlier shift, put her to bed in a dark room 15-30 minutes earlier than her normal bedtime. Remember to make the same adjustments for wake up and nap times. Shift another 15-30 minutes earlier again the next day until your baby is fully adjusted. A later shift looks exactly the same, only in reverse.
Maintain elements of your baby’s regular sleep patterns
Even if the setting is different (your baby is in a car seat or on a plane instead of in her crib), try to keep the 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 her overall daily sleep time is maintained.
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 crowds in an airport. Travel with a portable white noise machine or download an app for your mobile device.
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.
Offer quiet times
Even if you can’t fit in a regular nap, do your best to offer some quiet times with very low stimulation. Perhaps you can sneak off for a walk in a stroller or take a short drive to wind down.
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.
Remember to take care of your own sleep needs, too
If your baby’s sleep is disrupted, so is yours. When she naps, you might need to catch a nap, too. Eating and hydrating especially well (for both you and baby!) will also help.