Updated: Dec 19, 2020
‘Tis the season for travel and if COVID doesn’t keep you home, I want to be sure the fear of poor vacation sleep doesn’t either!
When Copeland was a baby I remember thinking it would be impossible to travel because there would be no way he could sleep in the car or in any new environment. (I wasn’t completely wrong. He takes terrible car naps.) And in all honesty, as a homebody myself, I wasn’t totally opposed to the idea of never traveling. But, a forever travel-ban isn’t quite plausible.
Alas, there are a few things that have made sleep a blissful reality on vacation and eased my fear of PVS (poor vacation sleep) that I can lump into two categories:
1. Preparations; and
Preparations are all the things.
Lists to write; arrangements to make; items to pack; details to remember.
It can feel so overwhelming that your vacation starts to lose it’s shimmer and you question why in the world you’d even consider traveling with children, let alone actually do it.
Let’s not get there; I got you covered!
Make a list and check it twice (or 3-100 times, like I do and still feel like you forgot something…)
Actually, make multiple lists. Lists within list.
If you’re not a list person - teach me your ways!
Here, I’ll teach you mine:
1. I do a brain dump of all the things floating around in my head about the trip:
when we’ll be leaving,
how long we’ll be en route,
will we be en route during nap time(s)?,
categories of things we’ll need to pack: bathroom stuff, medicines, sleep stuff, etc.
you get the idea.
2. Create the lists!
Once my brain is on the page, I start organizing it a bit and create as many lists as I need. Some lists being what to pack and others being what to do (like finish laundry, spring clean the entire house… you know, stuff everyone does before going on vacation... Right??)
Then, I fill in the details of my “to pack” list categories, including the things that I “for sure won’t forget.” (I will. I will forget them.)
I’ll spare you the many lists and just give you the one you’re here for; the “the stuff I need to take to help my children sleep well on this trip” list.
(Psst! Don’t look now, but at the end of this post I have all the lists you need ready for you to be printed and used over and over again 🤩)
Essentially, take everything you can to recreate your baby or child's sleep environment as best as possible.
This is what you’ll need:
Everything you use during their nap time and bedtime routines:
Shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, diapers, wipes, diaper cream, or underwear, lotion, jammies, sleep sack, lovey/blanket (for kids over 1 year), pillow (for kids over 2 years old), portable sound machine (one that will work for in the car, if necessary. Though, playing a white noise “song” without a fade on your music app works, too! Just put it on repeat.), toddler clock, favorite books.
Pack-n-Play/mini crib & fitted sheet
Blackout solutions: (anything to keep all the light out! Options b-d below go directly on the windows)
SlumberPod! (what we now use and love!!)
Black trash bags and painters tape (done it.)
Tin foil and painters tape (done it.)
Black poster boards and painters tape
A windowless, well-ventilated closet or bathroom
Rolled up towel for under the door. (done it.)
A fitted Twin sheet for around the bedroom door. (done it.)
Let me tell you more about the SlumberPod
Have you heard of a SlumberPod? It is a game. changer!!
It’s a portable, breathable, bottomless blackout tent that fits perfectly over a pack-n-play, mini crib, or a toddler cot. The newest version has not only a pocket to fit a video monitor into, but a mesh pocket at the bottom for a small portable fan that comes with it! We have the original SlumberPod and both of my boys have used it with great success!
We bought ours when I was pregnant with Ford and planning to visit extended family with my parents and my then 2.5 year old, Copeland. I was going to have to share a room with Copeland. I was not sure how that would go. I heard great things about the SlumberPod and even with hesitation, (mostly because my son was 2.5 and had never slept in a tent in a new place 12 hours from home) I bit the bullet and got it a week or so before we went on our trip.
Per the suggestion of the company, we set up the SlumberPod in our living room and kept it in there for the week leading up to our trip so Copeland could get used to it and gain positive associations with it. We played in it often and talked about how he was going to get to sleep in it when we went on our trip.
It worked beautifully!
Our first night at my aunt’s house he fell asleep pretty quickly, but did wake up a bit scared in the night. But, because I was right there with him in the same room, I was able to respond quickly and let him know I was still right there, that he was safe, and he could go back to sleep.
And he did.
And he slept his usual 11ish hours each subsequent night we were there!
He did it again a few months later when we went out of town for my brother’s wedding.
He slept 12 hours each night we were there and didn’t wake in fear once.
The first, and only time (so far), that Ford used it, he took an easy 2-hour nap at my mom’s. Because he was so young, there wasn’t a need to familiarize him with the SlumberPod prior. He just snuggled up like he usually does for his naps and snoozed away.
Such bliss and so freeing!
I’m so big on expectations because I’m naturally inclined to be anxious. Control-freak? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know I like to know what’s going to happen and when and for how long and where - basically, I want to know what to expect.
And so do children.
Children find comfort in knowing what’s to be expected of them. When we’re mindful to keep them in the loop (when we’re able to), they’re not only more comfortable, but more willing and able to “go with the flow”. Probably because they know where the flow is going.
Helping you know what to expect
But before we start helping your child with expectations, I want to help you with yours.
1. Lower sleep expectations on travel days. (Like, really lower them!)
If you have flexible travel time:
Depending on your circumstances, you likely have more flexibility in your timing when driving to your destination.
If that’s the case, try to time your drive so your baby is fed, dry, and ready for a nap when you get on the road. If you have multiple nap schedules to think of, cater to the child that is most affected negatively with a missed nap.
Or, if you can handle it, you can do like we’ve done and drive through the night and the babies and children sleep the whole trip and you’re exhausted the whole next day while your children are rested and ready to do all the things. I don’t highly recommend this option, but some people do well with it. (Kyle and my dad shared responsibility with driving when we’ve done this, thankfully! I don’t trust myself to do that. I have old lady eyes and don’t see well at night and, strangely enough, I get really tired in the middle of the night…)
If you have a set schedule for travel days:
If you’re flying or have set times you need to leave that won’t perfectly align with your child’s schedule. It’s ok!
Though kids love routine and predictability, when the majority of their life is that way, they handle an off day or a few much better than we think they will.
Do what you can to help them get some rest while on the flight or in the car. They may still nap, it just may be at a different time than normal.
Again, it’s ok.
Travel days are survival days.
Do what you gotta do to get to where you’re going without losing your mind.
If you don’t handle off days well, focus on what you can control, no matter how little or insignificant it may seem.
And know, if you have a great sleeper, travel days and vacations may cause a blip on the radar, but it will not ruin their sleep for good.
(if you don't have a great sleeper, join us for group coaching in December or January! Or, if you want a personalized, one-on-one approach, all packages are 50% off right now!! (use code: HalfwayThere!) Not sure, but you want to talk about it? You can schedule a time to talk with me for free here!)
2. Sleep may not be “perfect” like it is at home and that is OK!
Do you sleep well on vacation/anywhere that’s not your bed?
I don’t. And odds are your children don’t either.
That doesn’t mean they won’t sleep, but it does mean the first night especially may be a little rocky as they acclimate to a new bed and a new space.
If your child sleeps in a pack-n-play at home and you can take that with you, even better! One less thing to acclimate to. (I wish I could travel with my bed!)
Here a couple ways to get their vacation sleep as close to perfect as possible:
1. Have their sleep space set up as much like it is at home for nighttime and nap times.
When they slightly rouse through the night (like we all naturally do), odds are they won’t even realize they’re in a new space because it’ll sound and feel like their space at home. (Now, they might be confused when they wake more fully in the morning or if you’re struggling with night-wakings, so be ready to reassure them)
If you’ll be away from their nighttime space during their nap time(s), one option is to bring their sleep setup to wherever you'll be staying for the day.
I’m thinking of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, for example.
Let's say you’re spending the nights at your mom’s house, but Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner is at 2pm at Aunt Barbara’s house. (thanks Aunt Barb for choosing nap time as dinner time… 😉)) Bring the bare necessities (crib, SlumberPod, sleep clothes, sound machine) and find a cool, dark space for them to sleep. Do your usual nap time routine and it’s “nap-nap” Little One.
Or, another couple options if you’re not up to/not able to bring all the things to imaginary Aunt Barbara’s house, but you’re still hoping to get a nap in you can either:
Tweak their schedule a bit by waking them a little earlier in the morning and putting them down for their nap earlier where you’re staying or
Let them get a car nap in on the long way to dinner.
2. Keep their nap time and bedtime routine the same.
These routines cue your child in on what’s ahead and helps their bodies wind down for sleep, so keep them in the mix, even if they’re a slightly expedited version.
Also, they're far easier to bring along than the sleep items! A few small books and the favorite lovey can go in the diaper bag so you don’t forget to take them for nap time, wherever that will be.
Think through the boundaries you want/need to instill on this trip - The 100%-no-backing-down-it’s-gotta-be-this-way (firm) boundaries and the I’d-like-it-this-way-but-fine-if-it-doesn’t-happen (flexible) boundaries.
Most likely, your vacation boundaries will be different from your at-home boundaries. Some of your at-home firm boundaries may become your vacation’s flexible boundaries.
Be as clear as possible with these in your own mind so you can clearly relay them to your child.
3. It’s OK to bend the house rules while you’re away! (Or break them all together if you need/want to! You aren’t at your house after all...)
I don’t want your vacation, your time with your family and friends, to be overwhelmed with worries of getting your children to sleep!
I know this can be a catch-22: If the children don’t sleep well, no one sleeps well. So, for everyone’s sake, we want the children to sleep well. But, yet we don’t want to overly stress about that sleep.
My best advice for this is -
Be prepared; do your best to reproduce your child’s sleep environment from home and keep with their routines and schedule, but when it can’t happen or things don’t go as planned - breathe. Keep trying if your sanity and plans allow. And if all else fails, do whatever you have to to get sleep. Then, when you’re back home, you’re back to the pre-vacation rules, boundaries, and expectations.
You can do it!!
Helping your child know what to expect
1. Start preparing your child a week or so in advance for the trip ahead.
The younger they are, the less this is necessary, but I definitely advocate communicating with even the tiniest of babies.
Babies may not understand what we’re saying, but they understand we’re saying it to them. Plus, starting a habit of communication early on instills a habit worth keeping for a lifetime.
So, for older babies and children, give them as much detail as possible about all that will be going on and keep it factual. (As in “We’re going to Nana’s next week!” and not “You’re going to love going to Nana’s next week!” because maybe they won’t love going; kids are fickle. But you know for certain they are going, so stick to that.) Let them know you’ll be taking their essentials, where they’ll be sleeping, where you’ll be sleeping, and then listen to any fears or concerns or questions they may have.
Keep these conversations on repeat for the week. (If you have a toddler, odds are you won’t need to remember to do this because they’ll be asking all the questions all week long!)
If you have a SlumberPod, set it up now. Even if you’ve used it before; set it up now.
Again, kids are fickle and it’s best to over-prepare.
2. When you get to your destination show them what you’ve been talking about all week.
Show them where they will be sleeping, where you'll be sleeping, where their lovey will be sleeping (if they’re old enough to have one) and where you’re setting up all their stuff - anything they want to know or have had questions or hesitations about.
3. Clearly establish the boundaries and what you expect of them while on vacation (both with sleep and behavior), but be gracious. Know your child’s limits and your own and set expectations accordingly. (This is where knowing your firm boundaries and flexible boundaries comes in handy!)
You can definitely be a little more lax on vacation than you are at home. I recommend it, actually, if it’s a totally unfamiliar place for your child. They may need more reassurance and that’s ok.
It’s ok to let them sleep in your room versus their own, to do multiple checks at bedtime, or even to stay with them until they fall asleep, especially the first night.
But, do your best to make these decisions before bedtime so you can approach that time with confidence.
Your level of confidence will greatly affect your child’s which will affect their ability to fall asleep.
Make as many lists as you need to destress your mind and prepare you for the trip ahead.
Recreate your child’s sleep environment as best as possible while on vacation for their naps and for bedtime.
Buy a SlumberPod or bring along what you’ll need to blackout your child’s sleep space.
Lower your expectations of “perfect sleep”, especially on travel days.
Know your hard-set vacation boundaries and your flexible vacation boundaries, keeping your and your child’s limits and needs in mind.
It’s ok to break the rules from home, it won’t break your good sleeper.
Get back the routines and schedule as soon as you’re back home.
Have Fun!! You are on vacation after all.