Helping Your Child Sleep Anywhere

Imagine this: 3am in a tiny, two-bedroom Seattle apartment. Steve, Grace and I are all sleeping in one bedroom. Our friends Son and Heidi are asleep on their sofa, having graciously given us their bed for the night. Their 2-year old Josh is just a thin wall away from us in the other bedroom. Grace wakes up with a whimper, which is normal as she’s 11 months old at the time and still nursing once in the night. I get her up, feed her, and put her back in her bed expecting her to fall back asleep. Instead her whimpers escalate to inconsolable wails. I try nursing again, rocking, cuddling. Steve tries walking her. Nothing calms her longer than a few minutes. After an hour of fruitless efforts to soothe, Son and Steve decide to take her for a drive. She finally falls back asleep in the car while Steve and Son drive from one end of Seattle to the other for two long hours. Truly Sleepless in Seattle.

In going global we hope our children will sleep peacefully in strange, new environments. After a long plane, train or car trip the whole family is exhausted and no one wants to stay up with a sleepless child. We were truly bewildered that night in Seattle as Grace had never had trouble sleeping before. A few days later we discovered she was teething, which probably paid a large part, but it also made us determined help her adapt to sleeping in new places.

Grace napping in Argentina on a bus, in the Ergo

For us the answer to relatively peaceful transitions to new places has been sleep practice. Yes, practice makes perfect when it comes to taking kids global. From our experience and that of friends with kids, children who practice sleeping regularly in all kinds of environments do better each time they find themselves in yet another new place. On the flipside, kids who rarely venture away from their crib or bed may have a hard time relaxing when faced with something new. This reality is ironic because the temptation is to stay home if your child has a hard time sleeping while traveling. We think the antidote is to keep on going.

Here are a few pointers, some our own, some borrowed from traveling friends:

  • Move it around. Practice sleeping outside the child’s crib or bed on a weekly basis. For us that means naps at Nana’s on Fridays and at a neighbor’s on Wednesdays. If your child is always at home with you, have nap time in the pack n play in a different room once in a while.
  • Have the luvvies but try not to get hooked. A familiar stuffed animal or blanket helps a child feel at home, but addiction to one particular item can mean big trouble if you lose Gerald the Giraffe in an airport. Grace always sleeps with a blankie and/ or multiple stuffed animals, but they’re not always the same ones. Maybe we just got lucky that she didn’t get attached to one, as we weren’t particularly proactive on this one.
  • Use white noise. Any constant, soothing sound drowns out other sounds making unfamiliar night noises a non-issue. A fan, a loud air conditioner, a radio tuned to static or a portable white noise machine all work wonders to drown out disturbing sounds. It’s probably a good idea to use it at home as well as while traveling so your child is used to it. Grace slept, well, like a baby last weekend while camping with the white noise “shushing” right by her head.
  • Keep a regular routine. At least as much as you can. Sometimes on the road you just have to miss a nap or push bedtime back a few hours but if you can, adjust your schedule so naptimes and bedtimes are at similar times to at home. Overtired kids have a hard time settling down at night. You might feel cheated of sightseeing time by going back to the hotel for naps, but the return of a restful night is so worth it.
  • Have an alternate place for your child to nap. If you are going to be out and about when your child wants to sleep, have a carrier (like the Ergo) or a stroller that reclines handy so your child can snooze on the go.

How do you help your kids adjust to sleeping in new places while traveling? Do share!


2 responses to “Helping Your Child Sleep Anywhere

  1. I love your site. very helpful. My son is now 12 but I have traveled around the world with him since he was 1. I have written a new article on travel with kids to Panama on my blog. Please check it out and link to it if you like, it may be helpful to your readers:
    Thanks, Cynthia

  2. Good tips. Here are a couple more tips – we learned both of these the hard way.

    1) We find that Joshua needs some time to get used to a new environment before we can put him to bed. So even if it is past his bedtime/naptime when we arrive in a new location, we stop and take some time to play with him in the new environment and show him where he will be sleeping, well before we start the bedtime routine. So that way, he is not freaked out when we actually put him in his bed.

    2) We didn’t realize that Joshua had gotten attached to one of his stuffed animals, Eli Elephant, until we were traveling (and left it home-oops). We immediately requested a second Eli Elephant from his uncle who had given him the first. Luckily he was young enough that he took to the second elephant. Although we let Joshua have both stuffed Elis with him when he sleeps at home – we only bring one along when we travel – just in case something goes wrong.


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