How Can I Help My Baby, Toddler, or Child Sleep When Traveling?

Baby sleeping on an airplane in a bassinet or car seat shows how to help babies or toddlers sleep when traveling.

October 11, 2023

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Can My Child Really Sleep (And Be Happy) When Traveling?

Travel doesn’t have to derail your child’s good sleep habits. With careful planning, your time away from home will be smooth and restful (or as much as it can be with a little one in tow!) Yes, your baby, toddler, or child really can sleep when traveling. 

Stay Consistent As Much As Possible

It can be tricky to travel with babies and young children. Friends and family often have no idea how hard you’ve worked to get your child to sleep through the night. They weren’t there for early morning waking, nap struggles, or endless night waking.

When you visit friends or family or go on a family vacation, there’s always something exciting to do or see. Often, it’s tempting to skip a nap or let bedtime fall an hour or two later. Babies and young children can become “wired,” giddy, and hyper when they stay up late, which is a sign of overtiredness. Their hyper state may make it easy to keep them awake, but it can make for more crying, struggle, or night waking later on. 

Maintain The Schedule When You Can

When we’re en route, we sometimes can’t avoid a missed nap or late bedtime. But when the schedule is more in your control, do your best to stay on track. Keep a similar bedtime routine to the one you have at home, and keep your child’s schedule the same. When everything else has changed, this will help your baby or toddler sleep and feel better.

Airplane Travel: How Can I Help My Child Sleep (And Be Happy) On A Plane?

Taking your child on their first flight can be a scary experience for parents. There’s a reason why memes like this are popular! (And I totally get it if you’re not laughing right now). Popular meme showing fear in passengers faces as a baby or toddler boards an airplane because everyone is afraid the baby will cry the entire flight. With a little planning and strategy, your baby or toddler can sleep better when traveling on a plane.

Traveling on a plane with babies and toddlers can be tough. With a little luck and planning, you may find that your baby or toddler will sleep and be happy when traveling throughout the airport and on the plane.

Lap Infant or Car Seat?

Car Seats for Safety and Comfort

Babies under two years old can travel as lap infants. But I’ve found that it’s easier on both mom and baby to book an extra seat when possible. According to the FAA and AAP, a car seat is the safest way for a baby to travel in a plane. Make sure that you have an FAA-approved car seat. Look for a sticker on the car seat or check the manufacturer’s website to see if it’s FAA-approved. Make sure you know where to find the approval because you may need to show proof.

Car Seats For Older Babies and Toddlers

Using a car seat can make babies and toddlers feel like they’re traveling in a car. You’ll have your hands free, which goes a long way on a plane. As your child becomes more alert and curious, it gets harder to hold them on your lap during the flight. They want to get onto the dirty plane floor and touch everything.

Helping Your Lap Infant Sleep

If your child is traveling as a lap infant, that’s okay, too. If it’s nap time or nighttime for your child, do whatever you need to do to get your child to sleep. Feed to sleep if you feel that it will work. When you land, get right back on track and don’t feed to sleep anymore. Being on an airplane is such a vastly different experience than anywhere else that babies and toddlers usually bounce back to independent sleep without issue when they are on the ground.

When your child is traveling as a lap infant on the plane, do your best to ensure your own comfort and your child's comfort too. There are no

Getting Comfortable With Your Lap Infant

If you do have any problems with extended crying when you’re on the ground, stay consistent. Don’t revert to feeding to sleep “on the ground” if your child has been self-soothing and going to sleep on their own. When you are in the air, do what you need to do. This is the one time when there are no “sleep rules.” Feed, shush, and gently sway side-to-side in your seat if you feel like it will work. Gently rock and pat if you need to. Don’t worry about anyone around you; do what you need to do.

Darkening Shade for Car Seat

Your child might stay awake longer than usual, but it can help them fall asleep faster on the plane. Please don’t worry about overtiredness from a slightly longer wake window. If your child sleeps well at night, they won’t be at risk of “overtiredness” if they nap a little later than usual. If you have a darkening shade for their car seat, you can put your child in the seat with their lovey. Then, pull the shade over the seat. Portable white noise can help block out all the exciting outside sounds.

If you want a black-out shade, get one with good ventilation. I trust the Snoozeshade. This product is safe for babies and young children who put things in their mouths. Doctors recommend it for newborns and older kids alike. Snoozeshades don’t have any toggles, straps, buttons, etc., that could cause harm.

A car seat is the safest and preferred option for traveling on planes, according to the FAA and AAP, and it can help babies and toddlers sleep better because it mimics car travel. It's even better if you have a darkening shade for the car seat and portable white noise.

Hands-Free Wake Windows

Car seats come in handy during wake windows, too. You’ll have your hands free, which goes a long way on a plane. You’ll be able to reach for those snacks, treats, and baby toys to keep your baby occupied and content.

What To Bring On The Plane

Babies can easily eat snacks such as puffs, yogurt melts, and pouches while traveling. Toddlers can enjoy snacks like pretzels, goldfish, veggie straws, and string cheese. Breastfeeding moms, remember to drink enough water and pack snacks for lasting energy. Bring an empty 360 cup, sippy cup, or water bottle if your child is old enough to drink water. Fill it up after getting through TSA.

Don’t forget to check the TSA rules and your airline’s site for what you can bring. Before my first flight with my baby, I found out I could bring an extra bag. I brought a small cooler for my baby’s milk and food. You can carry anything you need to feed your baby if you keep it in a separate bag and let TSA know what it’s for. That includes breast milk (fresh or frozen), a breast pump, ice packs, formula, and purified water.

Flying with Toddlers and Preschoolers

Flying is hard for young children because they can’t sit still for long. Naps may or may not happen. The best thing you can do is set up an environment conducive to napping. Consider starting the nap later than usual. Bring noise-canceling headphones or portable white noise.

Traveling on a plane with young children often means lost sleep for everyone, but with careful planning, you can help make your child comfortable enough to sleep on the plane.

If the nap isn’t happening, the best thing you can do is provide a time for your child to relax their mind and body. Screen time helps. If there’s ever a time to let go of strict screen time rules, it’s during travel, especially when you’re on a plane. Make sure the device is fully charged and ready. Bring your chargers and children’s headphones. Pre-load your child’s favorite shows and videos.

A new toy can go a long way toward keeping your child happy and engaged on the plane. Look for toys that they can play with, like art supplies or sticker books. Make sure they don’t have small pieces that can roll away.

Stroller in the Airport, or Carrier, or Both?

I personally think a stroller is essential, even in small airports. Carrying a diaper backpack, cooler, and another bag is difficult. It’s even harder with a baby. You can use your stroller to carry all your bags and your baby. While I have taken my comfort stroller, travel is much easier with a smaller stroller. I recommend switching out the big stroller for a smaller travel stroller.

If you’re like me, you’ve bought and tried several strollers. I looked all over. I wanted to find one that had all the features I wanted. I wanted one that would lie flat so my child could nap. I wanted to be able to use it when my child was a toddler or preschooler. I wanted a big enough basket under the seat. I wanted compartments behind the seat to hold my phone and things. I wanted cup holders for both me and my child. I wanted it to last through huge airports and Disney. And I wanted it to fold up and be compact instead of long. I wanted to be able to fold it with one hand. And I wanted it to have an extendable leg rest or foot rest.

The BABYZEN YOYO2 is one travel stroller that I love so much. It doesn’t quite recline flat, and this is the only drawback for me. When my child was an older baby, he could sleep without lying completely flat, but I still wanted that option.

I loved how easy it was to fold up. If you order from BABYZEN, you can get free shipping. You can also get it on Amazon with free shipping if you’re a Prime member.

I love the promo video for the YOYO2. I love how the mom can fold this thing up in less than a second. She can fling it over her shoulder and run up the stairs while carrying her toddler in her other arm. Impressive, right? I watched it again and thought, where’s her diaper bag and all her other things? It would take her a few minutes to take everything out of the stroller and put it on her back. Still, it’s a pretty nifty stroller.

I was slower, but I still figured out how to fold it. Instead of one second, it took about five seconds. Not bad, right? I admit I was a little frustrated at first, but user error has been a thing for me with baby gear. The BABYZEN YOYO2 is sleek, beautiful, and ticks all the boxes, except it doesn’t lie flat. Some of you may say that your baby sleeps better when sitting up anyway. According to the AAP, babies should lie flat when they sleep. They say it’s also fine for them to take naps in strollers and car seats as long as we can watch them and be sure they are okay.

The Silver Cross Jet 3 hands-down is my favorite option because it reclines flat, and you can easily carry it on the plane with you. It’s TSA-approved for overhead bins. I thought this one was so easy to fold up, and it has a neat little bag. If you’ve ever waited a long time at Gate Check with other stressed-out parents, this is the travel stroller for you. It has all the features I needed and more conveniences that I didn’t realize I wanted!

It’s one of the only lightweight strollers that can be used from birth to 55 lbs. You can use it from the start of your baby’s life with no extras needed. And it has an adjustable footrest. Your child can go from a full recline during nap time to sitting up comfortably at snack time.

A lightweight, packable umbrella stroller that travels well and lies flat can help your baby or toddler sleep better on the go and when traveling away from home.

Naps On The Go in a Packable Carrier

This brings me to the next point about why a baby carrier is nice to have, too. You may get to your gate at nap time but have a delay, and it can be great to have the option of a carrier or a stroller. The Ergobaby Omni Breeze is my top pick for traveling because it grows with your child, it’s made of breathable mesh, and is so comfortable. It’s not too bulky to fit in my diaper backpack, so I could take it anywhere and be hands-free if I needed to.

You can use the Ergo to walk around the airport with your child and help them take a nap. You can use a stroller to walk around with your child. I’ve tried both. As my child grew older, it wasn’t always easy to get an airport nap to happen. There were so many exciting things to look at. But sometimes, it did happen, and I’m glad I had both options.

One option for naps on the go when traveling is to use a carrier like the Ergo.

Best Time To Fly

Try to either book a morning flight or schedule flights around your child’s sleep times, if possible. If you book a morning flight, there’s a greater chance your child will fall asleep. Children have greater sleep readiness in the morning. Still, they will be okay if you can’t book an early flight. If your child doesn’t sleep on the plane, they’ll be more likely to sleep later when their environment is calm.

Let Your Child Know What To Expect

Talking with your toddler or young child about all aspects of travel, from ticketing to baggage check, to etiquette on the plane can help your flight be more smooth.

Kids do so much better when they know what to expect. YouTube videos cover all aspects of flying. There are videos about TSA, baggage checks, ticketing, and onboard etiquette. You can watch these together and discuss how everyone must follow the flight rules.

Car Travel: How Can I Help My Child Sleep (And Be Happy) On Road Trips?

Schedule Car Travel Around Naps

Families usually find that road trips are a little bit easier than flying. You can schedule these in various ways to benefit your child’s sleep. I’ve known families to darken their child’s sleep area in the car so they can have good naps while traveling.

Start Driving Before Their First Nap

The first nap of the day is the most restful and restorative. If possible, you could prepare everything for your road trip, put your child in the car for this nap, and drive. Let your child fall asleep on their own in the car.

Help Prevent Short Car Naps

If they take a short nap, it’s most likely because they are accustomed to napping in their crib in the morning. Know that they are still tired, and trust that they’ll be able to go back to sleep. If you worry your child might take a short nap, consider getting a dark shade for the car or car seat. This will help your child block out the world around them and go back to sleep more easily.

A darkening shade over your baby or toddlers car seat can help them sleep better during road trips, on the go, and anytime you are traveling in the car.

Also, consider sitting in the front seat during your child’s nap. If you sit next to them in the back seat, they may get distracted and excited when they see you. After a short nap, it will be difficult for them to go back to sleep.

Follow Wake Windows

Once they’ve napped, keep them alert for their wake window. Now is an excellent time to sit in the back seat with your child and engage them as much as possible. Keep them alert. In the car seat, they can’t move much, but try playing with them to keep them awake. Then, start another nap at the usual time.

Again, this is where a darkening shade can come in handy because it can signal nap time. If you don’t have a darkening shade, that’s okay, too. If they are awake and alert during their wake window, they usually still fall asleep in the car at nap time. This nap may be shorter, especially if they’ve been still and “resting” while riding.

What If They Don’t Sleep In The Car At All or Sleep Too Much?

If your child sleeps too much in the car or doesn’t sleep at all, you can adjust their bedtime. If you do an earlier bedtime, and your child doesn’t fall asleep within thirty minutes, get them up and wait. Don’t do another bedtime routine, books, feeding, etc. Just keep them up longer. They might have trouble falling asleep because they “rested” in the car during the long ride. They didn’t really nap or go into deep sleep, but they were resting all day.

They had very little physical and mental activity. They might be tired, but not the kind of tiredness that comes from a full day outside the car. If they slept too much in the car, do a much later bedtime. If they can’t fall asleep in thirty minutes, follow the advice above. Wake them up and try again in thirty minutes.

Get Back On Track the Next Day

They may go to sleep later than usual and still wake at their usual time in the morning. They may also have night waking. This means they will have less nighttime sleep than they’re used to. Get back on track the next day with naps. Don’t let them sleep longer and longer for naps that next day, even if it’s tempting. Your sleep-trained baby — your baby with excellent sleep skills — will bounce back in no time.

Let Them Sleep Longer At Night, Not For Naps

You can always do an earlier bedtime and let your child sleep later in the morning if they want to. It’s better to avoid letting your child sleep too much during the day. This can cause a cycle of short nights and bedtime struggles. Also, don’t worry too much about overtiredness at this stage. Your baby may feel tired indeed. You may feel like you’re pushing them against their comfort zone. But, if you limit their daytime sleep in situations like this, it can improve their sleep. It can prevent night waking and bedtime crying in the future.

Overnight driving

Some families want to drive all night while their child sleeps in a car seat or booster seat for the night. I don’t recommend it, but I don’t want to tell you to stop doing something if you feel it works for you. I’ve known families to travel overnight with their newborn or younger baby successfully. Before babies can roll in both directions and crawl, they are easier to put in a car seat overnight.

Eventually, like us, they want to move. I always say that movement is a considerable part of sleep. Older babies and children don’t want to be forced to stay in one position for eleven or twelve hours. Like us, they want to be able to turn on their sides and bellies and sleep in different positions. Babies often wake up and cry because they want to move. If they can’t move while sleeping, they are more likely to wake up fully.

Where’s The Best Place For My Child To Sleep When We Travel?

Some families book vacation rentals with separate rooms for their children. Many families travel to see their extended family, and they have multiple options. The best option is to let your child continue having their own room if they’re used to that at home. If they’re used to room-sharing, try replicating their home environment.

Room-sharing When Your Child Isn’t Used To It

If you have to share a room when you’re child isn’t used to it, it can be more difficult. I’ve known families to be creative about this. I’ve seen families find success when they put portable cribs in a closet. I’ve also known families to put the crib in the bathroom. Some families stay in rentals or suites that have a separate room. It may be something as simple as a living room and bedroom. Parents can put their children to bed in the bedroom and stay awake longer in the living room.

What If I Am Room-Sharing With My Child When Traveling? 

Give Them The “Feel” of Their Own Space

If they see you at night, they can become so excited that you’re nearby. If they’re used to having their own space, your presence in the room can overexcite them, making it hard to sleep. But you can set up the room environment to give them the “feel” of their own space, even if you are room-sharing. I recommend setting up the room in the best possible way to help your child sleep. You can use temporary blackout shades AND a darkening tent, like a Slumberpod. You can also use a good white noise to drown out your occasional rustling, snoring, or coughs in the night.

Remember, the early morning hours are especially vulnerable for sleep — for everyone. Sleep is lighter at that time. Sleep cycles are shorter, and we’re all in REM sleep more often in the early morning. The best thing we can do if we have to room share when traveling is to make sure our child can’t see us. And use appropriate white noise so that if we rustle or make a sound, our child is less likely to hear it.

Explain Bed-Sharing To Your Older Child

When you have to share a bed with your older child while traveling, let them know it’s only temporary. Let them know you’ll sleep separately at home. When sharing a bed, allow your child their own space to sleep. Some children adjust more easily to this upon arriving back home than others. You may know if your child is the type to want to be in your bed after coming back home. To help prevent this, parents can take turns with each other. Instead of having the child sleep only with the mom when traveling, parents can switch off nights.

How To Get Back On Track At Home

If that’s not possible, it’s still okay, and your child can still adjust when you get back home. Be sure to communicate with them about what’s expected of them when you’re back home. And stay strong when you go back home. If your child tries to get in your bed at night, either walk them back or have them walk back on their own.

Don’t tuck them back in with hugs and kisses every time you walk them back. This isn’t meant to be cruel, but we don’t want to reward them for getting out of bed every time. It’s best to walk them to the door of their room with no negotiating or discussing. Tell them they can’t get in your bed, and you can’t get in theirs. And again, stay strong!

Where Should My Baby or Toddler Sleep When We Travel?

For a baby, always use a crib, travel crib, or a pack-n-play. If your child is too big for a pack-n-play, you can use a small mattress made for toddlers or a child’s air mattress. I highly recommend using a Slumberpod with your toddler or preschooler when traveling. The Slumberpod fits small cribs, playards, and travel cribs. It also fits certain toddler beds or air mattresses. It will give you more time in the pack-n-play because it will keep your child from climbing out of it. And it will keep your child from walking off (or rolling off) the travel mattress or air mattress.

What To Bring When Traveling with Babies, Toddlers, or Older Children

Pack any familiar items that your child associates with sleep. For babies, bring their sleep sack and lovey (if applicable). For toddlers and older children, bring a favorite blanket and stuffie or lovey. Don’t forget portable white noise. You can also use a white noise app on your phone.

Do “Travel Practice Nights” at Home

You can also do some “trial run nights” with the pack-n-play or travel mattress at home before you leave to go out of town. Make sure to bring the crib sheet, pillow, stuffed animals, and blanket you used at home. Familiar smells and items can make the new environment feel more like home, aiding sleep.

If you have a Hatch Baby Rest clock or Toddler Clock, remember to bring it for your child. It helps them know when it is morning. You can also bring your bedtime routine chart and/or sleep rules chart if you think that might help your child.

How To Help My Child Take Naps When Traveling

Do the First Nap of the Day at your Home Base

Most children sleep better lying on a flat surface, in a dark, cool, quiet room. So, do at least some naps where you’re staying. The first nap of the day is the most restful and restorative. I recommend doing this nap in your child’s crib or travel crib. If your child is more adaptable, you can do more naps on the go. The second or third naps are usually shorter. Children handle these better in a stroller, carrier, or car seat.

Here’s one possibility that always worked well for me and other families too. Do the first nap where you’re staying. Have everything packed and ready to go when your child wakes. When your child wakes, do a quick feed and then head out exploring. Keep your child awake and alert while you’re out and about, but if they fall asleep earlier in a stroller or car, it’s okay. If they’ve stayed awake for the entire wake window, that’s great! Try to pay attention to feed times, and when it’s time for your child’s next nap times, use a stroller, car seat, or carrier. Don’t forget the AAP recommends that you always watch your baby when using an alternative to a crib.

How can I help my child sleep when traveling to different time zones?

One or Two Time Zones Away

If you’re traveling within one or two hours of your home time zone, you can stick to your home time zone. This way, you won’t need to make any changes when you come back home. Some babies and small children adjust to the new time zone before we know it! If this is the case, go with it. And know that they’ll adjust back when you get back home.

More than a few time zones away

Babies and children adapt faster than grown-ups because they don’t have a sleep debt. We’re often chronically tired! Even if our children are sleeping, we’re usually busy and could use some extra sleep. So, if it’s any consolation, babies and children typically do much better than we do. Nonetheless, here are some things we can do for them and us.

Get ready:

Change your child’s sleep schedule a few days before your trip to match the new time zone.

Stay Hydrated: 

Keep your child hydrated. Offer milk, water or other drinks before, during, and after.

Sleep on the plane: 

If it’s nighttime at your destination, try to sleep and help your child sleep on the plane.

Sunlight Exposure: 

Upon arrival, spend time in natural daylight. Exposure to sunlight can help reset your body’s internal clock.

Stay Active: 

Engage in light physical activity after your arrival. Getting out to a park and letting your toddler or preschooler run and play is helpful. It’s also helpful to let your baby crawl, move, and explore outside on their first day.

Limit Daytime Sleep:

Babies and children will often be exhausted, just like adults. It’s tempting to let them sleep a lot on the first day, but the same advice given to adults applies to children. As adults, we are told to stay awake until the local bedtime. However, it’s tempting to let our children sleep all day upon arrival. Especially if it makes them less cranky. But too much daytime sleep will make them wake up at night. Ensure naps stay on track, even if that means waking them from naps the first day and having a cranky baby.

Melatonin Supplements:

Doctors may suggest them for temporary situations, such as jet lag. Consult a doctor before giving melatonin supplements to your child. Doctors may suggest giving toddlers and children 0.5 mg or 1 mg of melatonin. This can help them adjust to a big time zone change. If your child is having trouble with time zone changes and jet lag, you can ask your doctor if melatonin might help.

Stay Awake:

Keep your child awake after their nap until their next naptime and local bedtime. This can help them sync with the new time zone faster. This will help you avoid a split night. A split night is when your child wakes up at night for at least an hour.

Stay Flexible: 

Be patient. Adjusting may take a few days. Try to schedule the big activities only after you’ve been there a few days.

Kim Rogers, M.A.

Kim Rogers, M.A.

Hi, I’m Kim Rogers, pediatric sleep consultant, parent coach, maternal mental health advocate, and child mental health advocate. I waited a long time to become a mom, and I’m so glad I took that leap. Looking back at the hard times alone, it’s worth it for the love we have. I started this website to share helpful information that was so hard to find when I needed it. I mainly focus on sleep, but other things as well. No judgement zone here. This is my attempt at creating a village for those who need it like I did.

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