How to get kids to sleep while traveling (no matter what age)

I’ll be honest: we’ve had some insanely sleep deprived family vacations. We followed every parenting book in the…well, book, but when our kids were babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, they struggled to sleep anywhere, no matter what we did. This torture, of course, followed us on any trip we took. Now that our kids are older, we all sleep better, but there are still nights on the road when we need some extra help getting everyone enough rest.

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If you, too, struggle knowing how to get kids to sleep while traveling, this post is for you. I polled family travel experts across the globe, soliciting sleep ideas from everyone with babies to teens. Not every idea will work for every family, but hopefully at least a few of these tips will resonate with you and your crew. Our own Pit Stops for Kids tips are listed first in each category, with tips from other experts below, marked by author and a handy link to each external site.

For parents with babies, toddlers and preschoolers:

Try to keep your child’s nap and bedtime schedule as close to normal as possible. This may mean skipping an afternoon activity or returning early from a tour to respect nap time, or settling kids in bed earlier than you’d like at night. Of course, short trips can survive a less rigid sleep schedule, while longer trips require more planning. Check out this nap guide from Nicole Wiltrout of Arrows Sent Forth. As an alternative viewpoint (parents have many styles!), try Jessica Bowers of Suitcases and Sippycups idea of doing whatever it takes to get kids to sleep, even if it means changing the rules.

Get a suite whenever possible! The good news: more and more hotels offer suites or ‘family’ room configurations than ever before. Having two separate spaces, even if it’s a bedroom and a living area, is immensely helpful when family members have different bedtimes. We often put the kids in the master bedroom and slept on the pull-out couch in the living space, just to ensure four walls and a door around our sleeping kids. Nicole Wears of Traveling Canucks echoes this tip!

Turn off air-conditioners and heating units. In mild seasons, turn off those noisy air conditioner and heater units that kick on and off all night long, waking everyone up. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize I could pull the plug on these and sleep better though the night.

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Use a white noise machine. Cue up white noise on your phone (there are many apps for that), or bring along a travel-sized white noise machine. I know for a fact that my love of white noise machines is shared by Li Ling Pang of Trekaroo and Keryn Means of Walking On Travels!

Black out windows. The darker the room, the more likely it is you will all get more sleep. Robin Hutson of Luxe Recess says, “You can still make the room nice and dark by packing six dark black garbage bags and painters’ tape. Yes, garbage bags! If you tape the garbage bags up to the windows, it will create a serene sleep environment for you and your family. If you forget your garbage bags and tape, you can clip together curtains that won’t shut using the skirt hanger clips from the closet.” See more tips from Luxe Recess.

Break up the day. Marisa Langford of Trekaroo says, “Having four kids spanning from 2-10, we have 2 “fun shifts” on vacation, early and later. We are up early playing pool side or out and about in the new city, but them it’s back to the hotel to nap….and typically everyone naps, including my 10-year-old. We get up and we are back at it. This prevents melt downs from the baby and doesn’t push everyone to the brink of exhaustion. 

Bring comforts of home. Hilarye Fuller of Dotting the Map says, “It really helps my little ones sleep in a new place that is unfamiliar with them if they bring a few comfort items with them that remind them of home such as a blanket, baby doll or stuffed animal.” Corinne McDermott of Have Baby Will Travel takes this idea a step further, and always brings baby’s own sheets from home to acclimate him or her to a new crib.

For parents with school-aged kids:

Consider meditation. Sounds too far out there? I get it. But for our kids, it has worked. Especially if kids listen to meditation CDs or audio at home, they will find the familiar routine soothing. We have recently been introduced to the kid-specific meditations at JoyOhBoy.

Only loosen bedtime rules if kids have time to sleep in. The way we travel, we’re busy during the day, and often getting up at the same time we do for school in our daily life, to meet guides, take tours, or explore. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to extend bedtime for ‘vacation mode’.

Read together before bedtime: I know, that hotel TV has a zillion channels, and the kids haven’t gotten their Nick fix in a long time. But studies have proven that reading before bed instead of watching a screen helps kids relax. Get that required reading for school out of the way and allow the kids to doze off with books in bed. Better yet, read aloud to kids nightly as a family activity.

For parents with teens:

Adjust travel itineraries to allow for sleep-in days. This has been a lesson I’ve learned in the past few years. I’ve adjusted our go-go-go schedule slightly, to allow the kids to sleep in (even just until 8 am) a few mornings. This way, they can take up later at night to enjoy the destination or resort.

Eat healthy. When kids travel, they often eat differently while rules go out the window. Extra sugar, processed foods, and caffeine can affect sleep, as we all know. Stick to your usual diet, or at very least, limit sugar and soda after dinner.

Allow teens some ‘downtime’ with TV. Everyone, including teens, should read right before lights out, instead of looking at a screen, but first, some TV time can ease teens into a less-than-desireable bedtime. Note: if you watch programs via Netflix and you’re traveling outside the U.S., you may need to ‘unlock’ first with a vpn that works with Netflix, so you’re not blocked from viewing internationally.

On jet lag and time zones:

Don’t try to adjust to slight time zone changes. Leslie Harvey of Trips with Tykes says, “On short trips (2-3 days) where you are only changing a few time zones, don’t try to adjust your child to the new time zone. Stay on the time back home to avoid too many changes in such a short period of time. This method works especially well for West Coasters heading East, as you can keep your children up until 9 or 10 pm Eastern time with no problems. Just make sure your hotel has good blackout shades to prevent any early wakeups with the sunrise.

Embrace jet lag when it can’t be helped. Keryn Means of Walking On Travels says, “Embrace the 2 am or 4 am wake ups that come with jet lag, especially when traveling outside of the U.S. Have snacks or breakfast ready at those times so you can get up, have a little breakfast, watch a TV show or play for a little bit. After an hour or so go through your bed time routine again and hope the kids will go back to sleep.

Get sunlight. Becky Morales of Kid World Citizen says, “I really believe in getting outside in the sunlight to reset our natural, circadian rhythms. When it’s not the time zone change, but just the long days of traveling that’s causing stress, I like to get an early-ish start on the day, but then come back to the hotel for a siesta in mid-afternoon. Everyone can rest/read/sleep and then head back out for more sight-seeing and dinners outside enjoying the evenings.

Photo credit: Flickr/Ryan Dickey

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About the author

Pit Stops for Kids

AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly at a number of travel publications, and contributes to OutdoorsNW magazine as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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Comments

  1. I echo almost all of these – sticking to the routine, white noise, suites… – because they worked for us. I also recommend arriving at your destination around dinnertime so everyone has time to settle in. If we arrived late, my kids never went right to sleep, no matter how tired we all were.

  2. These are all great tips!

  3. All great tips! Lack of sleep is my least favorite thing about traveling!

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