How to Vacation with Your Baby or Toddler, Without Messing Up Their Sleep

Winter is almost over which means that summer vacation season will be here before you know it!

If you’re thinking about booking a trip away (or getting ready to take one final winter one), you’ve probably also been wondering how to take a successful family vacation without messing up your young child’s sleep pattern.

This is a common question I get this time of year, so here are some tips to consider when you plan your vacation with babies and toddlers joining you.

Vacation With A Baby and Toddler Go Better With Sleep

This seems like an obvious statement, right? But, many times in their haste to pack #allthethings, arrange accommodations and map out routes, parents miss this important detail.

If your baby or toddler is caught up on their sleep before you even leave, it makes travelling, and the vacation in general, much smoother. 

This means in the two to three weeks leading up to the trip, be strict about your baby or toddler’s sleep routine.

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Keep bedtime on the early side, especially if they have a sleep debt, and have very regularly scheduled naps that don’t widely fluctuate in starting time, each day.

Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule in the weeks leading up to the trip will not only make the travel day easier, but help your little one adjust to the inevitable routine changes while on the trip.

Travel Mode

By air or by land? That is the question.

Vacation travel with a baby or toddler presents different sleep challenges, depending on the mode of transportation.

Which is going to be easier for you and your child and what do you need to plan on doing for travel option?

How will you factor their sleep needs into the travel day?

Obviously, the distance to your vacation will play a big part in this decision. Just make sure you’re prepared for the demands of each travel option.

Travel By Air

If you’re planning to get to your vacation spot via air, then getting a baby to sleep on the way there usually helps the rest of the day go smoother.

For those little ones that will easily nap on the go, try to pick a flight that departs in the morning. This way, by the time you board, your baby will have accrued enough wake time, to nap during the flight.

The morning nap is also the easiest nap for a child to achieve on the go, so consider this when booking. And at this age, we use whatever works the best to achieve the nap. Whether that be in a car seat, holding in your arms or a sling. A well-rested baby is the priority.

Extra Tip: If your little one is breastfeeding, nursing them during take off and landing can help their ears quickly adjust to the pressure changes.

For toddlers and preschoolers on one nap, you have more options as there are larger chunks in the day without rest periods. However, usually, we have more time in the morning before the mid-day nap.

Keep in mind that there is a higher chance that your toddler may not sleep on the plane. Therefore, bring a lot of back up activities to keep them occupied if you will be flying over their regular nap time.

If you have options with flight times, also consider other factors;  travel time to the airport, the wait time before the flight, the flight time itself and then the time to get to your vacation accommodation.

Will there be enough time for your child to get some good rest between all the commotion?

No matter what time you are departing, there will always be pros and cons. Do the best you can with the options available. It will be ok!

Travel By Car

But what about car travel? Let’s look at babies under 12 months first.

How do we manage our baby sleep schedule while traveling to our vacation destination in a vehicle?

If you choose to travel by car and your baby tends to take short naps on the go, I would recommend leaving after they’ve had their morning nap. This should help you get off on your travels with a good start to the day.

If the car ride is only a couple of hours, baby should be able to nap well, when they need to in keeping with their usual routine. Driving gives you a lot more control compared to flying. You can stop when you need to, and you don’t have to worry about the noise and distractions from busy airports and flights.

For toddlers, they may still easily fall asleep in the car around their regular nap time. However, it is likely the nap will be shorter than usual. If this happens, don’t panic. Move bedtime up earlier that day if you can.

Depending on your car or van, sometimes parents can use portable blackout blinds on the side windows to block the mid-day sun. It won’t be perfect (after all, as the driver you still need to see!), but it may help cut down a little on the light.

Extra Tip: If your child sleeps with white noise at home, bringing a portable sound machine or downloading white noise tracks on your phone, can be a great soothing aid for naps on the go.

Whether by plane or car, with a little extra planning, your baby or toddler will still be able to get some sleep.

Vacation and Baby Sleep and Time Zones, Oh My!

One of the most asked questions I get when clients are looking at traveling with their kids is; “how do I adjust their sleep schedule to the new time zone?”

My tip for the travel day and day after arrival is to just survive.

Don’t book any outings, or schedule any events. Everyone will be tired, and if there is a large time change, the whole family will need some time to reset their internal clocks.

Although a vacation is great, the reality is that a baby or toddler will need time to adjust to a new sleep schedule.

Use this day to unpack, explore the new accommodations and allow your child to nap as needed.

Depending on how far you’ve had to travel and how long the journey took you, it might be easier to simply stay on your regular time zone and schedule for the first day, if not the entire vacation. Sometimes, an hour or two isn’t worth fighting over.

If staying on your old time zone and schedule isn’t an option, adapt to the new local time as quickly as possible. I recommend getting out in the morning sun as this resets the internal circadian rhythms.

If you know that there will be a significant change in time zones, you can start to adjust your child’s schedule 15 minutes at a time, 1-2 weeks in advance. However this isn’t strictly necessary.

Usually you can get away with just jumping into the new local time. I would say that this is the best, and easiest, option. The sunlight and darkness will help your child to adjust naturally and prolonging the adjustment is no fun for anyone.

Location, Location, Location

The next most asked question?

“Where should my baby or toddler sleep while on vacation?”

Luckily, there are a variety of options for sleeping arrangements when you travel. My vote will be to always have little ones in their own separate space. In this instances, renting houses, condos, or cabins are great options for a ton of space and large families.

If staying in a hotel room, one option is to select suites that have separate kids spaces. Often these are billed as Kids’ Theme Rooms and provide a somewhat, if not completely separate, sleeping area.

Another option for larger families is to book adjoining rooms. Each parent can sleep in one room and depending on the age of the children, the youngest can be still be in a Pack and Play beside mom if nursing.

But what about those families that aren’t large, and/or don’t want to spend the extra money for separate sleeping areas?  Never fear, there are a variety of choices as well.

Rooms that come with a king-sized bed and pull out couches are good options for a variety of situations; especially toddlers and preschoolers who are too big for Pack N Plays.

If you are renting the average two queen bed hotel room, it can still be configured for families with little ones needing a separate space.

Pack and Plays can often be situated next to the entrance closet or bathroom and sometimes, if it’s big enough-in the bathroom itself!

If your toddler or preschooler is too big for Pack and Plays, and you decide to use the other queen bed, you do have to take safety into account.

Make sure that you build up the sides to prevent them from accidentally falling in the middle of a nap or night sleep. This can be accomplished with sticking foam pool noodles, extra pillows or a rolled up top sheet, under the fitted sheet.

If a parent will also be sharing the bed, sometimes you can also do this with a pillow in the middle of the bed to prevent little feet from kicking you in the back at night. 😉

So, as you see, regardless of your vacation space, your baby or toddler has a variety of sleep options!

Baby and Toddler Vacation Packing List

There are plenty of things you can bring on the vacation to help your child find the travelling, new place and slightly different routines, a little easier. 

For anyone past the exclusively breastfeeding/bottle feeding stage, I absolutely recommend a variety of snacks. Seriously, for the love of all things holy, don’t forget the snacks.

Other items to pack…

  • Car seat
  • Favourite baby carrier
  • Pacifier
  • Favourite stuffie
  • A few small toys that have never been played with
  • Pack and play
  • Unwashed sheets or pjs that have the scent of home on them
  • Noise machine
  • One or two favourite story books
  • Travel black out blinds

Extra Tip: When bringing new toys, I find it even better if you can wrap the small toys in wrapping paper like they’re presents. It adds an extra layer of fun and distraction that will make the stress of travel and change easier to cope with.

Tips For the Travel Day

When traveling with a young child, first and foremost, travel as light as you can. If you’re flying with your children, make the most of the curbside check in! And if they’re old enough, you can get them to help by carrying their own bag.

Individual snack bags and electronics (used sparingly) can be absolute life savers when traveling with young children too. 

For toddlers, make sure that you set boundaries and expectations ahead of time. However, keep in mind, they are little humans who will get tired and bored easily. 

While I am usually not a proponent of rewards and bribes, when travelling, sometimes we need to pull out all the stops. If it helps, reinforce good decent behaviour with praise, and then snacks and electronics.

But before you set off, accept that the travel day will be a challenge and keep your expectations low. Just know that you WILL survive!

Once Arrive at Your Vacation Destination

Once you arrive, set up the room like home as best you can. Bring all things (within reason) from home to recreate your baby or toddler’s sleep environment on vacation.

Bonus points if you can bring black out blinds and the same sheets from the crib without washing them! This will help to maintain smells of home, which can be a powerful trigger.

If you have changed time zones, the family will need a day to adjust, but after that, get onto the local time and enjoy the trip!

To the best of your ability, keep the same routine you had at home. Children on 1, 2 or 3 nap routines at home, still have those same sleep requirements on vacations.

Not only will this keep your child well-rested and prevent crankiness and overtired night wakings, but it will also make returning back home much easier.

How Do We Get Baby’s Sleep Back on Track After Vacation?

So now the trip is done, you’ve survived the travel and have a lifetime of memories-well done!

But perhaps your baby or toddler’s sleep got a bit off track though while on vacation. Don’t worry-it happens and it can be fixed!

For a start, adopt back to your local time after a day. Get back into a regular routine as soon as possible and let the natural sunlight help you with that.

Second; know what to expect.

It can take about a full week for your child to fully adjust, especially if there was a large time zone change. But they’ll be back to a normal routine before you know it.

Third, move bedtime up a bit earlier if some sleep debt accumulated. (Hint, it usually does.) You may need to do for 3-7 days.

Yes, Your Baby or Toddler Can Vacation and Sleep!

Remember, just because you have a child, doesn’t mean that you have to give up your yearly winter get-away or summer vacation! 

Just know what to expect and be prepared.

The travel days will be the hardest, but it’s all worth it for the fun and memories you’ll make together.


Back from your trip and need some help getting back on track? Book a mini-consultation that will help you devise a plan of action that you can use immediately!