Travel Survival Guide: Sleeping in an Unfamiliar Environment

cousinsGoing away for the holidays? Going to be sleeping in a living room on an air mattress one foot away from your baby? Siblings or cousins sharing a bed? Sharing a hotel room? No separate room or bed for your baby to sleep in? Have relatives with very different parenting styles than you? Or maybe you’re just terrified that your once great sleeper will regress during your travels. No worries! Baby Sleep Science is here to help.

The Science:  We are supposed to wake up when we fall asleep in the “wrong” place. Sleep is organized so that there is a bout of deep sleep at the beginning and then every hour to hour and a half thereafter there is a brief wake up (sleep basics review here). If your baby falls asleep in one place (like your arms) and wakes in another (like a crib), then she’ll be more likely to alert at one of those wakings and fully wake up. Many parents learn about this firsthand during the four month regression when sleep cycles begin to form this pattern. Adults have this too, but the reason we don’t generally wake several times a night is because we perceive that we are in our own bed and that everything is ok. When you or your child falls asleep in another location you’ll be much more likely to wake up due to sleeping in an unfamiliar environment. Personality comes into play with how you and your baby respond to sleeping in a new place. Some children adapt very quickly to sleeping in a new space, other children have more difficulty adjusting.

What do you do about this when you travel with babies?

You need to figure out what your baby is capable of doing. Has your baby been falling asleep on her own? Does she sleep through the night? How old is she? Where are you staying? These questions are all key to figuring out what to do while you are away.

Where will your baby sleep?

First, you need to make sure your baby’s sleep space is safe and suitable for sleep. If your relatives have twenty year old crib to offer, then consider purchasing or renting something newer that is up to safety standards. There are a few great product options that aren’t heavy and are easy to take with you when you travel (see our recommendations here).

Also, consider bringing your white noise machine or getting a white noise app for your phone. Since babies go to sleep before adults and older children, having white noise buffer noisy relatives should help prevent your baby from waking due to unfamiliar noises. Most hotel rooms have nice dark curtains, but Aunt Alice’s house might not. Darkness is really important for naps, so consider bringing some temporary Redi-Shades to block out the light during the day if you are in someone else’s house. Finally, don’t forget your child’s swaddle or sleep sack and lovey if she uses one.

If you are room sharing in a hotel or relative’s house, then try to place your baby’s sleep space in a location that is not too close to windows, radiators or fans. If you are in a hotel, then it may be helpful to create a nook by partially opening a closet.

When does your baby sleep?

Try to keep your baby’s schedule while you are away. It’s ok to let your little one stay up a little later than normal, but in general a sleep-deprived baby is not a happy engaged baby. The other benefit to putting your baby down at her regular sleep times is that you maintain predictability and you can be confident that your baby is able to sleep when you are asking her to sleep.

If your travels involve less than three hours of jet-lag, then check out our jet-lag blogs (Eastward and Westward) for advice on how to deal with that.

How does your baby normally fall asleep?

If your baby has been able to fall asleep independently at bedtime prior to your trip, then you should be prepared to ask her to do the same while you are away. To do this you’ll want to provide her with very strong sleep cues by doing her bedtime routine as much the same as you have at home. Then, put her down awake as normal. If you normally leave after you put her down, then do the same when you put her down this time. In this case, you may need to hide out in the bathroom if you are staying in a hotel. If she cries in a way that suggests that she is stressed or needs you, then go back to her, repeat your bedtime cues, put her down again and leave again. If she wakes at an odd time during the night, then do the same thing. This bedtime routine and your familiar response is your way of telling her “this is a safe place to sleep. I am available if you need me, but there is no reason to worry.”

If your baby doesn’t settle and go to sleep, then it’s ok to do something to help her fall asleep rocking/nursing/bouncing/shushing, just know that this will create a sleep association and you will want to go back to your normal routine as soon as you get home in order to prevent further regression. If you previously did a sleep intervention to get your baby back to sleep, then you may need to revisit your intervention after you return home to remind your baby that you are back to normal.

If your baby doesn’t already fall asleep independently, then it’s generally a good idea to keep doing what you do at home to help your baby fall asleep. It may take longer than normal to get her down and she may wake up more during the night than usual, but that’s normal during travel.

If you are staying in a hotel room, then you will need to hang out in the bathroom for about 20 minutes until your baby goes into deep sleep. After that time you can go back in the room, because your baby will be in deep sleep and it is unlikely that she’ll wake up for a few hours even if you have the television on. That said, don’t tempt fate! If you do turn on the TV keep the volume low.

We generally wouldn’t recommend doing any intervention while you are away, but in special circumstances a trip can be a good time to work on breaking sleep associations. See our “grandma” intervention post for advice on what that looks like.

What do you do about naps?

In general, naps are the most likely sleep to suffer when you are away from home. The sleep drive is weak during the day, making it very hard for a baby to fall asleep in an unfamiliar place. It’s still worth trying to put your child down in the usual way if you are able to do that. In that case, do your usual routine and put your baby down. If the usual way of doing things doesn’t work, then don’t be afraid to break your normal rules and take your baby for a walk for a stroller nap or let a grandma hold your baby for a nap 🙂

If things just don’t work out as you’d planned, then don’t worry. Do what works as long as it doesn’t compromise your baby’s safety. Once you get home you can start with a clean slate and guide your baby to better sleep.

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Copyright Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center 2014


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