You’ve planned, prepared, packed, and readied everyone in the family for your next big family adventure – but you forgot one thing: a strategy to ensure your little ones (and you!) make it through the 14+ hour trans-Atlantic, red-eye flight… not to mention a multi-hour time zone change upon landing! As parents ourselves, we are all too familiar with the universal parenting struggles of getting our little ones to sleep well while traveling. That’s why we reached out to Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Brittany Sheehan, to answer all our Clubhouse Parenting Community questions about travel and sleep! In addition to professionally helping hundreds of parents build healthy sleep habits for their children aged 0 to 7 with her data-driven judgment-free advice, she’s also a huge traveler who brought her first child on 30 flights by aged 2.
“How do you help an infant adjust to a new time zone where the time difference is around 12 hours apart -- so that their day and night are completely flipped? Is this advice any different for a toddler? And what about an older child?”
Regardless of age, the absolutely best thing you can do is establish strong sleep habits before you go on your trip. If a baby, toddler, or big kid has a good sleep foundation – meaning they put themselves to sleep independently, connect sleep cycles, have an age-appropriate schedule, and consistent routines and boundaries – it makes a world of difference. Often when you hear about kids having horrible “sleep regressions” due to travel, sickness, or growth spurts, what that really tells me as a professional is that a child had small issues beforehand that got significantly worse when a new variable was tossed in. So truly, if you’re worried about upcoming travel, start working on making changes NOW before the trip even begins.
Once you are traveling, you want to move to the new time zone immediately. That does not mean you need to rigidly follow the exact same schedule that you practice at home immediately; but it does mean you’re not wasting your time trying to gradually shift everything one hour per day. If it’s midnight at home and 12 noon at your destination, it’s 12 noon! That might still mean you and your kids take a nap, but you would, for instance still wake everyone up around 3 PM – even though, yes, that’s 3 AM at home – and work to keep everyone awake (lots of water and fresh air will help!) until a reasonable evening time, at least 6 PM.
This recommendation is the same across babies, toddlers, and big kids. The only specific note for babies is to always focus on anchoring their days by feed times versus sleep when traveling. Sleep in the air or on-the-go is impossible to fully control and predict. Instead, you focus on spacing feeds properly just like you do at home. If your baby eats every 3 hours at home, the same happens during travel. Of course, there may be times when you need to offer an extra feed for their ears at take-off or landing, but it’s a good general principle to follow.
“What if my child struggles with sleeping in new environments?”
How well kids are able to handle travel and new environments is somewhat based on their temperament, age, and the specific situation – but much more of how they do is determined by their baseline sleep habits when at home. Kids with a good sleep foundation at any age are not overtired; they’re used to eating and sleeping at the same times; they have independent sleep skills; and are much adaptable to new environments.
Brittany's 3rd child familiarizing herself with the new bedroom!
For kids who struggle more in new environments, try to introduce the new sleep location as soon as you can – ideally not the minute you need them to sleep – and try to keep what you can as consistent as home as possible: the same lovey, PJs, bedtime book or song, etc. This includes enforcing any existing rules and boundaries, even if they’re tested the first night. For instance, if your child is sleeping in their own bed independently at home, don’t assume that pulling them into bed with you “just this one time since we’re traveling” will work well when you then try to get them to sleep in their own bed the next night. The best thing you can do here is really work to enforce the same boundaries on night one. Once they see that even in a new place, things are the same, they will relax and adapt.
“What advice do you have around using seat extenders to help toddlers and older kids sleep on long-haul/overnight flights?”
I’m not a huge fan — I am a “less is more” traveler with kids. For one thing, these items are bulky and cumbersome, and the last thing a frazzled traveling parent needs is more STUFF. They also are by no means a guarantee for inducing great sleep, so it may be a lot of effort and cost for no result. Lastly, some airlines don’t allow them. In general, with any children’s product, always check your airline policies, as they are notoriously inconsistent with what they allow. Instead, for sleep, try to keep kids in window seats, have a toddler pillow and blanket available, and if there is an extra seat or enough space, lay out a travel crib sheet, and use a sleep sack for a baby.
“What is your Official Recommendation around what to do or NOT to do with supplements for sleep – such as Benadryl and melatonin?”
That’s a hard “no” from me in almost any scenario, other than maybe in extreme jet lag situations (such as travel with a 12 hour time difference). More often than not, these drugs can cause kids to become delirious or have nightmares – and that’s the last thing you want to discover in the middle of a flight! If you do choose to use these, however, make sure to run it by your pediatrician and test it once before your trip.
“What advice do you have around allowing your baby or toddler to sleep in a carseat on a long-haul/overnight flight? Is this safe for such an extended period?”
It’s not recommended, no. I think what you do depends on the distance and the age of the baby, though. For a newborn, I would use a carrier. And for any baby up the size limit, a bassinet seat is your absolute best option. If you do use a car seat, make sure it’s allowed on your airline, you feel confident your baby will sleep well in a carseat, and you take them out at least every 2-3 hours for a period of time for safety. A carseat cover is likely not necessary. Airlines do a good job of setting the tone on planes for sleep – turning down lights, etc. That environmental pressure really does help kids. However if your baby is very distractible, I’d use a loose muslin blanket that covers just a portion, so it blocks their view but is not making it hot inside, and is positioned securely enough so that there is no way the fabric will slide down close to their face and be a suffocation hazard.
“How do you help a baby or toddler get used to napping in a car seat for road trips and/or flights when they generally hate it on day-to-day trips?”
This is a combination of getting in the reps – if they never do it, they may not like it! – and temperament: some kids really do hate it more than others. I would experiment with slightly longer trips and timing over naps if possible, but try not to stress too much. You can’t force them to love it or to sleep, but you can do it enough so that they understand they can’t get out when you’re on the road.
I would also suggest NOT using a car seat on a plane if you have a child who really hates it, because now you have a seat that is being occupied by a car seat they won’t sit in without screaming. Better to check-in the car seat, and wear them or let them sit in the seat, even if that’s a bit harder on you. A screaming baby or toddler on a flight is worse!
“What advice do you have about dealing with jet lag upon returning home?”
I have the same advice as when you’re on the way there – cold turkey! But also, keep the schedule free if possible for the first two days you’re back. Encourage lots of water and nourishment, and ample light exposure during the day.
“Have you ever tried the Timeshifter app but for a kid's schedule?”
No, and I wouldn’t – it may be suitable for adults who travel long-haul frequently, but what babies and toddlers need is to get on the new schedule ASAP! And frankly, they’re more resilient than us when it comes to sleep changes!
About Brittany Sheehan: Brittany is a certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant who has successfully counseled hundreds of families in developing healthy sleep habits for their children, starting from birth through to 7 years old. She is a Native-New Yorker now based in LA where she lives with her husband and three children. For more information about Brittany, her judgment-free, data-driven 1:1 sleep consulting services and online courses, please visit brittanysheehan.com or find her on Instagram @brittanysheehansleep.
For those of you who want additional and more specialized sleep advice, you can check out her courses using the discount code NORECEPTION for 20% off any of her full-price course (valid through 9/30)! You can also check out her podcast for further sleep insights including an episode where she interviewed me (Gemma) !