Bedtime for traveling babies

What we learned during our daughter’s first year and a half

A good few years ago, before Cathlin and I were married — let alone with a little Eliza along for the journey! — I traveled to Pakistan to lead a series of trainings with a nonprofit. Although I like to think I adapt reasonably well to timezone changes, the switch from New York to Islamabad left me awake before dawn, counting down the hours before breakfast opened downstairs. While waiting for the elevators at our hotel one morning, I fell into conversation with a friend and colleague who recounted memorable travels she and her husband had taken around the world with their two children. Although I wasn’t yet a parent, I found the perspective refreshing.

“You can travel anywhere with children,” she said, imparting advice that has stayed with me ever since. “But no matter where you are, bedtime needs to be at exactly the same time.”

Well, as Eliza all-too-quickly approaches her second birthday with a dozen-or-so stamps in her passport, I must admit our approach to baby bedtime hasn’t been quite so fixed. And that flexibility, which I concede could also be deemed inconsistency, has pretty much proven my friend correct. With all the necessary caveats that every baby is different and that every day can be different, now that we’ve been in one place again for several weeks I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve learned.

Accept that you’re not able to “just power through” any more

Is your superpower an unrivaled ability to hop off a red-eye into a business meeting? Have you been able to save money on a night’s lodging (and cover greater distance) thanks to a long-haul bus or train or ferry? Are you keen to squeeze in a day trip that most people would plan as their entire vacation? If so, we’re impressed, but none of these will be the same again with children.

As hard as it might be to give up what can feel like part of your identity, at the risk of stating the obvious: your baby comes first. That doesn’t mean no more red-eyes, but it does add a whole new layer of planning and accepting often-necessary buffers: extra time before, during, and after your travels. Even if you have TSA Pre-Check and regularly waltz through airport security shortly before U.S. domestic flights, have you perfected the art of unpacking your stroller, separating it into each of its component pieces to go through the scanner, reassembling each of these pieces, and packing it up all over again? Not yet, you say? Well, do it enough and you may get it down to a science, but it still won’t be fast.

The first time we traveled with Eliza was by train from New York to Boston. She was nine weeks old, and her folding sleep pad (with supportive walls) fit perfectly into our Amtrak seat for her to nap. When we flew to Michigan a couple of weeks later, we opted for the midday flight instead of our previous preference: the early-morning service, which would have come with a slightly lower price tag and a higher on-time arrival rate. And when we set off on our first international trip with Eliza to Ireland, she was three months old. Instead of flying into Shannon and going straight to visit family, like we typically do, we built in a few days of only-us time in Dublin with no more than one main activity per day. Unfortunately our hotel didn’t have any availability for an early check-in after our overnight flight, so we found a nearby cafe where Cathlin and I took turns falling asleep and reading to stay alert. Eliza adapted surprisingly well, but we were still grateful to have allowed ourselves more time than usual for the transition.

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Fresh off an overnight flight to Dublin with a three-month-old

Understand time zones and make a plan based on the length of your trip

Your approach might differ depending on how your baby is sleeping (or, rather, how your baby isn’t sleeping) before you go, but create a plan in advance to make incremental changes.

If you’re traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast, you may want to nudge bedtime back 15 minutes every day for a few days, so you don’t arrive at your destination only to find that your daughter’s or son’s 8 p.m. bedtime being flipped immediately to 5 p.m. destroys your dinner plans—and adds the likelihood you’ll have new very early morning plans: not sleeping.

If you’re heading between North or South America and Europe, you may find it helpful to start nudging your child’s bedtime forward at home for a few weeks and then to accept a late bedtime when you arrive. For us, that meant moving Eliza’s bedtime in New York forward about an hour and a half and then accepting that she would stay up with us until about 11 p.m. in Ireland for the first day, then 10:30 p.m. on the second day, then 10:00 p.m. on the third day, and so on until we were able to recalibrate. It helped that we had plenty of time to manage this adjustment.

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But for short trips, we’ve found that trying to adjust Eliza’s schedule simply isn’t worth it. When we went from New York to Reykjavik for just a few days, we didn’t invest energy in trying to switch bedtimes at all; we did our best to keep them consistent despite the change.

As for long flights, such as those between the U.S. and Asia or the South Pacific, I can’t say there’s a secret to cracking that code. Just try to get your baby as much sleep as possible while on the flight itself. The hum of the engine serves as a kind of white noise, and perhaps you’ll luck out and secure an in-flight cot/crib (see the next tip). Again, do whatever you can to build in a day or two of a buffer before any major commitments, and try to book a hotel or apartment that you know will have a bed ready for you in a location that doesn’t require too much extra effort to reach. It’s best to avoid any circumstance that leaves you saying “we just need to walk another mile” while trying to find where your tired baby, tired counterpart, and tired self are meant to be sleeping.

Call your airline or travel provider in advance of your trip

Yes, it can be tempting to think you’ve done enough research by reading a website, typing in relevant search queries, or lobbing questions onto Twitter or Facebook, but seriously, pick up the phone a couple of weeks before your trip, call your airline, and talk with a customer service agent even if you must wait on hold, which is increasingly common. It’s worth it to confirm that your child is correctly listed on your ticket. Be sure to ask as well if they have policies designed to make travel with children easier, and to enquire if they have any infant cots/cribs available in the bulkhead seating at the front of economy class (or children’s food they could set aside if your baby is onto solids). Also, if you’re planning (or hoping) to bring a car seat along on your travels, your airline may need to pre-approve it before you’re allowed to travel with it on board.

I hadn’t thought of asking for “infant seating” until an agent at one Nordic carrier recommended it as an ideal option, though unfortunately they had all been claimed by other babies by the time of our travels. Still, they recommended we use the family check-in line to expedite our wait. This allowed more time on the other side of security for Eliza to nap before our flight. If you are able to confirm an infant cot/crib, be sure to understand the airline’s weight and height restrictions.

If you do make any special arrangements (e.g., infant seating, special meal requests, additional assistance, etc.), it may feel like overkill, but pick up the phone a second time and call back again 48-72 hours before your flight to reconfirm your requests are still in place. Even if the first customer-service agent approved your car seat or honored your vegetarian meal request, you don’t want to arrive at the airport only to find out that something didn’t go through as promised.

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Catching up on her reading while awake

Agree on plans well before bedtime

A minor but important note: There were times during our travels where I wanted us to stay out longer and Cathlin thought we should head back earlier and vice versa. Rarely were these clear-cut moments pegged to exact times. Usually, it was a matter of thinking we had more time than we did, or our plans taking longer than we anticipated, or Eliza waking up prematurely from a nap in her Babybjörn carrier or in her stroller and us scrambling to figure out how best to accommodate.

While in Paris, we regularly saw families out for a glass of wine in a nearby courtyard at night with their baby asleep in a stroller beside them. That’s a possibility for you to consider too, but only if you’re on the same page with your plans and know how you’ll handle any changes. One night while we were late getting back to our neighborhood, Eliza fell asleep on me, so Cathlin suggested we take advantage and do as we’d seen others do: savor a glass of wine while seated outside a popular bar we’d been hoping to visit since arriving. Of course, who do you think woke up within a minute of our two glasses of wine arriving at the table? We braced ourselves, waited it out, and accepted a few meeps and tears before she was able to fall back asleep.

Travel during the golden window, when your baby sleeps more often than not

Now that Eliza is 19 months, we look back at little 3 or 4 month olds and wonder how we were ever able to travel with a child so small. How quickly we forget! But in our experience, that window between 4 and 14 months — after important vaccinations and regaining a rough sense of stasis in your new life with a newborn —was truly ideal for adventuring with our little one.

This doesn’t always mean going great distances: some of my most cherished moments of discovery with Eliza were wandering around our neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan early in the morning before work while Cathlin caught up on sleep. If you’re hoping to tackle longer trips with your baby, what’s so perfect about traveling at such a young age is that they’re adaptable and they sleep so much throughout the day, if not always the night. And often, they’re joined to you by way of your baby carrier, so you can see and do what you want. Once crawling, walking, and running enter the picture, well, let’s just say your self-determination changes quite a bit.

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“Now that I can walk, I am so not sleeping…”

Good sleep often stems from good food, good health, and good hiding at night

Remember that good sleep is a function of good food and good health as much as anything else. Some of the worst nights of sleep we had with Eliza were when she was fighting off a cold and up constantly or when she was peckish with her dinner and therefore woke up earlier and hungrier. Likewise, good sleep is essential for good health. (I write that while awake too late here with an early start tomorrow, but at least Eliza and Cathlin are sleeping!)

And if you know you’ll be staying in the same room as your baby, you may need to find creative ways to prevent being seen or heard. There were a few tough nights on our travels where Cathlin and I would hide beneath the covers holding hands while Eliza stood in her crib at 3 a.m. looking in our direction and listening for any sign of us being awake.

And, yes, routines really do work wonders for a better sleep for everybody

Bedtimes can be an exercise in trial and error, and even if your timezones or timing is going to vary, the nighttime rituals you establish are often grounding throughout your travels. We’ve had our ups and downs with Eliza’s schedule. Sometimes, we felt a smug satisfaction over what a great sleeper our daughter had become; other times, we wondered how any child could wake up so many times in the same night. But, as much as I sometimes wish otherwise, there’s no question: The better Eliza’s routine, the better her sleep (and everybody’s sleep). What works one week might not the next, so it’s best to stay flexible, have a sense of humor, and learn, if you can, to sleep anywhere.

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Sleep isn’t only for babies

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I spot Sophie!!!! Does anyone else?

  2. Liddy Olszewski says:

    I loved the photos and your memory of hiding under the sheets to feign sleeping while ELiza looked for signs of awakening parents.

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