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Family holidays abroad; sleep tips for little ones

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Travelling abroad with babies and/or children can be unpredictable and stressful for a lot of families. We recently returned from having a family trip to Greece with 2 children (our 4-year-old son and 20-month-old daughter), a first since covid and as a family of 4. It was not a relaxing holiday (long gone are those days!), but we definitely had fun, made lovely memories, and ensured the kids were happy.

Here are 10 tips that I wanted to share with you.

Tip 1

Travel early in the day. It allows you a buffer for any waiting/delays, and if naps don't happen or are very short, bedtime can save you! If you're flying long haul, you may find overnight suits better so your little one is ready to sleep anyway, but this does depend if you have connections and the time of day or night you arrive at your destination.

We had a very early flight and woke the children 10 minutes before we had to leave, so we took my daughter to the airport in her pyjamas. I did a quick nappy change before we left the house but got her dressed when we were at the gate, so we knew we could relax. It made the morning much less stressful!

The day you arrive, if you have time, spend some time with them playing and getting to know the new room/space so they are not so distracted when it comes to sleep time.

Reminder: On travel days it is better if you don't expect your day to be on schedule. An airport is bright, big, busy, noisy, and constantly moving. There is a lot of waiting around so be prepared with something to entertain little ones. Then there is excitement/anxiety/uncertainty about where they're going and what to expect when they arrive.

Tip 2;

Start talking about your holiday a week or so in the lead-up to it. This will help any anxieties or confusion they might be feeling. Show them an airport, and what happens in the airport to get to the plane, there are lots of YouTube kid-friendly airport videos that can help.

Show them the place they're staying in, the pools, the activities, and the room/apartment/villa. Explain where they will sleep and where you and their big/little brother or sister will be. This can help bedtimes go smoother if they have some idea of what to expect.

Tip 3;

Keep your nap/bedtime routine as close to home as you can. All a baby/child knows is their normal surroundings, routine and familiar people around them. Having your everyday routine before sleep can help to keep them calm and wind down, giving them the transition time they need before they get into bed.

Take a couple to a few favourite books.

Take a favourite teddy/comforter/dummies.

Take their sleep sack and the bed sheet they slept in the night before.

Take your white noise machine (the air con for hot countries can also help here!)

I also took a cot bumper that I use for my youngest (reminder; your child should be 1 years old or older to use these safely). Unless you are taking a travel cot.

Travel black-out blinds are a win! Block out the sun to help them understand it's sleep time, so they can't be distracted by what's/who's in the room, and don't wake up with the sun in the morning.

Tip 4;

Be flexible and go with the flow. You're all on holiday for fun so please try not to stress or put pressure on yourselves. Do watch and listen to the children though, it really will help you all to enjoy it, they need time to relax and sleep. Travel, plus time zone changes, a new environment, heat/sun exposure and new activities every day will usually throw them out of routine in one way or another.

You'll know roughly how long your child can last between naps or over a day, so be mindful of that, and expect everyone to be tired for the first day. Be open to the fact you might have days that naps won't happen, or they might be shorter than what is typical for your child. Where you can on those days, opt for an extra rest period and/or an earlier bedtime so you don't have to deal with a meltdown from a very overtired baby/child.

My daughter was far too distracted by everything to sleep on the day we left for Greece, so we made sure she had an early bedtime. She was overtired of course so it took longer to go down to sleep, but because we started the bedtime routine early it wasn't too late for her.

Reminder: Overtired children will make more fuss and can take longer to settle to sleep.

Tip 5:

Keep the room/sleep environment dark. To help naps happen in different scenarios, take your travel black-out blinds, buggy shade, and/or car window covers. Most hotels have heavy black-out curtains (worth checking) but if you're staying in a villa or Air B&B type accommodation, you will most likely need to have black-out options prepared. Foil is also a cheap alternative and something you can get anywhere!

The image below shows you how dark our room was for naps and bedtime. And due to the hotel having excellent black-out curtains, we used our black-out blinds for the glass panels on the partitioned doors so we could turn on bathroom lights without a worry (you can just about make out the doors from the bathroom glow).

Some days your little one might have a nap in a car, in a buggy, or in a carrier. So where you can/on alternative days to the busy ones, try to have them sleeping in the cot/a bed, or try at least one nap a day in the cot if they nap more than once.

Reminder: put the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door when kids are napping, so the cleaners don't wake them. We made the error on day 1 but luckily she was due to wake up, it was more the shock for the cleaner and my daughter!

Tip 6;

Hand Luggage tips for flights. Use your hand luggage for the kids. Pack that bag full of snacks, milk for babies (you can take milk through security for them), a packed lunch and more snacks. Just in case you get delayed, food will save you all!

Have plenty of nappies & wipes to hand, plus a change of clothes (consider the temperature and time of day you land in your destination, in case you want to change them into something cooler, or you have a nappy explosion/toilet incident.)

Offer babies and children a drink, chewy sweets/vitamins, a dummy, a bottle of milk and/or breastfeed during take-off and landing, all of these will help avoid discomfort when going through air pressure.

An iPad with headphones is a must to help distract little ones, you can get a dual adaptor for 2 sets of headphones so they can watch something together (make sure you download plenty and check the programmes/films work the night before).

A magazine, colouring book, stickers and/or a game are useful. We bought all of these, but out of all of them the stickers and Kids Uno were a huge hit all holiday even on the flight. (Uno is also useful for parents while the kids sleep!)

Medicine! If you have a bad teether like mine you need to know you have paracetamol and/or Ibuprofen at the ready! You can take up to 100ml on flights so we took a bottle of Calpol, but Calpol sachets are great too as they are more compact, just not so easy to dispense. We also packed Piriton so we knew we had something if she did react while we were away.

Travel buggies are a great addition, much more lightweight and compact than an everyday buggy, so you can store them as hand luggage in the overhead compartment on a plane. This makes airports and stopovers for long-haul flights so much easier to manage, especially for sleep!

For children that do nap, have a book, teddy, dummy, whatever your child has for his/her sleep routine, and use some of that while you travel. They may not go for it if they are too distracted, excited, worried, overtired, etc, but it may calm them and allow chill time at least.

Reminder: Avoid any nut-based snacks due to allergies, in case you are travelling with someone on a flight that has a nut allergy, airlines will ban those snacks on the flight.

Tip 7;

Check meal timings & options when staying in a hotel. If your baby/child is tired but lunch and dinner are on the late side for them at the hotel, having another option like a cafe/snack bar close by, or snacks to hand in your room might just save you!

Reminder: If babies/kids have an intolerance or allergy, call or email your hotel ahead of arriving to make sure they know and check if they can accommodate you on that. We took plenty of snacks due to my daughter's allergies to milk and egg. Also worth taking a child's alternative milk if you can, they can taste quite different abroad.

Tip 8;

How to handle bedtimes when room sharing. This was our first holiday abroad sharing a room with the kids, however, it was a very large room that had a partition with sliding doors between us and the children (see below).

If you sleep in different rooms in the house, try to maintain that, it can cause more night wakings if you disturb each other and a more excitable wake-up if you are there when they wake. Check the room options and layouts where you plan to stay and request a cot/bed guards, ahead of arrival if you need them.

We staggered the children's bedtimes so that we could be sure my youngest was asleep before my eldest went to his bed, which worked really well. The other end of that was waking each other up in the morning however, it was never too early thankfully, it was more the level of excitement when they did wake to see each other (cute but loud!), we reminded ourselves it was for a short time.

Reminder: If nights/mornings do go out of the window, you can always put your boundaries back in place as soon as you're home.

Tip 9;

Dress your children appropriately for the temperature when going to sleep. When you are in a hot country, they are much more equipped for hot weather, so they typically have air conditioning inside. With babies, toddlers and young children, take a couple of summer sleep sacks (0.5-1.0 tog) if that is what you use at home, and some lightweight Pajamas (100% cotton). As for children in beds, they should supply you with a lightweight duvet and a sheet.

There were a couple of times I dressed my daughter in a long sleeve vest, cotton PJ shorts and a 0.5 tog sleep sack due to the air con being on, she was ok in short sleeve PJs too though.

Reminder: having options to dress your child in for bed will help you to relax knowing you have a solution if they get too cold at night.

Tip 10:

It's important for children to have breaks from the sun/heat and to rest. We saw A LOT of children with sunburn and I can only imagine how uncomfortable that must be for them and difficult to sleep with, and you really want to avoid heat stroke.

Keep them hydrated with plenty of fluid and topped up frequently with high SPF and UVA protection, children do not need to be tanned! We went through 3 bottles and bought more after 3 days!

Whether your child naps or not, it is great if you have an outside space that has shade, or use a sun lounger with an umbrella/move it into a shaded area for some quiet cool-down time. While my daughter slept my son would use the iPad or play card games with one of us (in between wanting pool time) so the other parent could have a short break.

For babies and toddlers, not only is a cot useful for sleep but you can use a cot as a safe place for them to play/relax, especially if you have access to a pool outside your room/villa but want them to have a break.

Reminder: parents, give each other some free time to relax if you can. Scheduling in this time (for everyone) can really boost your mood, and energy, and have more tolerance and patience.


What if my child wants to get into bed with me to sleep?

If your child wakes up in the night and/or early in the morning and wants to get into your bed and you are sharing a room, on this occasion I would be more inclined to let it happen, but please do it safely ( plenty of space between you, no covers/pillows that could smother and overheat them and away from a wall/the edge). It saves everyone being woken up and avoids the day not starting so well! You can get back on track as soon as you get home.

I am travelling long haul, how do I help my children with Jet Lag?

I have been to Australia with my son twice so I know how scary the thought of long flights and jet lag can be! The good news for babies 4-5 months old and younger, is they can sleep more frequently and more flexibly, so they won't be so affected by the time difference.

For babies 5-6 months old and beyond that have nap schedules you should try to keep your routine from home, bringing familiar items with you, and if the time difference is 4+ hours, it is best to expect 2-3 days of adjusting when you arrive. Because your day is set around eat, play, and sleep timings I find there is no real benefit to moving your routine before you leave because that time gap is too big, and you may get caught up in delays or worse cancellations.

Jumping into the new time zone (as daunting as it might be) is best for all of you, and here is what you can do to help ease you in;

  • Depending on arrival times, get them out in the sunlight and let them burn some energy before bedtime.

  • They will likely need an early bedtime for a few nights, so go with it to help them get through the jet lag.

  • If they slept a lot on the flight and you arrive at night expect some waking. Avoid giving them an iPad during the night as it will stimulate the brain even more so they will struggle to sleep and may even wake for it the next night creating another issue entirely.

  • Sleep in a little later in the morning on the first day if the night was broken, but try to get up at a reasonable time so you are able to adjust the routine easily over a couple of days and you don't lose time when you're away.

  • They should adjust fairly quickly if you allow naps when they need them. Cap them if you need to so they stay in a routine in the new time zone and don't max out their hours before bedtime.

How do I help my children adjust when we get home?

  • Have some quiet days planned for your return.

  • Get back to your normal timings of Eat, Play, Sleep.

  • If you allowed boundaries to slide in order to survive, depending on how long this went on, you can put them back into place quickly as long as you remain consistent.

If you are struggling with how to do this you can get back on track, or perhaps you are going away soon and you're experiencing some sleep problems at the moment. Whether it is travel-related or not, don't hesitate to reach out to me via the tab below.

In the mean time, Have a wonderful holiday!

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