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The Sleepless Toddler Traveler

The Sleepless Toddler Traveler

By Amalah

I have a toddler sleep advice question– I know you have covered a wide variety of these but this is a slightly different problem and I would love your insight (and maybe some of your readers have dealt with this?)

But first I have to do the fan girl thing and tell you how much I appreciate your blog and advice, and how reading about your exploits has helped me maintain my fragile grip on sanity. (I hear you about the stress thing-we are going through our own challenges right now and I wish I could get a better grip on myself. I am going to check out the app you recommended). And if your tales of 3 year olds are true I had better invest in a wine cellar now because my 2.5 year old is already driving me crazy. I admire your parenting skills immensely.

I have a lovely little girl who has never excelled at sleeping. We have things under control at home right now through a fairly strict bedtime ritual and scheduled nap that pretty much always happens when we are at home. My husband and I share duties but either one of us alone suffices when the other is out of town, so no real problems the vast majority of the time (other than that I should have sleep trained earlier. Oh well).

But when we leave the house and try to get her to sleep out of town, it is virtually impossible. She wasn’t a great sleeper as a baby so travel then didn’t seem that much worse. It wasn’t until we stopped nursing at night that the difference became apparent. We mostly just travel to see either my parents or my husband’s parents. She did ok at my parents house (borrowed pack and play in my sisters old bedroom decorated in white and blue and teddy bears, very peaceful) and horrible at my in laws (our own pack and play in guest room in basement, cold, dark, and lots of red and green colors). We got through a couple visits by just giving up and nursing back to sleep. Then, just before her second birthday we tried to visit my sister on the west coast. Note to readers-cry it out is not a good idea in hotel rooms. Fellow guests were knocking on our door asking if she was ok. My husband finally drove her around the parking lot for a couple of hours one night, and the following night she slept in borrowed pack and play at my sister’s house while my poor husband tried to sleep on their couch. One subsequent trip to his parents house also did not go well, and so she has been under house arrest ever since. We tried having her pick out special sheets, moving to big girl bed for the trip (mattress on floor with princess sheets) and special blanket, of course her lovey from home, pajamas from home, doing home bedtime ritual as closely as possible, lavender lotion after bath, pillow from home, everything I could think of and still no sleep. But then we return home and she will happily go back in her crib.

I would love to plan a summer trip. What am I doing wrong? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated, because otherwise it is no travel or my planning to drive home the first morning with toddler crashed in car seat after another sleepless night.

Thank you in advance and my apologies if I missed a similar question!

Sincerely,
Sleepless in Seattle or any other place we try to visit

Hmm.

(taps face, stares into space for awhile)

Okay, I think I can possibly offer a couple troubleshooting tips here before punting it to your fellow readers/commenters. I’ve traveled quite a bit with my kids and yeah, we definitely had some issues with trying to get them to sleep/settle down in a new place, but nothing to the level you’re describing.

(Our personal travel/vacation sleep solution was usually 1) suck it up for the first night, 2) get them good and tired out the next day, then either 3) let them fall asleep wherever/whenever, like on the couch in front of the TV or in our arms and then attempt a transfer, or 4) LET GRANDMA DEAL WITH IT GRANDMA LOVES BEDTIME.)

You’ve offered an AWFUL lot of details about the logistics of where she sleeps and her bedtime routine. But I’m actually more curious to hear about her day while on these trips. Did she/does she nap? Or is it more of a “oh why bother she’ll never go down” or “day is packed full of activities maybe she’ll catch some Zs in the car” type of thing? Because if she’s not sticking to her daytime nap schedule, that’s WAY more likely to be the problem then your inability to recreate her bedroom and bedtime routine 100% perfectly. Much like another recent column about an unhappy early riser, your daughter might just be so overstimulated and overtired during these trips that she just can’t put herself to sleep, no matter what the color scheme is on the pack-n-play. Introducing her sleeping arrangement during the day as a nap/quiet time (with books, lovey, or soft music) might also help ease any anxiety she has about being somewhere unfamiliar at night, when it’s dark.

Alternatively, you could try changing course completely and stop even TRYING to replicate her routine at home. For some kids, yes, that’s exactly what they need when sleeping somewhere new…it seems kinda clear that your daughter isn’t one of those kids because all your attempts have failed fairly spectacularly. My boys definitely needed a similar routine when traveling when they were babies — good lord the places we lugged that heavy musical crib aquarium and a pack of extra D batteries to — but once they were toddlers and preschoolers that wasn’t quite as effective. They KNEW they were somewhere different, and it was better/easier to treat it as such. Bedtime when we travel is pretty flexible. They can stay up late. Have some junk food. Maybe watch a movie instead of a show, have relatives read them a bajillion bedtime stories instead of one.

Maybe…JUST maybe…by letting go of YOUR focus on bedtime bedtime bedtime routine routine routine, she might relax a little more as well. She wants to fight sleep? Fine. Don’t sleep! Mama doesn’t care. (LIES, but just fake it.) Tell her she doesn’t have to sleep. You can’t MAKE her sleep, obviously, but you can at least impose some restrictions or rules. She can stay awake, but she also has to stay in bed with her books and a flashlight. Or she can sleep with you, but she has to be quiet because it’s not playtime, otherwise she’ll have to go in her own bed. She can fall asleep with the TV on, or music playing. Just do whatever it takes to keep her somewhat calm and content at night, then make sure she gets an opportunity to nap the next day (or at least have some quiet downtime, even if it’s just watching TV in bed with you or reading stories while she’s tucked in.

Of course, the downside to the We’re On Vacation Anything Goes approach is the back-to-normal transition once you’re home can sometimes be a little bumpy. But if the alternative is to never go anywhere ever again, I’ll take a couple nights of re-training in the comfort of my own home over a hotel calling CPS on me because my kid won’t stop screaming bloody murder over bedtime.

One last word of encouragement before I hand things over to the peanut gallery: There’s a WORLD of difference between almost 2 and 2.5. And then another world between 2.5 and almost 3, and so on and so forth. She won’t be like this forever, I promise. She might never be a super-great champion sleeper when you travel but her maturity level will make that fact less stressful.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Lindsay

    How about a white noise machine? We had stopped at home but used it at a hotel last summer and she slept like a dream (we had a suite and had the pack and play set up in the living room area) so we brought it back at home too.

    What is the lighting level like at the places you stay? I believe you can get travel black-out curtains?

  • Megan

    A year ago we took my then almost two year old daughter on a trip for a weekend, and though she’s a great sleeper at home, getting her to fall asleep was MISERABLE. This year we took her to visit my mother in law 14 hours away and she did great. There’s such a huge leap during that year that suddenly you can explain all the fun things about being on vacation and it works – or at least it did for us. There’s definitely some adjustment at the beginning of vacation and for a couple of days when you get back (for us it was daytime grumpiness and potty accidents) but most of the vacation itself was great sleep- wise.

  • Allison

    You are singing my song Woman! My 4 yr old is the Worst sleeper when we travel. Last trip he was up till 2 in the am. By choice. *eyeroll* When he was younger (2-3ish) and we would stay at a hotel we found the only way to get him to sleep was to stick him in the bed, and snuggle him in such a way that he couldn’t really move. lights out, and trying to be calm and super boring. Sometimes the only thing to do is just wait it out. And hey, if it looks like bedtime is not going to work, just put on a quiet calm movie and enjoy some snuggles.

  • Susan:)

    Ah yes. By age three, she should be a lot better. My niece was like this up till then. If we were anywhere other than home, she did not like to go to sleep at all, screaming and disturbing everyone. So we didn’t do too much traveling then!  At 2 1/2, we went to Hawaii for ten days, and it went much better than any previous trips. At bedtime, I put her to bed in the hotel bed after our usual routine, and then I stayed in the room quietly reading on the couch in mostly darkness until she fell asleep. I think it reassured her that I was still with her in the strange room, and she wasn’t going to sleep alone. After that trip, it definitely became easier for her to sleep away from home, and I think it was mostly her age. But yeah, we didn’t try to completely stick to the home routine. We just did what we could to keep her calm and quiet until she could fall asleep. She’s five now, and it is sooooo much better!  So hang in there, it will pass. 

  • Rachel

    i have a crappy traveler too. He is almost 3. There is a company called Babies Away and they rent full size cribs for reasonable rates. It has been a godsend because he would never ever sleep in a pack n play beyond his infancy. I think it is about $12 a day which is a small price for sanity. Now that mine is in a toddler bed I have no idea what our plan will be going forward but this helped a ton til age 3.

  • Veronica

    Thank you Amalah!  And commenters-I will now be crossing my fingers that in a few months (or years) we will be able to travel more restfully. And I will try to relax a little more about the not falling asleep in a timely manner and see how that goes.  (relaxing-not one of my better skills).  But thank you again-it helps to hear your take on this. 

  • Autumn

    If you are looking for a place for your vacation, I would at least check out VRBO.com  (don’t work for them I promise!)  Vacation rental by owner, you can sort by the features you want and price in an area, and I’ve found our kiddo travels better if she has more space.  We did a week in NC at the beach right after she turned 3, and found a great beach front condo with a fish themed kids room, and she did great.  It was helpful for me to be able to see pictures of places before we booked, and then I could show her pictures of “her room” there to help get ready for the trip.  

  • This began recently for my toddler son, and he’s a great sleeper most of the time. I don’t have the perfect solution (because if I did I’d be selling it on HSN), but I have found that skipping the nap on travel days actually leads to a better first night of sleep in a strange place. He’s so exhausted he doesn’t have time to look around and realize we’ve left him in a basement dungeon surrounded by swamp monster.

    White noise machine also helps, and lying down in the room with him at naptime until he falls asleep. If all else fails, there’s always Benadryl. Or maybe that was for the dog…

  • Mary

    This might just be my daughter (22 months), but one thing we found made a difference was where we put the pack ‘n play. It seems to be better if it’s in a corner so it feels more contained. We had her sleep in the center of a room once — too much stuff on all the walls that she could grab — and she had a terrible time settling. We’ve had a lot better luck with hemmed in spots; I’ve even put her pack ‘n play in a closet with the door open a couple times.