How To Get A Baby To Sleep On Planes, Trains, And Automobiles

The shortest distance from Point A to Point B is Zzz.

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The following was produced in partnership with Fisher-Price, who enrich the lives of young families with gear like the Stow ‘n Go Bassinet, which gives babies a comfy spot to soothe and snooze without taking up tons of luggage space.

Whether traveling by land, air, or sea, parents often have the same experience: trying and failing to get kids to nap. Why the struggle? Because the en-route nap is sacred. It’s not only the shortest distance (in perceived time) between point A and point B, it’s a way to ensure that young children focus on the upside rather than the inconvenience of travel. Parents want to get out in the world and they want their kids to be eager to join them. Travel naps are a means to that end.

But how do you engineer REM on the fly? Corinne McDermott, a mother of two, went looking for an answer to that question 11 years ago and found nothing. “I went online expecting to find resources on traveling with infants or toddlers and there really weren’t any,” she recalls. So she started looking into it and her investigation gradually became a specialty and a blog named Have Baby Will Travel, which has since become the go-to resource for tips, tricks, and hacks on schlepping babies. McDermott has thoroughly researched economy class shuteye and knows what’s up with getting kids to go down.

Here’s what she’s learned about getting babies to nap on the way.

On The Road

When family vacation calls for a perfectly packed trunk and a roof rack loaded for bear, keeping your baby well rested requires some advance planning.

When you can, time long driving stretches to coincide with your baby’s usual sleep schedule. Push off at naptime or bedtime and you’ll not only keep your baby on her regular routine, but you’ll up your odds of a successful en-route snooze.

And if you anticipate issues, bring along a bit of home.

“I would always bring our crib sheets from home. Having that familiar sheet helped my kids sleep,” McDermott suggests. If your toddler is still in a rear-facing seat, one of you can sit in the back, she adds. That way, your child won’t get lonely or scared and you’ll help maintain a semblance of the bedtime routine.

In The Air

“Did you hear about the parents who were scared to bring their newborn on a plane? Their trip never got off the ground!” Embedded in the corny heart of that very old, very bad dad joke is the common misconception that infants are inherently hard to bring along. Not so, especially when you’re flying. Traveling with the tiniest kids can actually be easiest. Their schedule of meal, nap, diaper change is relatively predictable and doable anywhere. They’re nonverbal so they have literally no say in the itinerary. And they’re immobile so they go only as far as their parents take them.

“Essentially, they’re a bag to carry,” says McDermott. No, you can’t check them and reclaim them at your destination. But you can be fairly confident they’ll fall asleep at some point.

A sleeping baby on a plane is best. But a happy one is nearly as good. That’s why, for older babies with a regular nap schedule, McDermott warns against trying to book flights during a baby’s naptime. She found her kids got so energized by the flight experience that they rode the wave for hours only to finally pass out upon landing. Better to have them sleep in the lounge and on the ride from the airport and be happy in the air.

“It happened almost all the time,” she says. “So I started to book my flights for when I knew my kids would be in the best mood, which was in the morning.”

And, no, there’s no clear answer to the seat versus lap debate. If your baby already naps a lot in their car seat, that might be best for you. Familiarity breeds shuteye. But sometimes the cost of another airfare makes the whole trip impossible. Sometimes it’s just easier to hold them.

“Can I take a three-hour flight with a child on my lap? Yes. A seven-hour flight? That’s where I would look into investing in an additional seat,” McDermott says.

If you choose the car seat, brush up on your FAA regulations. “The onus is on parents, though it shouldn’t be, to know the rules and how to install the seat,” McDermott says. “Print the instructions out and bring them because the airline staff isn’t always 100 percent up to speed on policy.”

On Public Transportation

Sometimes, a bus or train is the only option. At the very least, a baby in the next seat is an upgrade over a drooling commuter slowly slumping in your direction. If the gentle hum of the wheels on the bus (or you gently humming “The Wheels on the Bus”) doesn’t lull your baby to sleep, there are some things that might.

First, a favorite toy, piece of gear, or a trusty activity book will keep their hands occupied so they don’t touch all the things (and grab all the germs). More importantly, it may soothe them to sleep. And simple parental attention will help ensure they get what they need when they need it — including a nap. McDermott notes, “Learn their cues and what triggers them so you can better manage if they’re hungry, uncomfortable, or tired.”

Parents can also make a concerted effort to tire kids out before hitting the subway or catching the train. This, in combination with proximity, makes sleep a likelihood if not a certainty — especially if kids are specifically calmed down outside of the station, before the influx of visual input.

Ultimately, getting a baby to take a nap while traveling means combining the familiar with the unexpected. Knowing their schedule and their cues will get you far. So will making them feel at home, wherever they are. At a certain point, reaching your destination becomes an exercise in relentless forward motion.

“Travel isn’t always predictable and neither are babies, so you have to be ready for everything,” says McDermott. “As long as nobody is complaining and you’re not running out of gas, don’t stop.”

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