‘How do I get my baby to sleep when we go on holiday?’
It’s a question I found myself frantically typing into Google before our first overseas trip with our 9-month-old baby boy. Fast-forward four years and that baby boy is at school, now has a younger sister, and has been on more holidays than I did in my first 16 years of life. But I still worry about getting a decent night’s sleep when we’re away.
Luckily, the kids have had lots of practice. And whether it’s been for two-week road trips abroad, or one-night sleepovers close to home, we’ve found some things seem to help when it comes to bedtime. Here’s what works for us, but do let me know if you have any brainwaves I can add to my list…
1. Look for airport hotels with family rooms
We don’t get on well with all four of us sleeping in one room. At all. The husband snores, and my son and I are stupidly light sleepers, so whenever we’ve done it we’ve all woken up in the morning with the look of feral animals.
It can be more expensive, but it pays to look for hotels with family rooms where you’ve got enough space to put some distance between you, or – better still – interconnecting rooms so there’s an actual wall. We stayed in a fantastic interconnecting room at the Heathrow/Windsor Marriott Hotel which wasn’t even advertised on the website, so it’s always worth calling the hotel and asking what’s available.
2. Take everything you need from home (and I mean everything)
Forget travelling light. If you want a good night’s sleep – and particularly if you’ve got a baby – you’re going to want to take familiar things from home. When mine were little, for example, I read that putting something with a familiar smell in their cot could help them settle as they’d recognise the scent, and it did seem to help.
Plus, over the years we’ve become big fans of the Gro Company’s sleep products for babies. Both of mine lived in their baby sleeping bags – you can buy low-tog versions for hot countries – and we found the Gro Egg really useful on holiday when we were worried about the temperature in the room. Several years on we still use the portable blackout blind when we go away for a couple of days, and our Gro Clock comes on every trip as the eldest is liable to wake up at the crack of dawn without it. If it gets me an extra 15 minutes in bed it’s worth every penny.
3. Write off the first night…
When it comes to getting your children to sleep while you’re away from home, sometimes it’s good to just lower your expectations. We now take it as a given that the first night away will be pretty awful and the kids will take longer to settle. In truth, even I find it harder to fall asleep for the first time in a new place.
There are some good tips in this guide to sleep, which quotes sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley. He puts the ‘first night effect’ down to evolution: in a nutshell, your brain goes into a ‘high alert’ state when you’re in a new environment, to protect you from potential threats. Throw in hours of travelling and all the excitement of a new place and it’s no wonder the first night is likely to be disturbed.
4. …and plan something low-key the next day
It’s tempting to go full-throttle on the first ‘proper’ day of your holiday, but bear in mind a bad night’s sleep might leave your little ones (and you) feeling tired and grumpy. If you’re planning something special, or going on a daytrip, leave it a few days if you can so you’ve all had a chance to catch up.
We’ve just booked a week in Cornwall for a family wedding next year, and after looking up every cottage, apartment and hotel within a 30-mile radius I settled on this beautiful barn because they were the only ones who’d let us stay Thursday to Thursday (the wedding is on Saturday: there’s no way the kids would survive an all-day drive down on the Friday then a big wedding and a very late night the next day).
5. Try to limit screen-time before bed
With two PJ Masks-addicted kids, I’m hardly one to talk about limiting screen time. But if you’ve ever noticed it’s hard to wind down after you’ve scrolled through Facebook for too long before bed, you’ll know there’s truth in the old don’t-stare-at-a-screen-before-bed adage.
I won’t go into the science, but if you’re keen to get them to settle at a decent time it might be worth hiding the electronics a couple of hours beforehand. That said, if you’re in an airport or a car and the screen is the only thing keeping you/them sane, please please ignore this.
6. Freeze a flannel if it’s boiling hot
You know the one thing that got us through the baking hot nights in Tuscany without air-con? I soaked two flannels (they were actually cut-up hand towels, but they looked like flannels) in water then stuck them in the little freezer in our apartment every morning, so the kids could take them to bed at night.
It sounds a bit mad, but it cooled them down and sent them off to sleep straight away after several days of no sleep because we were all too hot/the fan was rubbish. By the end of the week I even started freezing them into shapes just for fun. I’m sure there are products out there that do the same thing, but you probably don’t need them – a t-shirt would do the trick if you’re away from home with limited resources.
7. Take a baby monitor if it’s going to help you to relax
I’m the first one to admit I’m a little paranoid when it comes to my kids, so this might not be for everyone, and it depends on their ages. But taking my baby monitor from home when the kids were little meant I could sit outside our villa in the evening sun with a glass of wine and know that I’d hear them if they cried, or got up, confused about where they were.
I even bought one with a built-in night-light to kill two birds with one stone, and it saved me no end of trips to their room just to check on them. Just whatever you do, don’t forget to take a plug adapter. Been there, got the (frozen) t-shirt…