April 7, 2020

How to Help Your Baby or Toddler Nap on an Airplane

Babies, Newborns, Toddlers

sleep on airplane

Olivia, age 2, napping on daddy on the airplane.

Yep, you read that right. And I have photo evidence to prove it!

Getting your baby or child to sleep while traveling or in a new environment can be stressful enough, but I think getting your child to sleep on an airplane is at the top of that list of stressors.

Last summer, we got our two year old to nap on an airplane on multiple occasions. We took a trip out west with my family, followed by a visit to Canada to see Jason’s family, and then she came with me as I trained to become a sleep consultant in Florida!

So lots of flying with our toddler. I’m sure we could have all survived the travel days with no naps, but it certainly wouldn’t have been pretty!

Especially when we were also dancing with time change; so we crossed our fingers and came prepared, and it worked EVERY TIME!

That doesn’t mean that will forever be the case, but I do have some suggestions to help you prepare for flying with your babies and toddlers to help them sleep.

It’s All About Routine

Daily routines, including a nap and bedtime routine, are SO important for babies and kids. Routines help kids not only know what to expect each day, but it also helps their bodies kick in and work from “muscle memory,” and this definitely came in handy on each of our flights!

So here’s what we did to prepare our toddler to sleep on an airplane:

We packed Olivia’s trusty sleep sack and her favorite stories in our carry on, and planned on going through her nap time routine just like we would at home.

So when nap time came around, we zipped her in her sleep sack, read two stories, and then Jason cuddled her as he sang our nap song, “Jesus Loves Me.”

Except this time he didn’t put her down, he simply kept singing and cuddling her, and within just a few minutes she was out!

I’m sure the rumble and natural white noise of the airplane helped, but it certainly wasn’t dark and she wasn’t in a familiar place…it was the timing of her daily nap, the routine she knows so well, and…her SONG!

How Having a Sleep Song Helps

We have sung a song in our girls’ routines since they were born, and that nap time song definitely came in handy when we were out and about on these trips, because Olivia napped on the go every day of vacation with my family. That was usually in the car, but she definitely had a bicycle and boat nap, as well.

Although the timing was usually off, if Olivia would start getting sleepy, SHE would initiate sleep. She’d cuddle her head up to the side of the car seat and say, “Jesus Loves Me.” That was this mama’s cue to sing to her and she’d pass out.

The magic of our song has been true for Avery, too! She took a fall to the face the other day, about 15 minutes before nap time. I think this mama was more scarred than she was, and there was no way I was putting my hurting babe down for her nap.

I thought it would take forever to rock her to sleep because she’s used to falling asleep on her own, but as soon as I was in the dark room with the sound machine on and singing our song, she quickly snuggled in and was out (also a plug for knowing your child’s awake windows!).

Our nap and bedtime songs even act as comfort “devices” throughout the day. When Avery is upset in the car, we sing one of our songs. Or if Olivia gets hurt, she often asks us to sing one of her songs.

And if you catch Olivia with a baby doll in hand, you’ll most often find her “rocking” her baby and singing “Jesus Loves Me” or “Be Thou My Vision” (our bedtime song).

Pro tip: be careful not to use those songs/snuggles as the means by which your child falls asleep or becomes too drowsy; this will actually disrupt her sleep (unless, of course, you’re on an airplane)! I suggest you choose a song and sing one verse – that way both you and your child know exactly how long the snuggles will last and she can drift off to sleep.

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep on an Airplane

newborn on airplane

Olivia on her first flight as a 6 week old.

Fly During the Day

When at all possible, plan to fly with your baby during the day rather than super late at night or super early in the morning.

Naps are definitely important, but if we have to make the choice between solid overnight sleep and solid naps, overnight sleep wins. And airplane sleep just isn’t as restorative as sleeping in your own environment, so let’s preserve your baby’s overnight sleep and fly during the day.

If you will be flying overnight, however, I recommend paying the extra money for a seat where you can also get the airplane bassinet attachment, both for your baby’s sleep and for yours!

Do Whatever it Takes

When I work with families, I am all about independent sleep – teaching babies and children to fall asleep without needing to feed, rock, suck on a pacifier, etc.

To get your baby to sleep on an airplane, however, there’s a good chance you’ll have to assist them more than usual, and for the sake of getting some kind of sleep, do whatever it takes; one day of off sleep is not going to ruin their sleep forever.

Lower Your Expectations

If your baby is usually only awake for two hours at a time and then falls asleep fairly quickly in their crib, there’s a good chance it will take your baby much longer to fall asleep on the airplane, making their nap later than usual. And that’s to be expected, as there are so many more distractions on an airplane than in their pitch black room at home!

Similarly, your baby’s airplane naps are likely going to be shorter than their typical naps at home, and again, that’s because there are so many more distractions on an airplane and that will make it harder for babies to connect their sleep cycles as naturally.

And that’s okay! I always say that there’s no such thing as “junk sleep,” so even a 20 minute nap will tide your little one over more than no nap! And that will go a long way on travel days.

What if They Just Don’t Sleep on the Airplane?

First of all, come prepared! Just in case your baby or toddler just won’t sleep, consider bringing an extra exciting snack, or a new or extra special toy, so when they really hit that wall of, I-should-be-sleeping-but-I’m-not, you can pull out something exciting enough that might just snap them out of the crankiness.

But also, if your baby or toddler simply does not sleep on the airplane, or takes a much shorter nap than usual, plan on having an early bedtime. And don’t see the early bedtime as a sure way to make your child wake up super early the next day, but see it as making up for lost sleep.

Or your baby may fall asleep in the carrier during your layover, or your toddler might fall asleep on the car ride to your final destination. Again, there nap may be later than usual, shorter than usual, less restorative, but some kind of sleep is better than no sleep!

If you’ll be changing time zones…

Read this blog post to learn more about how to navigate helping your child adjust to a new time zone and jet lag!

Conclusion

Traveling with little ones is not easy, and no matter how well we plan and prepare for those travel days, they generally don’t go as expected. If your child did not sleep on the airplane, give yourself grace!

It’s just one day, and the memories made while traveling are worth the off days!

With Grace,

Lauren

sleep on airplane