Yep, it is possible for your baby or toddler to sleep on an airplane! Getting them 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.
A few summers ago we got our two year old to nap on an airplane on multiple occasions and I was so thankful! 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, including:
- Fly during the day rather than at night
- Bring your routine onto the airplane
- Do whatever it takes to help your little one sleep on the plane
- Lower your expectations about what sleep on the plane will look like
- What to do if your baby or toddler just won’t sleep on the plane
1. 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 (even for adults!), 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 for your child. With babies and toddlers, you can bring a car seat on the plane for them which is not only the safest option for your little one but also makes it nice for everyone to be able to get some sleep without holding them the whole time! To learn more about how to fly with car seats, check out Safe in the Seat’s Wheels Up course.
Some airplanes also have an option where you can also get the airplane bassinet attachment, so if you’re flying overnight your baby could also sleep (or simply stretch out) in a bassinet!
2. Do the nap or bedtime routine on the airplane
Daily routines, including a nap routine 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 when we took longer flights with our oldest a few years ago!
The summer we took several flights with Olivia, who was almost 2 at the time, 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 her normal nap time came around and we were on the plane, 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.
3. Do whatever it takes to help your baby or toddler sleep
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 – feed them to sleep, bring the “emergency pacifier,” hold their hand while they’re sleeping, etc. One day of off sleep is not going to ruin their sleep forever!
4. Lower your expectations about sleep on the airplane
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.
We’ve recently flown with our girls, now ages 4.5 and 2.5, and we’ve brought their car seats on the plane with us. The flight happened over our 2.5 year old’s normal nap time, but for 2/3 flights she didn’t sleep at all! On the other flight, she fell asleep about five minutes before the plane landed, so we simply got off the plane at the very end to extend her nap to around 25 minutes or so.
What to do if your baby or toddler skips their nap altogether on the plane
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, which I always hope for if the airplane nap doesn’t work out! 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!
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!