Having survived dozens of trips, both short and long, with babies who are dependent on some form of repetitive motion to fall asleep, I feel like I have a lot of advice to give to other parents in similar situations. Traveling with children is already a challenge but when you also have a child who depends on rocking in a chair or glider or another form of motion that involves a specific piece of furniture then things get really interesting. Unless you can strap your rocking chair to the top of your car you are faced with a major issue. How the **** am I going to get my kid to sleep without _______? (you fill in the blank).
I’ve had to get creative (sometimes very creative) to handle this very real threat to an otherwise fun vacation. I’m going to list the various rocking chair/yoga ball substitutes for travel and some other helpful tips for conquering even the most motion dependent sleeper.
First keep in mind a few general tips that will make all of these substitute sleep methods go easier no matter where you are.
-Children sleep best when they aren’t overtired. Vacations usually mean that you’ve spent the day doing fun things, often walking and playing. Naturally your baby is exhausted and may have even skipped their nap(s). Now here you are without your sleep crutch and trying a new tactic. I feel for you, I really do, and I have been there. If AT ALL possible avoid getting to the overtired part of the day. Schedule activities around a nap or get back to your hotel/room before it is too late. Overtired babies will fight your best attempts at helping them sleep. Sometimes they will tire themselves out from the crying but no one really enjoys that and if you have been rocking your baby to sleep every night you are probably not going to be OK with that.
-Avoid an overtired baby but a tired baby is a GOOD thing! When I can I try to make sure my baby has had a nice walk before his nap and before bed when we are traveling. Sitting in a stroller or baby carrier while seeing the sights does a lot to make you tired but not your baby. If they are old enough to walk/play a nice 30 minute bit of exercise might make the motion routine for their nap or bed shorter than if they had not tired themselves out.
-Be as consistent as you can and replicate your home routine while traveling. If you read books before bed, do it in the hotel. If you always sing or hum a song while rocking your baby to sleep, sing or hum the same song while trying a different technique. I like choosing a portable and easy “crutch” so that every bedtime routine has a little something the same no matter where we are. For some babies that is a lovey. For my Fletcher it was reading “The Tiny Seed” and singing “You Are My Sunshine.” For my Everett it is singing “Lullaby and Goodnight” and patting him.
-Remember that traveling with children is about survival! As much as I hate to say it I will: Some trips will **** up your routine. For us travel often reverts my babies back to being rocked or bounced or cuddled or nursed to sleep even after I have progressed to not doing these things at home. I have never had “easy” sleepers and if you are reading this you probably don’t either. Do your best to have a fun trip even if it means taking a step back or “spoiling” your child by going that extra mile to help them fall asleep without having to make them cry themselves to sleep.
All of the following tips come from my personal experience with two very needy sleepers. I’ve tried and done just about everything you can think of and we have traveled a lot for work, fun, and family. I tried to list these in order of most effective and highest recommended to the last resort or least effective methods.
For the first few months of my sons’ lives I relied heavily on a baby carrier to help bounce them to sleep when we were traveling. A carrier is compact and can fit in any suitcase or diaper bag, even when flying. The motion of walking, or for the more particular babies, bouncing while standing/walking, inside of a carrier will usually lull your little one to sleep. Even at home when times were tough I used to bounce Fletcher to sleep while he laid against my chest in a wrap. Babywearing naps are the best for traveling since you are often out and about. You can attend tours (I’ve ridden in two different Duck Boat Tours with a napping baby on my chest) and sight see and baby catches a snooze. If you need to you can only use the carrier to get the baby to sleep, then carefully transfer them to their bed for the nap or night.
I’ve used the stroller method more for my youngest baby Everett to help him fall asleep. Strollers can turn into instant travel beds for babies who are susceptible to the smooth ride. Unlike a baby carrier, once the baby is asleep after a nice little walk (or a push back and forth in a hotel room), the stroller can be stopped and parked with the brake on in a safe place for the duration of the nap. I don’t suggest allowing a baby to sleep in the stroller all night however. If you have a baby who relies on more vigorous motion (bouncing) for sleeping, try using a stroller with good suspension, like a jogger, and gently push down the handle. This will let you bounce them up and down to sleep. When Everett attended a conference with me last year this was the ONLY way he would nap during this loud event. A bonus of using the stroller method- if your baby will ONLY fall asleep for you or your spouse the stroller can trick a baby to fall asleep for a babysitter or family member. I don’t usually leave him with anyone when a nap or bedtime is involved but on the two occasions I have I made the babysitter push the stroller in the house. It worked.
Virtually every single hotel room has a desk and a swiveling rocking chair. Moms are nothing is not creative. Substitute the office chair for your at home glider or rocker! Some office chairs have enough give or even rock so you can get enough back and forth to rock your little one to sleep. If you can’t, either swivel side to side or skip to the next method.
Rock in a Stationary Chair:
Sometimes you can fool your baby into thinking they are rocking in a glider when in fact you are seated on a couch or in a chair and just rocking your body back and forth. It might kill your back (ok, it will kill your back), but it can be effective and you won’t be on your feet waiting for them to fall asleep.
My husband used to have this maneuver I coined the “magic daddy thing” because when my oldest refused all of my best tricks he would still go to sleep for his Dad. Unfortunately this “magic daddy thing” isn’t exactly fun or comfortable. In our case my husband had to stand upright and cradle our son in his arms then bounce fairly quickly up and down using his knees. Our son would fight it (remember, he was usually already upset and fighting sleep to begin with, this was the emergency weapon in our arsenal) and it could take up to an hour some nights. When we had no other option to get him to sleep when traveling this was how he was put to sleep. I could never make this work for me (mainly because he saw me as someone who put him to sleep in a different way. He just pushed his body off) and for my husband it was physically exhausting. The biggest drawback of this method is that it relies on your strength. In our case, if he didn’t keep up the momentum or pattern it could reset the clock. Still, when you are desperate something has to give.
The Yoga Ball:
Have Giant Ball- Will Travel. That was my motto for 20 months with Everett. After battling what we later learned was a dairy intolerance, my son was addicted to being bounced to sleep on a Yoga Ball. Even if your baby isn’t used to being bounced on a yoga ball specifically (although this is more common than I realized before we started this 2 years ago) they do pack up easily when traveling by car! Deflate it and pack your pump if you must. Although having a compressor at your destination will make your life much easier. Once your ball is inflated it is like being back at home. If you usually rely on a rocker/glider or a baby swing a ball might still work for you. Rather than bouncing you can sit on an under inflated ball and rock back and forth on the ball and create a “faux” rocking chair. Almost all hotels with fitness centers will have a yoga ball. I’ve borrowed them by asking the hotel staff and bounced Ev to sleep in my room too.
Boobs are very powerful for most babies when it comes to sleep. I have no problems utilizing their awesome power to induce sleep for my children. I realize many parents avoid “nursing to sleep” and don’t want to start that habit. Well, that is OK for home and if you subscribe to this philosophy that is your prerogative. If you are OK with nursing your baby to sleep then this will aid you greatly when traveling. Your boob is always with you and requires no extra space in your luggage or additional baggage fees. If your baby still needs motion in addition to breastfeeding you can add the boob into any of the above methods (except possibly just standing and bouncing without babywearing).
Beds Are Bouncy:
Like I said before, I’ve tried every method out there while traveling. My children have never really slept in cribs and moved from our bed and co-sleeping to their own Twin Size bed. When we traveled they also slept in our bed or their own large bed. If your baby is used to a crib or you fear they will fall out of bed then this might not be for you. However, when my husband and I were completely exhausted after a long day of traveling or sight seeing sometimes we couldn’t move a muscle to physically rock our son to sleep. Cue the lazy parent’s bouncer- the bed. Sit or lay next to your baby and gently push the bed down next to them so that they feel the bouncing. Memory foam or extra thick pillow tops won’t work as well but the fold out couches are great for this maneuver. You can even kneel next to them for bigger bounces if you need them. Typically I also “shhhh” them or lay next to them and nurse while using my hand to bounce the bed. Awkward but effective.
Instinctively many parents already pat their babies on the backs while they soothe them. While patting isn’t exactly a motion it has worked for both of my children as a substitute for rocking/bouncing when we have traveled. It isn’t nearly as effective or fast as the real thing or the above mentioned substitutes. It is a method that only worked when the baby was a. Exhausted and too tired to fight and b. they were a bit older. I have always “shhhhed” while patting. I’ve also been able to bounce the baby by lighting patting their back on a springy bed.
Go For a Drive:
I listed this last but when you are desperate sometimes you just need to put the baby in the carseat and take a drive. I’ve done it. You’ve done it too. When your sanity and the happiness of your baby is at stake then by all means, drive them to sleep. If you can transfer them from the seat back to a crib or bed then that is even better. Even a 15 minute cat nap might make the rest of your day more enjoyable and help make bed time routine easier without an overtired mess on your hands.
The most important thing while traveling with your baby is to keep everyone sane and happy. I can recall many nights of holding back tears and I, exhausted and ready for bed myself, tried everything on the list and still had a crying baby in my arms. Being away from home is just HARD sometimes and we all miss those comforts we are accustomed to. Your baby misses their swing or you miss that reliable rocking chair. While I think I should start a petition to have all hotels keep a loaner glider for moms for now we have to learn other ways to get our children to sleep when they aren’t self sufficient and can’t fall asleep without that motion.
One day your baby WON’T need you to jump through these crazy hoops and will let you lay next to them, or simply hold their hand. With my 4 year old he is completely fine going to bed with a kiss (after I rocked him to sleep for the first 20 months of his life) but when traveling we still sometimes have to lay next to him or keep a firm hand on his back just so he knows we are there. Until then take solace in the fact that there are others out there doing the same things, looking just as nuts, being just as exhausted and stressed, and we are all secretly quoting lines from “Go the F*** To Sleep” while swearing to the almighty that next week we start working on this whole sleep thing….