One of my most-asked questions about flying with kids is, “how do you get them to sleep?” The short answer is, we don’t. We have made a handful of key decisions about travel that make all the difference in our ability to relax and enjoy the time we have together as a family. Packing lightly is high on the list. Right behind it is our decision to stop worrying about sleep and schedules.
Our most frustrating transatlantic flight with kids was our first one. Not because Molly was upset. She didn’t shed a single tear as far as I remember. We were miserable because we had planned to sleep on the flight, and it didn’t happen. We had planned to get Molly to sleep on her normal bedtime schedule, and it didn’t happen. We spent most of the flight desperately trying to get her or ourselves to sleep and arrived exhausted and defeated.
Our trip to Rome was a turning point in many ways. One of the most lasting has been our approach to sleep and schedules. We decided after that trip that we would go into flights with the assumption that we wouldn’t get sleep and the understanding that the girls may not sleep. Now when any of us sleep it’s an unplanned gift that we celebrate but something we know isn’t necessary for the success of the trip. We have had trips where both girls fell asleep an hour into the flight and didn’t wake up until we were in our Airbnb. We’ve also had trips where they didn’t sleep a wink. Certainly spending eight or more hours with two tired toddlers in confined quarters is not my favorite time we’ve spent together. But it doesn’t affect anything beyond the time on the plane. Not even our first day.
We encourage them to sleep and gently remind them that it is an option. We set the stage with favorite bedtime stories, prayers, and offers to snuggle. But if they resist, we don’t force it. I have a difficult time sleeping on planes because of the constant action and less than ideal surroundings. I don’t expect my one and three year old daughters, who are generally fantastic sleepers, to be able to tune out what is happening around them more successfully. We’ve found that when we try to force sleep or encourage it too adamantly, it creates more stress for them and for us, making it even less likely that anyone will get sleep.
The question then becomes how we handle the time change transition once we arrive at our destination. This varies depending on the timing of flights and how far we travel, but our general routine is to sleep for two hours at our hotel or Airbnb and then get up and enjoy the city we’re in until at least 8pm. If those hours of sleep happen in the morning, we let the girls doze in their carriers as they need to throughout the day. We try to keep them awake from 3pm so they are tired when it’s bedtime, but there have been trips where that didn’t happen, and they still sleep through the night. Fueled by the excitement of being in a new or well-loved city, Jeff and I typically aren’t ready for bed by 8pm so we let the girls sleep in their carriers while we wander.
In the many times we’ve traveled, we have only had one difficult first night where Emma was wide awake from 1am-3am. The stimulation of travel, the low quality of sleep or lack of sleep on the plane, and the hours spent outside at our destination are usually more than enough to warrant a full night’s sleep and quick transition to our new timezone.