The Land of Nod: Sleep Options for Travelling with Young Children
To some, holidays are for sleeping in. To others, holidays are for staying up. In our house, opinions are divided – the parents like to sleep in and the kids like to stay up. Yeah, you know what I mean.
When we do convince them to catch some shut-eye we face a different problem: what sort of sleeping arrangements will allow us to rest without causing physical injury either to the vulnerable, young child or the adult who has to carry the luggage? Let me lay out the options as I see them, in roughly ascending order of age.
1. BYO Porta-cot/Travel Cot (Babies and Young Toddlers)
This is my least favourite option. For a start, many hotels will hire cots on request. Secondly, neither of our children – not even the one who sleeps pretty much anywhere – has ever really slept in a cot.
(This was not for lack of trying. If you’d witnessed the amount of screaming and wailing (some of it theirs) we invested in trying to get them to sleep in the place many people naturally assume babies will/should sleep in, you’d know that we tried, and just as an aside, I regret every single wasted moment we spent trying. Having used hired and borrowed porta-cots to no avail, I’m just grateful I didn’t add insult to injury by forking out lots of money on them myself.)
We did buy a Kidco Travel Tent at one point, which I’m pleased to say has had a lot of use as a play tent, so it hasn’t been a complete waste. We’ve had no luck getting a child to sleep in it, though, and then there was that whole product recall/suffocation issue after which I was put off the whole travel tent idea (at least for babies) – not that it would have been a big concern for us because see above re: not ever sleeping in it. It came with us on one trip and has not been invited again.
But you might be different.
Update: Vilma from Free But Fun also suggests using your stroller’s port-cot attachment, if you have one. And expatlingo recommended the LittleLife Arc2 Travel Cot, which I haven’t tried. Then Jen at Here We Go Again goes the extra mile and gets her kids used to the travel cot before the holiday, although she can’t guarantee that does anything (but it’s definitely worth a try).
- You’ll know what you’re getting, and you won’t need to rely on anyone else to provide it.
- Provides over 85% of your daily exercise requirements in repeated bending, lifting and soothing.
- Bonus Tip: a sarong, pashmina or unfastened ring-sling across a porta-cot can make an insect-resistant cover and blackout shade.
- Those things don’t exactly fit in a carry-on-sized back pack.
- You have to fork out for a whole travel cot. That said, there’s a good chance you’ll find something only lightly-used in your local second hand market. Although if it’s easy to find lightly-used versions of things, it’s often because they’re next to useless.
2. Hired Cots/Side Rails (Babies and Toddlers)
We’ve never had any problems finding hotels which supply cots. It’s really common. The quality can vary, however (especially when it comes to safety standards in countries without stringent safety standards), and not all hotel staff are well trained in how to put them together. Side rails for toddlers are only occasionally available in our experience.
- Nothing to pack!
- When it doesn’t work, you’ll have wasted only a relatively small hire fee, and not a whole purchase price. (Although if you know what works, you can try hiring it specifically from a baby hire company at your destination, like Bubs On The Move, rather than relying on what’s available at the hotel. I can’t promise it’ll work on holiday like it does at home, but the odds have got to be better.)
- Whereas portacots don’t generally come equipped with four casters, the hotel cot might. Then if nothing else, the kids can use them for this:
- You have to book a hotel which supplies them.
- You might be disappointed with what you get and/or have to take it apart in order to put it back together properly.
3. Co-sleeping (All Ages)
Hold up your fingers to show how many times you think we’ve co-slept on holiday? Trick question – no-one has that many fingers. The eldest, in particular, has always needed a bit of extra comfort away from home, and we didn’t find it ruined his usual routine in the slightest (mind you, as mentioned, not much to ruin). We’ve always been able to get up and do our thing for a few hours once he’s asleep if we want to (and are physically able to keep our eyes open).
Babies can sleep between parents, possibly on a change mat or bed nest (thanks Aunty Z for the very useful baby nest!). Older kids can share a double or large single bed with one parent – preferably using the side nearest the wall to prevent rolling out (but beware of entrapment between the bed and wall, especially with young babies).
When T turned nearly-two years old, we started co-sleeping the children together on holidays – with the youngest next to the wall. These days, they often use either a double bed or two singles pushed together.
- No extra cots/bedding required (except for the optional snuggle nest).
- You might actually get some sleep.
- You need to be aware of advice on co-sleeping.
- Some people whose names start with A find it difficult to sleep in the same bed as children, especially wriggly children.
4. Floor Sleeping (All Ages)
In some parts of the world – such as tatami-happy Japan – this is known simply as “sleeping”. If you’re holidaying in those parts, you need only book local-style accommodation and you’re good to go. This was our tactic when we visited Taiwan with a ten-month-old, and we plan to use it again on our ski holiday to Japan early next year.
In other parts of the world, you’ll need to either remove the mattress from the bed (and put it back before you have a run-in with housekeeping) or BYO camp mattress (ours are self-inflating so we don’t miss even the narrowest windows of settling opportunity).
A couple of pieces of carefully-placed furniture can make a floor mattress into a de facto cot. Don’t ask me why our children sleep better on a de-facto-cot-camp-floor-mattress than in an actual cot, but they both do. We’ve used this tactic many times.
Update: Bethaney from Flashpacker Family has recommended an inflatable toddler bed – an air mattress with pump and light sleeping bag cover which turns into a bag! She reports that it only takes five minutes with a foot pump to inflate (and the small amount of exercise probably – if anything – enhances the quality of your sleep). A hasty google also shows a model with side rails.
- Camp mattresses are much more packable than porta-cots.
- No big deal if they roll off (especially with tatami mats or very thin mattresses).
- (Our) children actually sleep this way, and so do (our) adults.
- If you’re going for a camp mattress, you still have to pack something, which is less convenient than hiring a hotel cot, assuming they’ll sleep in one.
5. Bed Tents (Older Toddlers and Up)
It’s not always convenient/desirable to put a mattress on the floor, and in any case, none of the above solutions protect against insects (except maybe the sarong-over-porta-cot one). Enter the bed tent.
On our trip to Cambodia last year we packed our king-sized box net plus the poles from our two-person tent. Well-secured poles plus a firm tuck on all sides provides protection against both insects and accidentally rolling off onto the floor. Note that you probably won’t prevent rolling altogether – you’ll slow it down, preventing injury (sofartouchwood). If you don’t secure the poles well or tuck everything firmly you won’t have much protection at all.
Both children co-slept together under the same bed tent. They either used a double bed or we pushed both singles together. For added protection against rolling accidents, we slept the youngest next to the wall, where available.
If it’s mainly mosquitoes you’re worried about, pop-up mosquito tents make life easier. I have less trust in these when it comes to roll-prevention, though, unless they’re securable and fully enclosed on the bottom, which many aren’t. You can see one in action at Zinc Sailing.
After much deliberation, we’re looking into buying a two-person all-mesh (three seasons) tent for Christmas to add to our current two-person capacity so we can all camp out together in future (recommendations welcome). Once properly secured on top of a double bed, this should provide the best in both roll-accident and mosquito bite prevention. In a similar vein, Ali has a special safety-designed bed tent for her eight-year-old daughter, who has special needs, and recommends it.
The bed tent is something we’ve used from around two years old up. I wouldn’t be comfortable using it for babies, except if co-sleeping with parents under the usual guidelines or if using a baby-specific product – otherwise I’d be worried about entrapment against the sides, and suffocation.
- Roll protection and insect protection.
- Suitable for older children.
- Some stuff to pack.
- Not very suitable for infants, except under usual co-sleeping guidelines or using baby-specific product.
- Update (from A): if using your tent poles, it may ruin them slightly a bit.
I loved the extra ideas/experience/advice I got last time we had one of these discussions. If you can see anything I’ve missed here, let me know and I’ll update the post accordingly. And please share your experiences – it always fascinates me to hear of infants who sleep in actual infant beds.
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