The holidays can bring special challenges for your children’s sleep. Between travel, celebrations and all of the excitement around these special times, it may be difficult to keep sleep on track.

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It’s generally true that the more solid a child’s sleep foundation is in general, the less likely they are to be affected by minor or temporary disruptions in routine. So if you’ve already invested in helping your baby or child develop solid sleep skills, you needn’t worry that the holidays will bring them back to square one. If sleep is already an issue for your family, the holidays can magnify problems. (Probably why I get so many calls from parents at the end of Thanksgiving weekend or winter vacation!).

But whether you have rockstar sleepers at home, or nights are already a bit rocky, there are some things we all can do to help the holidays and sleep mix a little better:

  • Maintain your regular routine as much as you can.  Overtired kids have less fun and are less fun to be around.  Try not to push bedtime too late and do your best to protect naptime. If you need to sacrifice either bedtime or naptime on a given day, do your best to keep the other one in place.
  • Bring relatives into the loop.  Before any visit or get-together, let your loved ones know about your priorities regarding sleep. If you’ve decided to head back to the hotel for a midday nap so that your young toddler can get some rest before a big family evening, explain this to your parents ahead of time.  If your strategy is to wing it during the day then rely on the fallback of an early bedtime, make sure your in-laws get the memo beforehand, so they’re not too surprised later.
  • Naps on the go aren’t ideal, but they’re a lot better than missing the nap entirely. If you’re staying out all day, try to work out the schedule so that you’re in the car, on the plane, or in a comfy stroller for naptime.  If you’ve got a long car ride or flight lasting several hours or more, consider changing the kids into their pajamas and book a red-eye, or drive to your destination overnight (you’ll beat some of that holiday traffic, too). Just make sure all the grownups drive safely by taking shifts and breaks if you need to.
  • Bring along the comforts of home.  If you use a sound machine at home, pack it, or add a white noise app to an iPod or other mobile device. Babies and young toddlers often do best in a familiar travel crib, which they can learn to be comfortable with by sleeping in it at home before a trip.  Thier usual pillow (or even just their own pillowcase), blanket and sheet can all help add a feeling of security for toddlers. And of course, a lovey or favorite stuffed animal should always come along for the ride. At home, I’ve always kept a strict rule that loveys stay in a child’s crib or room at all times. The only times I relax this rule is when we are traveling! They provide extra calm and security and help encourage napping on the go when needed.
  • Hello darkness, my old friend. Little ones sleep best in a dark environment, especially in unfamiliar, potentially stimulating places.  Make sure your hotel or guest room is set to the shade of sleep by packing temporary blackout shades or a dark bedsheet with tools for hanging, like safety pins and non-marking painter’s tape. In a pinch, a few black trash bags taped directly to the windows work as well as the most deluxe curtains.
  • Don’t be afraid to let some things slide.  Even though sleep is important, the holidays are also about relaxing, so it’s okay to loosen up a little.  Once my clients have built a solid sleep foundation at home, I recommend they use a “90/10 rule” in which they stick to their schedule and routine most of the time, but let things slide every once in a while. On vacation, you might loosen it further to 80/20 or even 70/30, as long as meltdowns don’t ruin the fun for everyone.
  • Clarify that what happens at grandma’s stays at grandma’s. Let your toddler or child know that these are special circumstances, without making them sound too attractive. If you’re temporarily sleeping in the same room, tell them,“We’re all going to sleep together here. When we get home, you and Mr. Dinosaur get to have your own room again!”
  •  When you get home from a trip or after a few late nights, focus on returning to your normal routine as quickly as possible. Keep outside commitments to a minimum and try to stick close to home for a day or two while you work on getting back into a regular groove with nap and bedtime. Giving all of you this adjustment time will help avoid having any temporary issues turn into a permanent problem.

Wishing you happy and peaceful times together with friends and family this holiday season!

Dr. Sasha Carr is a pediatric sleep expert dedicated to helping families have happier days together. In addition to running her private sleep coaching practice, Off to Dreamland, Dr. Carr serves on the faculty of the Family Sleep Institute.  For additional sleep help, sign up for Dr. Carr’s free sleep tips or visit her site at offtodreamland.com

Sasha Carr

Dr. Sasha Carr is a psychologist and child sleep expert who has helped over 1000 families get healthier sleep. Dr. Carr serves as a faculty member of the Family Sleep Institute and is the author of Putting Bungee to Bed, a bedtime picture book aimed at helping children be better sleepers. You can learn more about her services here.

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