By Brittney Stefanic
With the holidays approaching, it is pretty typical that parents start to worry about the sleep of their baby and/or toddler regressing in the coming weeks. And guess what? Those fears are justified and the holiday sleep struggle can be very, very real!
Between the travel, excitement, constant attention and then travel all over again a few days later to get home, the holidays are the single easiest way to throw all of your hard “sleep teaching” work out with the Christmas dinner leftovers and excess cardboard boxes from Amazon. There are a few major struggles to overcome with the upcoming holidays (and any associated travel) which can compound and create a bit of chaos!
But I’m happy to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way! With some strategic planning and these tips, you can keep your routine and schedule running like the well-oiled machine that it is at home.
1: Be purposeful about your travel times
If you’re driving to your destination, one trick is to schedule your driving time during your baby’s naps. Car naps aren’t ideal, but compared to no naps at all, they’re the lesser of two evils by a (very long) mile. So if at all possible, get on the road right around the time baby would normally be taking their first nap.
Now, if you’re flying, I’m sure you are extra nervous. It is no secret that planes and babies can be a tough combo, so I suggest (and this is the only time you’ll hear me say this) that you do whatever gets you through the flight with a minimum amount of fuss. This can include handing out snacks, allowing them to play with your phone, bringing new toys or games, and cuddling them to sleep. The truth is, keeping baby happy will be the main priority of air travel. If baby is tired, they will sleep, and if not, there isn’t much you can do about it. Attempting to force a nap will result in a lot of frustration for you, baby, and, most likely, the passengers around you.
Once you get to your destination, either create the time and space for a nap (if baby’s “regular” schedule aligns with that) or push through and aim for an earlier bedtime.
2: Create a similar sleep sanctuary
Make sure you bring your child’s lovey and/or blanket with you on the trip! Keeping consistency, as much as possible, is going to be a big win in your book. Familiarity is our friend because change is tough on little ones.
Along this same line, many parents decide to bed share with their baby or toddler while traveling because it seems like the easier option. This is fine if it is what you are used to at home, but if baby is sleeping independently at home, this may cause troubles on the road.
Plus, even if it is only for a few nights, your baby may quickly decide this is a new preferred sleep location, which could result in a bit of a bind when you return home and try to return them to their crib. Most hotels have a crib you can use or rent, or take your pack and play along and use that as a safe sleeping space. PS – Pack and plays (and all other baby gear including strollers and car seats) fly for free!
Darkness wins. Since daylight saving time has recently ended, the sun is rising earlier in the morning and can be a big trigger for waking. It is best to keep rooms dark, and I mean really dark, to avoid any decrease in production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and increase in cortisol, the awake hormone.
And while we’re on the subject of keeping things as familiar as possible, this tip extends beyond the sleeping space to all other sleep props. You might be tempted to slip baby a pacifier or rock her to sleep if she’s disturbing the rest of the house, but she is going to catch onto that really, really quickly. Chances are, small and random changes like this will result in confusion and you’ll be waking up every hour or two, rocking baby back to sleep or putting her pacifier back in, which is going to end up disturbing everyone a lot worse than a little extra protest at bedtime the first night or two.
3: Stagger the busy days and nights
During vacations, especially those around the holidays, we have a tendency to overbook ourselves. We try to pack in all the fun and adventure we might normally have had back in our “child-free” days of the holidays, forgetting an important fact: We have a child (or children) now. Obviously, there are many holiday activities to be enjoying with the whole family, but the days of 9 P.M. dinner parties and staying up until midnight on New Years Eve might be a bit more limited than they used to be.
If you plan to have a day on the road with minimal opportunity for solid naps, consider taking it easy that night so that you can plan for an early bedtime. On the flip side, if you have a late night planned because of a family get-together and card games at your great aunt’s house, be mindful that baby will need some extra time the next day to recuperate.
Purposefully building in some “down time” can be very helpful in avoiding the overstimulation and overtiredness. Plus, it gives you an excuse to opt-out of at least one or two activities that you weren’t too keen on anyways!
4: Discuss your expectations
If people are giving you a hard time about putting baby to bed despite the hustle and bustle of the holidays, let them know when your little one will be getting up so they can hang around, come back, or catch you the next time. Remember that you are the parents and YOU get to decide what your priorities are!
For many parents, this tip works even better if this conversation about expectations takes place before travel begins so that family members know when to expect some quality time based on the day and night schedule that you’ve worked so hard to create.
5: Give some time and space to get back on track when you return home
Once you return to home and are back to “normal”, be patient with getting back on track. If you can take an extra day off of work to adjust routines and schedules, that is great. If not, be sure to avoid slamming a whole bunch of extra responsibilities into that week. Vacations can be tough to recover from, and the holidays can too, so give yourself, and your kiddo(s), plenty of grace when adjusting.
Remember that independent sleep is a skill, so allowing your child the chance to recall the skill by supporting and comforting them may be necessary. At the end of the day, if the holidays causes them to jingle their way out of sleep, you can certainly help them to jingle their way back in!
Stay realistic in your expectations and holiday travel plans
I hope these tips are helpful in determining what to avoid when it comes to staying on track over the busy holiday season that is approaching. Above all, be realistic about your priorities, and don’t be afraid to voice your ideal plans to your family and friends.
This season might feel different than the ones before you had little ones around, but remember that different can also mean better. There’s nothing quite like seeing the magic of the holidays through the eyes of a child! By all means, enjoy the travel and making memories with friends and family all while doing your best to remember that kiddos crave consistency and stability.
Brittney Stefanic is a certified sleep consultant. She gets that the holidays are a completely exhausting seasons, especially as a parent! If your little ones are struggling with sleep, this time of year can be particularly challenging. As an educator, she believes in the power of teaching and loves supporting families in meeting their sleep goals through her customized sleep plans. You can follow her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook @brittneystefanicsleep for access to her free sleep tips and tricks and opportunities for sleep virtual Q&A sessions.