By Mary Beth Gibson
The holiday season is absolutely magical when you have small children. Every light display, sweet treat, and family tradition is more exciting viewed through their eyes for the first time. There’s nothing quite like watching your baby gaze up in wonder at all the lights and reach for all the shiny baubles; however, while the season itself is magical, the day everyone gathers together to open presents and eat special food can become stressful and frustrating when you have babies and toddlers.
Here are some things to consider as you prepare for your Christmas celebration, whether it’s an enormous family gathering at Grandma’s house or something small at home. Keeping these things in mind will help both youandyour child enjoy the day with fewer tears.
- Travel Smart
A lot of us will be traveling for Christmas this year. Whether it’s just an hour away or an entire day of flights and layovers and rental cars, traveling with toddlers and babies can feel like an enormous production. Sometimes it absolutely can’t be helped, but if you’re driving more than an hour, the best plan is always to travel on one day and celebrate on another. As any of us with little ones knows, trying to get a nap set up as soon as you arrive at a relative’s house is practically impossible. Plan for the babies to sleep in the car so everyone can greet each other and exchange hugs without rushing when you arrive.
Get your supplies for the drive ready ahead of time, too. Pre-pack snacks and more than one cup for each child—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to unbuckle my seat belt to try to grab a lost sippy cup while we’re driving. Not safe! Bring more than one cup so no one has to unbuckle on the road. Have a tablet or a DVD player in the car? Pre-load it with your favorite holiday movie or show the day before and make sure it has a full charge. Bring car-friendly activities like books, stickers, and activity pads. Buy a brand new activity book and wrap it like a present as an extra special way to start your adventure!
- Value Sleep and Naps
It’s hard, it really is. When you have relatives who haven’t seen the babies in awhile or you want to pack the day full of fun activities and outings it can be really hard to be thatperson. The one who says you can’t come along because the baby needs a nap. The one who has to disappoint the toddler because he can’t go play outside and has to take a nap instead. The one who has to stay at home with the sleeping babies while all the other adults go out for a late movie. It’s hard, but it’s important to advocate for what’s best for your children. If your sweet ones have an easy time falling asleep on Dad’s shoulder or will happily curl up on the couch around all the cousins for a little cat nap, then count your lucky stars! And if naps or an early bedtime just aren’t feasible, plan for extra rest the next day. Even though a toddler wants to play all day and all night, his body is still developing rapidly and needs sleep!
- Feed the Beast
If you have a toddler then you are well-aware of the fact that “hangry” is much more than a funny word. It is a very real phenomenon that causes more toddler meltdowns and more parental frustration than any other one thing. My three-year-old always has a small snack sometime around 10:00, and I can’t tell you how many times the weekend rolls around and we’re enjoying a fun activity and suddenly he’s throwing a tantrum for no reason I can see. At least, that’s what I think until I look at the clock and realize it’s noon and he’s probably quite hungry. As soon as the first few bites of lunch get gulped down he’s suddenly a different child. Calm. Agreeable. Smiling and laughing again.
The days that don’t follow our standard daily rhythm are rife with opportunities for Hangry Toddler Syndrome to crop up. Keep some snacks on hand and try to offer your child something at about the same time he’d be having it at home. It might even be needed earlier as he uses up energy more quickly by running around with cousins and buzzing from all the excitement of the day. It’s also hard to ensure your child eats good food on a day when treats and sugar are fair game all day long, but do your best and encourage your relatives to keep the cookies up where the kids can’t grab whatever they want whenever they want.
- Spread out the Gifts
Have you opened presents with a two-year-old before? They open one present and immediately demand that it be opened up RIGHT NOW so they can play with it. Then they have ten more presents to unwrap. The more gifts they rip open the less they enjoy them. Each new presents gets tossed aside faster than the last until eventually there’s a huge pile of presents left unused and unloved with frustrated adults who wanted to watch joy and excitement instead of indifference. If you’re opening presents with little children around, see if you can make an entire day of it. Open stockings before breakfast. A couple more before lunch. Tear into a small pile after nap time. Open the last few after dinner and before bed. This way every person gets to watch the little ones enjoy each present and the children have an opportunity to immediately play with a present without the pressure to open another.
- Enlist a Wingman
Get someone in your corner who isn’t your spouse. When you know Aunt Susan is going to make a fuss that you’re taking the baby upstairs for yet another nap it can give huge peace of mind to know that your mom or your brother will chime in to support you. Or if you know that your three-year-old is timid and won’t immediately want to hug everyone, ask your sister to help you reign in Uncle Jerry. Sometimes it’s easier for people to assume that parents are too overprotective or precious with their children, but if a request comes from someone who isn’t a parent they’re more likely to accept it.
- Choose Your Battles
Sometimes a situation just is what it is. A big, special day where lots of things and places are different than normal creates a lot of excitement and a lot of overwhelming emotions. Sometimes trying to enforce the same behavior and routine you’d expect on a normal day creates more problems than it solves. You know your family best, and you know your child best. Decide ahead of time what you’re ok just letting go of and what you’re going to stand your ground on. Trying to make a split-second discipline decision while ten relatives are watching you is nerve-wracking, and it creates more opportunities to react out of exasperation, frustration, and desperation. Decide what matters most to you and be willing to let the rest slide for a day. One missed nap or one day eating in the living room will not totally ruin your careful routine you’ve worked so hard to create at home.
- Let Go of Expectations
Finally, we come to the hardest point. We all have expectations when we spend a day with loved ones. We can’t help it. Christmas, especially, comes with a lot of expectations. There’s enormous pressure to create happy memories, give the perfect gifts, eat the perfect food, and enjoy sweet moments with family; however, babies and young children are driven by wants and needs that often don’t mesh well with our expectations on special holidays. Sometimes the gingerbread house decorating ends in a tantrum with the house in pieces on the floor. Sometimes a baby is teething and cries if anyone but mama holds them all day long. Sometimes the toddler ignores the present you spent weeks deciding on and plays all day with the box. Sometimes the kids are just exhausted and have to go to bed before the special Christmas movie tradition. Remind yourself that Christmas is not ruined. If something different than what you’d prefer ends up happening it’s still possible to find laughter, hope, and joy in the situation. That’s what’s best about spending Christmas with the ones you love.
Mary Beth Gibson graduated from Wichita State University in 2007 with a BA in Creative Writing and blogs at Bright Sycamore. She enjoys most things natural, but with a healthy dose of practicality and affordability. You can most likely find her at Target chasing her toddler with a baby strapped to her chest. She lives in Kansas with her husband and her two children, ages 3 and 10 months.