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Maintaining Your Child's Sleep Schedule Over the Holidays

Mom and Child with a santa hat

With the holidays quickly approaching, many new parents who have recently gotten their child sleeping on a schedule are worried that they might regress a little over the holidays.

And I can assure you, those fears could not be more well-founded.

Between the travel, the excitement, the constant attention, and then travel all over again, the holidays are the single easiest way to throw all of your hard work out with the wrapping paper and New Year's Eve hats.

But I’m happy to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way! With some strategic planning and an iron will, you can keep that carefully orchestrated routine running just the way you did at home.

There are two major impediments to your little one’s sleep over the holidays. One is travel and the other is family and friends, so I just want to tackle both of those topics individually.

First off, travel.

If you’re thinking about starting sleep training for your little one, but you’ve got to take a trip in a few weeks, my suggestion is to put off the training until you get back. (Although if you’re looking for an excuse to cancel your trip, not wanting to throw your baby’s sleep schedule out of whack, just blame it on me.).

If you’ve already started, not to worry. Taking a trip typically won’t help your little one sleep better, but if you can maintain some semblance of normalcy until the end of your trip, you and your child should be ready to get back to business as soon as you get home.

If you’re driving to your destination, a clever trick is to schedule your driving time over their naps. Car naps aren’t ideal, but compared to no naps at all, they’re the lesser of two evils by a mile. So, if at all possible, get on the road right around the time that they would normally be taking their first nap.

If you’re really committed, you might even look for some parks, tourist attractions, or other outdoor activities that are on your route where you can stop when your child gets up. It’s a great chance to get out into the sunshine and fresh air, which will make that next nap that much easier.

If you’re flying, well, my heart goes out to you.

It’s no secret that planes and kids just don’t seem to like each other, 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. Hand out snacks, let them play with your phone, and otherwise let them do anything they want to do. I've been there many times and most of the time it's easy, but on the rare occasion, buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Hopefully you can plan your plane rides around nap time, but the truth is, if they don’t want to sleep on the plane, they’re just not going to, so don’t try to force it. It will just result in a lot of frustration for both of you (and, most likely, the passengers around you). My best piece of advice is to ignore the other passengers and their rolling eyes when your child starts to scream from over-tiredness. They'll get over it! I also HIGHLY recommend no late-night flights. I've done it a few times with my kids, and it is NOT a good option because they get overtired and if you have my flying luck, you will have delays or canceled flights and then everyone is crying (including you).

holiday set up

Alright! You’ve arrived and hopefully, you’ve managed to maintain some degree of sanity. Now, I’m sorry to say, comes the hard part.

Because in the car or on the plane, everybody is on your side, right? Keeping baby quiet and relaxed, and hopefully asleep, is just what everyone is rooting for.

But now that you’re at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, it’s just the opposite. Everyone wants to keep baby awake so they can see him, play with him, take a thousand pictures, and get him ridiculously overstimulated. And it’s exceptionally difficult to tell all of these friends and family

members that you’re putting an end to the fun because the baby needs to get to sleep.

With that said, if you need permission to be the bad guy, I’m giving it to you right here and now. Don’t negotiate, don’t make exceptions, and don’t feel bad about it. Firmly explain to anyone who’s giving you the “I’ll just sneak in a take a quick peek,” routine that baby’s in the middle of sleep training and you’re not taking any chances of them waking up. Let them know when baby will be getting up and tell them to hang around, come back, or catch you the next time. Or better yet, tell people in advance when to expect some baby time based on baby’s schedule.

I know it sounds harsh, but the alternative is an almost immediate backslide right back into day one. Baby misses a nap, gets all fired up because of all the new faces and activity, then over-tiredness kicks in, cortisol production goes up, and the next nap is ruined, which results in more over-tiredness which derails nighttime sleep, and before you know it, you’re headed home, and it seems like baby did nothing but cry the entire trip.

I’m not even slightly exaggerating. It happens that quickly. I've been there. It will not be a silent night.

OK, you’ve steeled your nerves and let everyone know that you’re not budging on baby’s schedule. She took her naps at the right times, and now it’s time for bed. The only catch is that, with all of the company staying at the house, there’s only one room for you and baby.

No problem, right? Bed-sharing for a few nights isn’t the end of the world, after all.

I wish I could make it that easy for you, but again, you want to make this as little of a deviation from the normal routine as possible, and babies can develop a real affinity for co-sleeping in as little as one night.

This may sound a little unorthodox, but if you’re sharing a room, what I suggest is simple.

Make it into two rooms.

I’m not saying you need to bust out the lumber and drywall, but I do suggest hanging a blanket, setting up a dressing screen, or, yes, I’m going to go ahead and say it, put baby in the closet/bathroom.

That sounds crazy, I know, but really, a decent sized closet or bathroom is a great place for baby to sleep. It’s dark, it’s quiet, she won’t be distracted by being able to see you, and people accidentally walking in and out of the room are much less likely to distract her. If you're local to Buffalo, NY I have a Slumber Pod I rent out to families. It is great for this exact situation (just send me a message letting me know you're interested)!

Baby with a pacifier

And while we’re on the subject of “no exceptions,” that rule extends 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

the house, but baby is going to latch on to that really, really quickly, and chances are 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 half hour of crying at 7:00 at night.

Now, on a serious note, I find the biggest reason that parents give in on these points is, quite simply, because they’re embarrassed. There’s a house full of eyes and they’re all focused on the new baby, and by association, the parent.

The feeling that everyone is making judgments about how you’re parenting is nearly overwhelming in these family gatherings, but in those moments, remember what’s really important here: Your baby, your family, and their health and well-being.

There may well be a few people who feel a bit jaded because you put baby to bed just when they got in the door, and your mother might tell you that putting your baby in the closet for the night is ridiculous but remember you’re doing this for a very noble cause. Perhaps the most noble cause there is.

Some other tips for maintaining your child's schedule over the holidays:

1. Adjust your sleep schedules with naps. If you normally wake your child in the morning or from nap, let them sleep a little longer to get a bit of extra sleep.

2. If your holiday party is smack dab in the middle of the day, you can skip nap and bring bedtime earlier (I'm talking 6:00pm for ages 7months-4 years).

3. Aim for one nap at home if possible. One restorative nap is better than none!

4. Bring your own pack n play, sound machine, sheets, and anything else familiar for your child to take a nap at someone else's house!

5. Expect a few hiccups to happen and know that IT'S OKAY! Enjoy your time with family and friends and jump back on track the following day.

In the end, stand tall and remember that you’re a superhero, defending sleep for those who are too small to defend it for themselves. If you want to wear a cape and give yourself a cool superhero name, you go right ahead. Just remember that, like any superhero, you may be misunderstood by the masses.

Ignore them. You’re on a mission.

If, when the holidays are over and you need help getting back on track, you know where to find me.

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