It has taken you a few weeks to get your child into a good routine and to sleep well. Now that you've put in the time, effort and energy in to making these big changes, that trip you have planned over the festive season is starting to stress you out! If you're like most parents, your biggest fear is that a trip is going to derail all the progress you've made and cause you to start the sleep training process all over again.
The good news is that you don't have to cancel travel plans and confine yourself to the house for the rest of your child's life. It is possible to have children who travel really well, if you keep a few things in mind.
The biggest mistake that parents make is to over-schedule their holiday. They try to pack in all the fun and adventure they might normally have had back in their child-free days - all the while forgetting an important fact; you have a child now!! While it is great to get out and about and see as many family/friends and attractions as you can, it is important to allow some down time and nap time for your child.
An occasional car nap or slightly later bedtime isn't going to do too much harm. BUT, if your child spends a couple of days taking naps in the car, with later bedtimes, they may become overtired quickly. By the time bed time rolls around on day 2 or 3 they have probably become so overtired that they have a complete meltdown and 'forget' their sleep skills and cry their eyes out. If that happens, you may become very nervous because a) your child who has been happily self-settling for weeks is now crying again, and b) your Mother-in-law is standing outside the door repeatedly asking if you're sure the baby is okay?
There are two major impediments that will affect your little one’s sleep over the holidays. One is travel and the other is family and friends, so I want to tackle both of those topics individually.
First off, travel.
If you’re thinking about starting sleep training your little one, but you’re going away in a few weeks, my suggestion is to put off implementing 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 is a pretty good one.) If you’ve already started, don't worry! Going away for a short time 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 baby 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 baby’s 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, try and get on the road around the time that baby would normally be taking their first nap. If you’re really committed, you could even look for some parks, tourist attractions, or other outdoor activities that are on your route where you can stop when baby 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- we have all been there! It’s no secret that planes and babies 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. Plan ahead and pack as many things that you can think of to keep you child occupied and comfortable. Hand out snacks, let them play with your phone, basically let them do anything they want to do. 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.) If you have to resort to 'old ways' to get your child to settle down the do so. Just know that as soon as you land it's back to the sleep plan.
So, you've arrived at your destination - what now?
Well-rested children handle jetlag much better than sleep-deprived adults. If your child has had a great schedule leading up to the trip, they should slide into the new time zone without too much trouble. It is best to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as you can.
If you really feel like your child needs an extra nap to catch up a bit, then to limit it to 45 minutes. Don't let your child nap too close to bedtime. If it a choice between a strangely timed dinner time nap or an earlier bedtime - I suggest you go with the earlier bedtime.
Sunlight is a useful tool in helping both you and your child adjust to the new time zone, since light is the most powerful time cue our bodies have. Try to plan meals and socialising around the new time zone too, and get an hour or two of fresh air in the early afternoon. When evening rolls around, make sure you do the opposite! Use blackout blinds, and keep light to a minimum a couple of hours before you want your child to go to bed. This will help stimulate Melatonin production, which makes your child sleepier.
If possible, take your child's sleeping bag or sleep toy/comforter with you when you travel. It will provide some comfort and familiarity for them when going bed and for falling asleep.
So, 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, quite often there’s only one room for you and your child. A big mistake parents often make is to bed share with their baby or toddler while traveling. Bed sharing is a big no-no!! Even if it is only for a few nights, it won't take long for your child to decide this is their preferred location. You will likely find yourself starting the sleep plan all over again when you get home.
If your child is eight months or older, my advice is to try and make some sort or a private space for your baby to sleep. Most hotels have a Portacot or fold out bed available. 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 timber and a hammer, 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. A great holiday hack is to place the Portacot in the bathroom or walk in robe. A decent sized closet is a great place for baby to sleep. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and they won’t be distracted by being able to see them. People accidentally walking in and out of the room are much less likely to distract your child. It often helps your child settle more easily at bedtime too.
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 dummy or rock them to sleep if they’re disturbing the rest of the house, but your 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 the dummy back in, which is going to end up disturbing everyone a lot worse than a half hour of crying at 7:00pm.
It is very common for babies and toddlers to test the boundaries around sleep when they are somewhere new. Just because the rules are the rules at home, that doesn't necessarily mean the rules are the same at Nanna's house. Your child is likely to try their luck at bedtime! This may mean that your child cries for some time at bedtime or has a night waking or two. The best way to handle it is to do the same as you would do if you were at home. You can go in and settle/offer reassurance every ten minutes or so, but other than that don't bend the rules if you can help it. If you hang on to your consistency, within the first night or two your child will be used to the new environment and will be sleeping well again.
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 new parent. The feeling that everyone is making judgments about how you are parenting can be overwhelming.
If you find that it has all fallen apart in just a week or so while you're away, the good news is that it's just as easy to get back on track. As soon as you get home, start your sleep plan all over again. You can speed it up by a night or two each step - and hold tight to the memory that your child is capable of sleeping well.
The most important tip of all ... Enjoy the time away with your family. Make memories and enjoy the time together!