If you’ve worked with me before, you’ve heard this before… but it bears repeating anyway:
While you’re traveling for the holiday, don’t relax the rules more than you have to. (Same goes for illness.)
That said, for travel days themselves, especially if you are traveling by plane, all bets are off. There’s not a lot you can do.
Just try to make sure your children are well-rested going into an inevitably long airplane travel day.
For infants, bring a baby carrier, if your baby likes one, and a lightweight muslin blanket (they pack up tiny and are useful for everything). Pop your baby in the carrier at the first sign of sleepiness and throw the muslin blanket over baby’s head. Bob, sway, bounce, whatever it takes to get that baby to nap.
When my youngest was a baby, I could often get away with doing the bob and sway near the airplane bathrooms where the flight attendants have extra space to organize drinks and snacks. They didn’t love having me there but if I pretended to be waiting in line for the bathroom, I could usually get away with it for a while. They may have cracked down on this since COVID but it's worth a shot!
For toddlers, I highly recommend bringing your car seat if your toddler typically naps well there. The familiar space will make it easier for your little one to sleep. You do not need to have the car seat rear facing on an airplane. The person sitting in front of you will hate you if you insist on rear facing. It’s still a lot safer to have your baby buckled into a car seat than in your lap.
Bring a portable white noise machine (you can use an app on your phone or iPad, too) and if your toddler will tolerate a muslin cover, even better. Blocking out ambient noise and light can only help.
Of course, a car seat for your infant is great too, and the safest option, but many parents are loathe to shell out money for that.
Once you arrive at your location, prioritize an early bedtime for your child (and yourself!) as much as humanly possible. Definitely don’t allow for a late bedtime on a travel day – your child will already be exhausted and more exhaustion can only lead to extra sleep challenges.
Keep your child’s meals super boring and simple and early. In many cases, it’s best to feed your child first, put them to bed, and then eat with the relatives and friends. It’ll be less stressful and more relaxing for everyone that way.
After travel day, you can plan for the occasional later meal or event but limit them as much as possible. Think ahead to the most important meal of the trip and prioritize that. If you push your child too hard, everyone will suffer.
Get your child outside every single day, even if only for a few minutes. Fresh air is healing and also calming. Make sure some fruits and vegetables are eaten every day (for kids eating solid foods) because constipation from too much processed food is miserable for everyone.
Limit exceptions to the rules as much as possible. Perhaps you don't have a choice about room sharing but avoid bedspring as much as possible. The bigger the exception, the longer it goes on, the longer and harder it is to get back to baseline once you return home.
That said, once you get home, return immediately to the old rules. Your child will ultimately understand that there are "vacation rules" and "home rules" but only IF you are super clear not to bring vacation habits home with you. Otherwise, you face having to do sleep training again... and no one wants that!
PS If you do get off track and are struggling to get back on track, schedule a quick 30-minute Ask Me Anything call and we'll troubleshoot together.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.