Now that we’ve all theoretically survived the transition back to Standard Time — I know some of you are still struggling! — the next challenge many of us face is traveling with small children for the holidays.
Travel is never easy with little ones, who are thrown off kilter by any change in the routine. Most of us can expect extra sugar and processed carbs, extra screen time, limited opportunities for exercise and structure, and as a result, extra tantrums. (To those who are able to avoid those “necessary” evils of travel: I applaud you!)
The first thing I suggest to any parent who is traveling with a small child, especially over the holidays, is lots of kindness and forgiveness for yourself. Please don’t start sleep training or do anything else challenging while you are traveling.
That said, if you have already established good sleep habits for your child, trying to maintain them as best you can — while not making yourself too crazy — will really help the whole family survive this challenging time AND the ensuing aftermath when you get home.
Here are some ideas:
1. Try to maintain as early of a bedtime as you can. Explain to your relatives that if Johnny goes to bed late, he wakes up extra early… and the rest of the extended family will be up extra early as a result, too! If you make an exception and let him stay up late one night, try to get him to bed early the next night. Little ones can handle one exception a lot better than night after night of them.
2. Consider feeding Alicia an early dinner at your temporary new "home" before you go out to a meal with relatives. She will eat better if you offer familiar foods in a less stimulating environment. If she’s starving when you arrive at a restaurant, it’ll be stressful for everyone and she’ll end up filling up on less healthy food. Better to give her chicken and green beans, for example, at home and then the buttered roll when you arrive at the restaurant.
3. If your little one is used to sleeping by herself in her own room, try to maintain that while traveling… even if it means setting up her Pack n Play in a closet (leave a door open a bit for ventilation) or bathroom. These spaces are great, too, for keeping her sleep environment dark and quiet.
4. Consider bringing his car seat on the plane if you think it may make him more likely to sleep there. Some children do better in that familiar cocoon. Others prefer to curl up on the airplane seat. (Of course it’s always safest for a child to travel in a car seat on an airplane… but many families are intimidated by the thought of lugging a car seat onto a plane. If your car seat at home is heavy, consider a lightweight travel car seat like this one -- I use it myself for travel with my preschooler).
5. Bring your white noise from home. If you don’t have one you love, or if yours is bulky, I love this one by Homemedics. It’s lightweight and can be powered by batteries if the power goes out.
6. Pack light — I’ve learned the hard way that my kids never play with the toys I bring when they are in a new environment — but bring along a few favorites. Make sure to pack any loveys and pacifiers your child uses at home. I keep a couple of nightlights in my travel toiletries kit so that I can instantly transform any “too dark and scary” bedrooms and bathrooms. I also bring along my kids’ owl nightlights — they are battery powered and turn off within a few minutes, so I know the nightlight won’t keep them awake. But being able to carry the nightlight to the bathroom makes my little ones feel a lot more secure.
7. Get your little one outside for fresh air and daylight every single day. Even if it's just in an empty parking lot. This will help him adjust more quickly to a different time zone. Fresh air and exercise also tire kids out, helping them nap better and sleep better at night.
8. Limit screen time. With the caveat that all bets are off with on travel days. Whatever keeps them quiet is great. But once you arrive at our new destination, turn off the screen and encourage exploration and movement. Screen time tends to make children's brains wired, even while it keeps them quiet. And screen time in the hour before sleep can make it harder for children to fall asleep. Let them play and run and interact with Great Grampa Joe instead. Save the screen for when you really need it.
9. If you have the opportunity to do so, stay in a hotel with a pool. Pools are amazing for wearing little ones out. And with a pool around, you really don’t need toys.
10. Be prepared to “abort mission” if your little one is falling apart at the family dinner. Children act out as a way to communicate that their needs aren’t being adequately met. It's not their fault. It’s not your fault. It’s just hard for little ones to accommodate the needs of their older friends and relations. They will be more flexible as they get older.
11. And when you get back home, revert back to the old routine immediately. You may experience some protest crying, especially if you indulged in some less than ideal sleep behaviors while you were traveling — like sharing a hotel bed — but if you revert back to the old ways as soon as you get home, your little one should be back on track within a few days. Until the next trip, anyway!
Need some help getting back on track after the time change or recent travel? Totally understandable -- it's not easy! Let’s schedule a free chat and get your family back on track.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.