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.
And for some of you, thanks to COVID, this might be the first time you experience the “joys” of traveling with little ones to large reunions.
Travel is never easy with small children. As they say, traveling with youngsters is a trip, not a vacation. It’s just parenting in a new and more challenging location.
All children are thrown off by a change in their routine. Then, most of us can expect late bedtimes, confinement in a car or cramped airplane seat (or worse, your lap on a cramped airline seat) more snacks, more unhealthy food, extra screen time, limited opportunities for exercise and fresh air, 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. Try to make the most of the time with friends and family, and tackle sleep issues later.
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 suggestions:
1. Try to maintain an early bedtime as much as possible. Explain to your relatives that if Jose 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 eat 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.
It’s better to give her chicken and green beans, for example, at “home” and then offer apple slices as soon as you you sit down. (***Constipation in a small child from too many sugary, starchy snacks will make your life hell so try to offer a favorite fruit before the more processed food.)
After that, a buttered roll when the bread arrives. And then maybe dessert for her while the adults enjoy their entrees. This is the time to offer sugar!
3. Know that your restaurant meal is over as soon as your child melts down. Plan restaurant meals as early as your relatives will tolerate. Bring small toys or art supplies to dinner… or even an electronic screen. Again, this is the time to make exceptions to your rules.
And be prepared to ask for your food to go.
4. Consider whether it’s possible to limit or even entirely eliminate restaurant meals entirely. Could you have food delivered to your host’s home instead? Everyone will enjoy the food more if the children aren’t required to sit quietly but can instead scamper off and play when they are finished eating… approximately 90 second after they start. Just as you sit down with your own food.
5. 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.
Do your best to resist bedsharing with your child as this will make your return to your better habits back home more difficult. It’s better to have your child in a nest on the floor right next to you than in your actual bed. Most likely, everyone will also sleep better that way.
6. Consider bringing his car seat on the plane if you think it may make him more likely to nap 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).
7. 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. The Hatch Rest is another option that includes both nightlight and white noise, if you aren’t quite as limited by space. I use the red light on that as a nightlight for my kids as red is the least disturbing for sleep.
8. 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 for the car or airplane. Make sure to pack any loveys and pacifiers your child uses at home, also.
Too much stuff makes wrangling children that much more stressful when you are in a crowded airport. Car travelers, you can bring all the stuff your heart desires... but remember it will make packing up (and unpacking) at the other end that much more stressful. Do laundry at your relatives' house if you can. You do not need to bring the special baby detergent. Use whatever detergent they have and program an extra rinse, if you are concerned.
I also hereby give you permission to leave bottle warmers, wipes warmers, baby bathtubs and most other baby equipment at home. Your child can cope with small changes like these. Ask your family member if they can borrow or buy a Pack n Play and this portable high chair/booster seat so you don't have to bring them on the plane (or arrange to rent them at your destination). That way, you can bring the sleep space and booster seat along if you spend time in other homes.
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.
9. Get your little one outside for fresh air and daylight every. single. day. Even if it's just in an empty parking lot to collect leaves or count rocks. 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.
10. Limit screen time… when you can. With the caveat that all bets are off on travel days. On those days, whatever keeps them quiet is great! Although if you are stuck waiting in an airport, take advantage of the time and space to get them moving… save the screens for when you are actually on the airplane.
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, ideally, interact with Great Grampa Joe instead. Save the screen for when you really need it.
11. 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. Just don’t forget your child’s safety device – these can be bulky in your suitcase! – and your own bathing suit, of course, as well as your child’s. If you hate cold water, like I do, recruit another adult or teenage cousin to bring theirs, too.
12. Be prepared to “abort mission” if your little one is falling apart at the family event. 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 really hard for little ones to accommodate the needs of their older friends and relatives. They will be more flexible as they get older.
13. 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? It's understandable -- this is not easy! Let’s schedule a free chat and get your family back on track.
*** Returning clients, if you need a quick reset, you are not alone! Don't forget that you get a 10% discount on all support,
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.