As we approach December and celebrations with family and friends, one question rises to the top: how will we/ our children enjoy the holidays without succumbing to fallout from sleep loss? Lots of excitement, a change in eating patterns and too-little-sleep create the perfect storm for illness, accidents and conflict – not to mention just feeling generally out of sorts.
Here are a few tips to maintaining a healthy balance of sleep through the holidays.
Home or Abroad?
Many families take the opportunity to visit extended family or friends at this time of year. If your children are already good sleepers, they will likely weather any changes with more flexibility and resilience. However, if you have a baby or toddler who is just starting to figure out how to sleep through the night or naps, you may want to re-think vacation plans. A change in familiar sleep space and routine adds additional stress for everyone and makes for cranky behavior all around. So, if you have the choice, consider staying home to celebrate.
Perhaps the airline tickets are already purchased, or you are committed to handling the challenges of travelling with young children to be with those you love. There are many ways you can set your children up for sleep success away from home.
- Travel when your children normally sleep, either during naps or night time sleep. If you are driving to your holiday vacation, however, avoid travelling when you normally sleep. Accident rates for drivers rise sharply during customary sleep periods. Pull off the road when it’s your bedtime.
- Plan to set up a “home base” during your vacation, and travel from there. Explain to family and friends that your children will be happier and healthier if they have a regular sleep space. You will need to safety proof your living space as you would at home. Encourage people to visit you at your “home-away-from-home”, or keep day trips short so that you can respect your child’s sleep needs. If you have several families to satisfy, consider staying at one home this year with the promise of making another home the “base” on your next visit.
- Have a regular eating and sleeping schedule as much as possible. Predictable mealtimes, activity times, bedtimes and morning wake up times keep our body clocks running more smoothly. Of course, you don’t want to be a slave to the clock, but try not to vary rising and setting times by more than an hour each day (large swings in routine set up a jet lag effect).
- Respect your child’s need for rest during the day. In fact, we all function better with an afternoon quiet time. If your children normally nap, then offer the opportunity for sleep during their regular sleep times. If you don’t think that they will nap in their new surroundings, then offer motion (in the car, sling or stroller) so they can get some rest-on-the-move. And if the excitement of new sights and sounds are just too stimulating, then plan for an early bedtime.
- Set up a comfortable and safe sleep space. If you are travelling with an infant or toddler, make sure that the crib, cot or bed meets current safety regulations. In a pinch, a baby can be placed on a mat or thin blanket on the floor to sleep, away from clutter, vents and hazards such as electrical outlets. Consider bringing familiar sheets, blankets or sleep sacks. A vinyl tablecloth taped up over the window will keep the room nice and dark. And, if there is room in your suitcase, consider bringing a baby monitor, familiar books and music, and a white noise machine if you use one at home.
- Make allowances for change. Perhaps your child sleeps in their own bed at home, but while you are away you will be sharing a room or bed. Explain to your child what is happening (and even babies will understand more than you think!). “We are sleeping together at Grandma’s house, but when we get home, you will sleep in your own big-boy bed again”.
Home for the Holidays
Of course, one doesn’t need to travel to be thrown off-kilter by holiday extravaganzas. Heavy meals, eating at different times of the day, and rich food all play their part in disrupting sleep cycles. Here’s what you can do to make a difference:
- Offer healthy meals and snacks. Children need to eat smaller amounts more often. A meal-snack-meal-snack-meal-snack routine often works well. Our bodies have “eating” clocks as well as “sleeping” clocks, and keeping on a routine will help little digestive systems stay on track.
- Pack nutritious snacks that you can toss into your pocket, purse or baby bag for when you are on-the-go.
- Chose when, where and how much sugary food you will offer. Keep treats stored out of view, so that children are not tempted to ask for them constantly.
Coping with Change
Setting sleep as a priority will make for happier celebrations, without a doubt. When you can, plan to respect and protect your child’s needs for both daytime and night time sleep. It may mean that you plan for earlier gatherings for family meals, or that you leave the party earlier than you would like. If you have a child with a flexible, even temperament, you will have more latitude in your decisions. However, if your child does not cope easily with change in routine, then you are wise to make some changes yourself. Sometime, with the best of intentions, “life happens” and you end up skipping naps or being out past your child’s bedtime. Here are some ways to buffer the fall-out:
- Help your child wind-down from the excitement and stimulation. Consider changing your child into PJ’s before leaving the party. On the drive home, put on some quiet music. Warn your child of upcoming changes, such as a shorter bedtime routine. Keep your voice lower and quieter, and conversation low-key with shorter sentences. If your child falls asleep during the drive, you may be able to make the transfer successfully into bed. If he wakes, then finish with a short bedtime routine, and end on a positive note if possible.
- Even with a later bedtime, don’t be surprised if you child wakes at the usual time. Get on with your day, but plan for a quieter and gentler one if you can. You may need to fit in more naps (or at least a quiet time for older family members) and aim for an earlier bedtime. Getting exposure to morning light and outside during the day for active play will help re-set body sleep clocks.
We Could All Use a Bit of Wisdom
Regardless of age, we set the stage for sleep success when we follow a few basic sleep guidelines. In fact, most sleep troubles are solved with good sleep hygiene.
- Make activity part of each day.
- Have a consistent sleep space that you come to associate with sleep. Keep stimulating activities (i.e. electronics) out of the bedroom. Keep the bedroom really dark and between 16 – 20° (our body temperature naturally drops as we move into sleep). Many people benefit from the use of a white noise machine to buffer ambient sounds.
- Avoid light-emitting electronics one hour before bed. Answering emails or checking the latest posts online is often stimulating (or stress-inducing!) and the blue light from screens can interfere with melatonin production. Melatonin is our “master body clock regulator” and helps us move into sleep.
- Have a bedtime routine that you go through each night. A predictable sequence of activities can often help us relax and anticipate sleep.
- Maintain a reasonably regular wake-up and bed time to keep your body clock on track.
- Don’t wait until you are exhausted before you fall into bed. If you catch your optimal “sleep window” (tired but not over-tired) you will fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.
- Especially for adults or older children: if sleep eludes you, don’t watch the clock. Give yourself permission to just rest quietly in bed, or get up. Break the sleeplessness with a quiet activity (such as reading) and return to bed when you feel sleepy again.
- All of us encounter periods of poor sleep. If you find that you are experiencing ongoing sleep challenges, or consistently wake feeling tired despite a full night’s sleep, visit your health care provider. There may be physical or psychological culprits underlying your poor sleep patterns.
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