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Baby Sleep and the Holiday Season

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Cara Dumaplin

toddler brother kissing baby brother's head while sitting on the floor in front of the Christmas tree

Often, the holidays mean disrupted baby sleep and schedules. For many parents, this can cause extra stress! Let me reassure you: You can still have a great sleeper during (and after) the holiday season even if that normal routine is a bit off.⁣ ⁣Yes, sleep is important, and a well-rested little one will make your holiday break and family gatherings so much more enjoyable – but these special times require a bit of flexibility!⁣

Let’s talk about how you can make the most of the holidays, enjoy your family gatherings, and set your baby or toddler up for the best sleep possible.

How can I help my baby or toddler stay well-rested over the holidays? How can we stay on a good sleep schedule over winter break? 

1. Start with a good sleeper.

Truly, this is my best tip for a well-rested baby or toddler over the holidays. If your little one is already a great sleeper before the holidays, they’re much more likely to be flexible with sleep when things aren’t as routine. If sleep is a mess, please know that you can have a great little sleeper. I have classes that will help you establish healthy sleep habits and work on independent sleep in a developmentally appropriate and emotionally connected way whether you have a newborn (0-4 months), a baby (5-24 months), or a toddler (2-4 years).

2. Get in one solid nap each day.

During your holiday celebrations, set your days up for success by getting one solid nap back at home, in your hotel room, or where your family is staying – this can make a huge difference by minimizing overtiredness. So make this your goal: At least one good nap in the crib, bassinet, or play yard.⁣ If the other naps need to happen on the go, while babywearing, or in your arms, so be it. That one good nap will make for a much happier baby or toddler and even happier holidays!

3. Pay attention to wake windows, and watch for sleepy cues.

To prevent an overtired little one, follow age-appropriate wake windows. These ranges can help guide you without requiring a rigid schedule. You may find that in the excitement of the holidays, your child can tolerate a longer wake window than normal; on the other hand, perhaps the excitement actually makes them more exhausted. That's why it's so important to balance what you know about wake windows with your little one's cues.

Parents: I know that sleepy cues can be harder to spot in the excitement of holiday gatherings, but try your best to watch your little one so that you can offer a nap or bedtime when it’s needed.

4. Provide additional support if needed.

If you miss those sleepy cues and your baby or toddler becomes overtired, we may need to provide some additional support to help them get to sleep. Overtired little ones often catch a “second wind” and become either cranky or extremely silly – this is when it can be harder to get the sleep they need.

To support them, take your baby or toddler into a dark, quiet space to lie down. You may need to sit with or rock your little one to sleep, even if they're normally an independent sleeper. Don't let this stress you: helping your child sleep on the day of a holiday party or family gathering won't ruin anything. This extra support may be exactly what's needed to get restful sleep.

5. Consider adjusting your child’s schedule for the day.

Adjusting your baby or toddler’s schedule could look like this:

  • Waking your baby or toddler a little earlier in the morning so you can fit in the first nap of the day before going to a holiday family gathering.

  • Allowing a nap to go longer if it will help shift bedtime later or line up the next nap/wake window.

  • Waking your baby or toddler up early from a nap to make it to your holiday party on time. 

  • Adding an extra catnap to help shift bedtime later for an evening event and avoid (or at least minimize) overtiredness.

  • Carving out some quiet time like a walk in the stroller, a drive, a quiet activity, or snuggle time for babies or toddlers that won’t or can’t catnap. 

  • Moving bedtime earlier to adjust for any missed daytime sleep.

These adjustments may not follow your typical schedule, but it’s okay to be flexible to make your holiday plans work! Our goal is to have a well-rested baby or toddler so they can be their best selves to enjoy family gatherings and holiday events. Don’t stress about sticking to a rigid schedule that could ruin your day. Instead, be flexible and responsive to what you know about your child and what you see.

Note from Cara: Yes, it’s important to establish good sleep habits and have a routine. However, it’s really okay (and even GOOD) to be flexible sometimes too. And, let’s face it, holidays and family gatherings are a perfect reason to be “off” of a schedule for a day or two.

Is it okay to let my baby or toddler stay up late during the holidays? How do I handle bedtime if we will be out late?

It’s okay to let your child stay up past his typical bedtime for a special occasion. I want you to have a great little sleeper so that you have the freedom to enjoy making memories with your family during the holidays, knowing that you won’t “mess things up.” 

Here are some tips if you will be out past your baby or toddler’s typical bedtime: 

1. Be ready for bedtime.

If you’ll be out past bedtime, bring pajamas and anything else you might need to get your little one ready for bed before heading home. 

  • For your baby: bring pajamas, diapers, portable sound machine, pacifier, bottles, and anything else you reach for during your bedtime routine. 

  • For your toddler: bring pajamas, blanket, lovey, pacifier, portable sound machine, and all of the little things your toddler requests before you tuck him in.

2. Abbreviate the bedtime routine.

You can do a modified or shortened bedtime routine before you climb into the car. This prepares your little one for sleep by signaling to their brain that it’s time for bed. A modified bedtime routine also provides a transition from the excitement of the event to settling down for sleep.

So right before you head home, find a quiet space, dim the lights, change their diaper and clothes, read a short book, give a feeding if needed, and then buckle them in. If they fall asleep on the way home, they're already ready for bed. 

When you get home, transition them right to the crib or bed. If they wake up (or never fell asleep on the way home), you may need to provide a bit more support. That’s okay! Keep the lights low and offer the help your little one needs. For some, this means providing a second condensed version of your bedtime routine; for others, it’s simply rocking or snuggling before placing them in the crib or toddler bed. 

Bottom line: do what you need to do to help your baby or toddler sleep. One night will not derail your great little sleeper.

Where should my baby or toddler sleep while we are at an event or party? 

If your little one needs to sleep while you're at an event, ask if there’s a safe sleep space for you to set up a Pack 'n Play or travel crib . Maybe there’s a bedroom away from the party. Maybe it’s an office. Maybe there’s space to set up a SlumberPod away from the action. Be creative and flexible. Often you can make a sleep space work while you’re at a holiday event.

Safety Tip: Please know that carseats out of the car, strollers, and adult beds are not safe for unsupervised sleep.

When setting up the space for sleep, make sure to:

  • Check the room for safety – I have a Safe Sleep Checklist to help you with that.

  • Provide all of your child's familiar sleep essentials (Think sound machine, sleep sack, pacifier, etc.).

If finding a safe space for independent sleep isn’t an option, you could try babywearing or snuggling for a nap. (Grandmas love this!)

Just remember – even if you do everything "right" to prepare for great sleep, your baby or toddler might struggle to sleep at a social event, so don’t stress!

Note from Cara: At holiday parties, parents often whisk happy babies and toddlers away for sleep. I do love to see parents prioritize sleep, but I want you to understand this: Just like you can stay up “past your bedtime” for special events, your child may be able to stay awake longer too. Adding extra time to that wake window may be exactly what’s needed to prevent sleep-time battles. Watch your little one’s cues and use your best judgment.

Why does my child have more tantrums around the holidays? 

There are many reasons your baby or toddler may have tantrums during holiday events and family gatherings.

  • Holidays bring an increase in excitement and social stimulation. Meeting new people, eating new foods, and visiting new places can be overwhelming.

  • Your holiday stress is impacting your little one. Babies and toddlers can read you like a book and will mirror your emotions.

  • Your child feels a loss of control and predictability since her routines have changed.

  • Your child is not getting as much 1-on-1 time with you. During the holiday hustle and bustle, we can be so focused on making holiday magic for our little ones that spending time with our little ones gets missed.

  • Your baby or toddler’s schedule is off, and he’s becoming overtired. Overtired babies and toddlers are more likely to have a tantrum.

How can I help prevent holiday meltdowns? 

I wish I had a fool-proof plan to avoid all holiday meltdowns. Honestly, I can’t even prevent all of my own holiday meltdowns! But here are some ways to set yourself up for success:

1. Start with a well-rested baby or toddler.

Starting with a rested little one truly is my best tip for preventing holiday meltdowns. Well-rested babies and toddlers are more flexible, more adaptable, and overall just more pleasant to be around. If “rested” sounds like a dream rather than a reality for your family, please know that I can help. I have completely customizable classes that will walk you step-by-step through a plan to help your newborn (0-4 months), baby (5-24 months), or toddler (2-4 years) sleep so that your whole family can get the rest you need. A well-rested family is a family ready to bond and enjoy the holiday season.

2. Follow the 80/20 rule.

When it comes to sleep and the holiday season, we want to follow the 80/20 rule for babies and toddlers: 80% of the time we follow a consistent routine, and 20% of the time we can be flexible.

Your baby or toddler won’t be able to handle all the holiday parties and events. With that in mind, prioritize what's most important to you and your family.

If possible, plan the day after a late night or busy day to be a bit “low-key.” During the low-key times, try your best to follow your normal routines and schedule. Maintaining some of those familiar patterns will provide comfort, security, and predictability during a time with so many new events and faces.

Expert Tip: Even after a later night, your baby or toddler will likely wake up at their usual time the next day. To adjust for any missed sleep or overtiredness, get back to your usual routines as soon as you can.

3. Plan for downtime during busy days.

Much like adults, babies and toddlers will need time to decompress after a big event or full day of stimulation. Being "on" with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places can be taxing for your little one. If possible, allow your child time to simply play, do something physically active, or just snuggle together on the couch with books. This can be the perfect time to connect 1-on-1 with your child.

Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to carve out some downtime for yourself and make your own sleep a priority. That time to rest and decompress will help you be the consistent and emotionally-regulated parent your child needs you to be during the holiday crazy.

4. Prepare your toddler ahead of time.

Toddlers thrive when they know what's coming next. Tell your toddler about what they can expect. Talk about the large family holiday gathering, about the music, about the food, about opening presents – whatever you think they need to know to be prepared. Remember, we’ve been to many of these events, but for our little ones, it’s all new – which can feel scary and overwhelming. 

Expert Tip: If possible, plan a space where your child can have some time away from the action if they become overstimulated. Even just a few minutes of calm can prevent many holiday meltdowns.

5. Practice “warm-up” visiting. 

I get it: everyone wants to hold your baby or interact with your toddler. However, crowds can be a bit overwhelming, and even someone you've known your whole life may be a stranger to your little one. Don't forget to give your child time to "warm up" to the situation. Before handing your little one off to a family member or friend, allow them to ease into the action by observing and meeting people with you by their side.

6. Walk confidently in what you know about your baby or toddler.

I know there can be so many opinions about parenting, baby and toddler sleep, feeding, and so much more. Yes, always, but especially during the holidays. This can cause you stress, which will cause your baby or toddler stress.

Parents, I want you to remember YOU are the expert on your little one. Nobody knows them better than you. Unsolicited advice may come your way, but don’t let that make you question the decisions you’ve made for your family. Your confidence will communicate safety and security to your little one, which leads to fewer meltdowns.

Do you have any tips for hosting overnight guests during the holiday season?

Yes! Be sure to read all of the tips above, but I do have a few extra tips just for hosting family or friends overnight around the holidays:

1. Communicate ahead of time with your visitors.

Before your guests arrive, let them know what they can expect from your baby or toddler while they visit. Keep in mind that if your guests are not used to a young child in the home, they may not know (or remember) how an overtired baby or toddler impacts the entire household. (Cue the meltdowns!) 

Consider these questions and talk about them with your guests. 

  • Are you hoping to be at home for any of your baby or toddler’s naps? What time works best for your baby or toddler to take naps or have quiet time?

  • What bedtime works best for your little one? Are you planning to be home for bedtime most nights?

2. Keep your baby or toddler in their normal sleep environment for sleeping if possible.

Don’t we all sleep best in our own beds? Babies and toddlers are no exception! If it’s possible for your little one(s) to stay in their normal sleeping environment, do that. Whenever we can stay consistent, that’s what we want to do. 

I understand that not all homes have a guest bedroom. Often your child’s room IS the spot where we allow guests to sleep. If this is your situation, that’s okay. But, do consider allowing naps to take place in your baby’s room even if your baby has to give up their spot during the night. Most visitors aren’t hanging out in the bedroom during the day, and this could make your days much smoother. (Please include this in the conversation you have with your guests prior to their visit.) 

3. If you have to decide whether to displace a baby or an older child, move your baby.

Having more than one child often forces us to decide who can more easily adjust to giving up their own space. In my opinion, babies can adapt more easily than toddlers. Young children can be more easily thrown off by staying in a new room, especially in your own home. We don’t want your toddler to decide he wants to permanently camp out on your floor! This could make for weeks of difficult nights. 

4. If your baby is displaced, recreate their normal sleep space as closely as possible.

If you DO need to move your baby, consider setting up their temporary sleep space in an office or even a bathroom. Anywhere that is safe and has adequate circulation will work. Remember to double-check your recreated environment for safe sleep. If the only place is your room, try to provide a barrier, or at least a considerable distance, between your bed and the baby. The Slumberpod is a fantastic barrier and keeps it dark.

Remember to set up your baby’s temporary space with familiar sleep cues like complete darkness and a sound machine. (If you need a little help with creating a temporary dark place, check out these fabulous travel blackout shades.)

What are your best holiday travel tips? 

I have 2 blogs you can check out for my best holiday travel tips:

One more thing and this is SO important: Wherever your baby or toddler is sleeping during the holidays, the one thing that isn’t flexible is safe sleep.

How do I get my baby or toddler’s sleep back on track after the holidays? 

The best way to get your baby or toddler’s sleep back on track is to return to your sleep plan. Don’t allow any new habits to extend beyond the holiday break!

If sleep is always a struggle and you need a plan to follow, my classes can help.

The 5-24 Month Collection gives you a step-by-step plan with a balanced approach to teaching your 5-24 month old to sleep in the crib while still providing emotionally-connected reassurance. If you have a 2, 3, or 4 year old, my Toddler Sleep Training class will give you the tools you need to meet your toddler where they are developmentally and help create a great sleeper. Both are plans for restful nights AND peace of mind knowing your baby or toddler can prepare for and recover from an exciting holiday season.

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