7 simple holiday sleep solutions

Holiday visitors and parties can throw little ones of their sleep routine. Here are Ann Douglas’s tips for getting them back on track

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Photo by Kevin Hewitt

It’s fun to experience the holiday season through your child’s eyes, whether it’s his first Christmas, or the first one he remembers. But it can be challenging also as the excitement and change of routine lead many babies, toddlers and older kids to become sleep deprived and grouchy enough to out-grinch the Grinch.

Sleep challenges don’t have to end your family’s holiday fun. Try these tips to coax your reluctant sleeper to get some shut-eye:

A family get-together nixes your baby’s nap time

Some babies and toddlers find it difficult to settle down for naps when they’re in an unfamiliar place. If this seems to be the problem, do your best to carve out some downtime alone with your child. This way, you’ll both get a bit of a break, even if your child doesn’t actually fall asleep, suggests Vancouver mother of two Gwendolyn Floyd. “Having some quiet time built into your day can help to keep you sane!”

There’s usually no need to panic if your baby misses a nap now and again. But don’t make a routine of sacrificing nap time throughout the holiday season. “Most children will resist that strenuously,” says Wendy Hall, a sleep researcher and professor in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. If your child’s temperament is such that any missed nap means a very unhappy baby, make it a priority to carve out time for her to sleep.

It’s 10 p.m. and your toddler still hasn’t settled down for bed at her grandparents’ house

There are a number of possible causes for your child’s difficulty with drifting off. Sometimes children struggle to stay awake because they don’t want to miss out on the fun. Reassure your toddler that you’ll be heading to bed soon, too — and then follow through on that promise. “Be good to yourself,” advises Hall. Or it could be that your child needs some more wind-down time. Especially if you’re the party host, you may want to zip through your child’s bedtime routine and get back to the group. But resist the temptation, even if you’re the one hosting the party; excuse yourself for a few minutes to focus on your child and return when you can — your guests will understand. According to Toronto-area sleep doula Tracey Ruiz, your child may become anxious or upset if you read one story instead of two. Providing pre-bedtime reassurance will help him enjoy a better night’s sleep, and be in a happier mood the next day.

For kids who have trouble relaxing in unfamiliar surroundings, Toronto sleep coach Andrea Strang suggests toting along a set of unwashed sheets from your toddler’s bed, a well-worn pair of pyjamas and favourite blanket or stuffed animal, so your child’s borrowed bed looks, feels and smells more like home. Try using a white noise machine or run a fan to block out the unfamiliar sounds.
Your toddler insists on sleeping in your bed when you stay in a hotel

“Try to comfort your child in his or her bed first,” suggests Strang. “If your toddler is still in a crib, try moving the crib up against your bed and lying beside him.” If he still won’t drift off — and you don’t mind the company for a night — bed sharing could be your best option.

Your little one keeps waking up at the crack of dawn — even though she didn’t go to bed until midnight

This can be a sign of overtiredness. To head it off, avoid pushing your child past the point of mere fatigue and into the totally wired zone. That means watching for the biological cues your child is becoming sleepy (yawningand rubbing his eyes, staring into space, losing interest in activities he usually loves). Get him to nap (or tucked into bed) at the earliest possible opportunity, before he’s too wound up to be able to fall asleep quickly or easily, suggests paediatrician Michael Dickinson, a community paediatrician and head of paediatrics in Miramichi, NB.

Neurologist Shelly Weiss of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children agrees: “A well-rested child will settle down better and sleep better.”

Keep an eye on your itinerary too. It’s tempting to reconnect with every friend, relative and casual acquaintance, but it’s not worth it if you end up exhausted, with a totally wired toddler in tow.

Your son starts waking up in the middle of the night — even though he’s been sleeping through the night for months

“If your toddler wakes up in the middle of the night when you’re visiting relatives, keep things quiet and low-key, just as you do at home,” says psychologist Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. That will remind your child that it’s time for sleep, not for play. Using a night light and providing his teddy bear or blankie may help to soothe him back to sleep, adds Coren. If your toddler is really having trouble, you might consider bringing him into your bed or sitting in a comfy chair with him, closing the door and encouraging him to snuggle up beside you. Whisper stories or sing softly to him to encourage him to stay put so you don’t disturb the rest of the house.

You crossed time zones to visit relatives and now your baby’s sleep schedule is totally out of whack

Hall suggests switching everyone to the local time zone as soon as you arrive — advice that makes sense to Floyd, who has made at least 10 trips from Vancouver to Nova Scotia to visit family since the first of her two boys was born in 2005. Rather than allowing the kids to sleep in until 8 a.m. “their time,” she says, “we don’t close the blinds, so the sun wakes them up in the morning.” When you return home to your regular time zone, Hall says, “switch your child right back to local time.”

The holidays are over, but your toddler isn’t showing any signs of giving up the anything-goes bedtimes he enjoyed

Not too many toddlers are going to sign up for an earlier bedtime on their own. Most will require some gentle persuasion to get back on track. So revert to your kids’ regular bedtime routine, starting at the usual time, but allow a little flexibility so that you can minimize the post-vacation pains at bedtime. The good news? It doesn’t take long to get most kids back on track. “Proceed calmly and assume that the transition is going to go well. Remember, you’re doing your kids a favour by helping them to get the sleep they need.”

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