No Sleep for Christmas? Surviving the Holiday Hoopla with Your Toddler

Toddlers and excitement go hand in hand, and this year may be the first time your child is actually in on the holiday hoopla. A lot depends on her age, but even the youngest toddler (18 months to about 3 years) can sense the charge in the air, knows presents and cookies may be in the mix, and surmises there may be a trip or visits from friends and family on the horizon.

But what she doesn’t know is that you still want (and need!) her to get a good amount of sleep, including naps.

It can be a tricky prospect. On the one hand, you don’t want to be so strict about nap and bedtimes that no one’s having any fun. But on the other hand, well, who wants a cranky, overstimulated, under-rested toddler? Exactly no one.

Here’s our advice for getting some sound sleep, for everyone, this holiday season:

Allow for flexibility. If you’ve just reached a hard-won milestonelike your child sleeping all night on his ownbe aware that a little bit of backsliding might happen. If you’re messing with the usual schedule, or sleeping in an unfamiliar spotlike a hotel or a relative’s homebe patient with middle-of-the-night wakings and requests for extra soothing. Just keep things as low-key as possible. He’ll re-adapt when you return home.

Keep sleep/wake times mostly normal. Flexibility is also the name of the game when it comes to bedtimes and wake times. If you’re up late at a holiday celebration, bear in mind that your little one may not do you the favor of a longer lie-in the next morning, so you may want to enforce her regular bedtime or not push it too much later than normal. You also have to gauge what you do based on what you know about your own child. Some toddlers drop off to sleep on grandma’s couch and can be transferred to bed with no problem. Tip for extricating an excited toddler from the fun: Make a game of saying goodnight to everyone at the party, and then don’t rush through your regular routine (PJs, tooth-brushing, books, and kisses).

Don’t nix naptime. Even if you do end up playing fast and loose with your typical bedtime rules, it’s smart to try your best to keep naptimes in place, even when traveling or when it may feel inconvenient for your own plans (cookies in the oven, friends on their way over, shopping to do, etc.). Why? A lack of daytime sleep makes it far harder for most toddlers to settle down at night, leaving her crankier than usual. Remember that even with a lot going on, toddlers still need at least 16 hours of sleep over a 24 hour period, making naps essential.

Prep well for travel. Going over the river and through the woods this holiday season? Depending on how far you have to travel, a dose of careful advance planning can go a long way to everyone arriving in more or less rested shape. Schedule flights and car trips at optimal sleep times if possible. If you’re crossing time zones, the best advice is to get onto your destination’s time zone as soon as you get there. Give yourself a leg up by moving your child’s sleep and naptimes a few minutes a day in the direction of the new time zone (forward or back, depending on if you’re flying east or west) for a week or so before you go. Bring comfort items from home, as you see fit: a blankie, a nightlight, even unwashed sheets from your child’s crib or bed (don’t underestimate the power of smell).

Give in to the joy. Okay, don’t be a total Grinch; you don’t want to be so strict that you avoid what's best about the holiday parties, religious services, cultural events, and—most important—time with loved ones you perhaps don’t see quite so often. (In the scheme of things, while your toddler’s sleep is important, it’s not more important than time with the grandparents). Plus, you don’t want to miss your favorite parts of celebrations to usher a reluctant kiddo into bed just when the fun’s getting started. There’s nothing quite like the wonder of watching a toddler experience his first “conscious” holiday. So give everyone an extra cookie and vow to catch up on sleep in the New Year.

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