The holiday season is a magical time when you have a baby or toddler, but it can also be extremely difficult to manage their sleep schedule and keep them happy and well-rested amid all of the travel and parties. Keep reading to learn exactly how to keep your child's sleep on track through all of the holiday craziness...
If possible, it's best to keep your baby or toddler's schedule the same as always, but they will just have to sleep in different locations than usual, whether that's the car, stroller, or pack and play. Try to repeat their regular nap or bedtime routine no matter where you are and then put them down for sleep in a pack and play (preferably) in a dark room with their white noise machine turned up nice and loud near the door to block out any sounds of the holiday festivities. I love my black out pack and play cover because Zoe gets to sleep in a familiar environment anytime we travel and I don't have to worry about darkening the room. I also love that she can't see out of the pack and play and become stimulated from looking at all of the new things in the room or become upset because she's sleeping somewhere new. If you can, get pack and play sheets because some babies don't like sleeping on the noisy mat. You always have the option to set boundaries with your friends and family and say bedtime or nap time stays the same even if that means your little one will miss out on parts of the day or night. You can start their bedtime in a pack and play at their regular time and then transfer them to the car when you have to leave.
Here are some of my favorite products for sleep on the go that will help make it as easy as possible for your child to sleep in a new place
Some Travel Sleep Necessities.
If you have a long car ride, plan it around your baby's longest nap so they can sleep for most of the trip. If you have a really long car ride (over 4 hours), my advice is to leave very early in the morning (4 or 5 AM) while your baby is still in night sleep so they continue to sleep the whole way there. I did this on a recent 8-hour solo road trip with my 1 year old and it was amazing. I packed the car the night before and started driving at 5 AM. She slept almost the whole drive between night sleep and her nap with one stop to let her run around for 1.5 hours in between. Waking up super early was a small price to pay to have total peace and quiet on the drive. If you do this, give your baby a bonus bottle or breastfeeding session to help fill them up and get them back to sleep easily once the car starts moving. Use a portable white noise machine right next to their car seat and switch your car speaker settings to just the front speakers if you still want to listen to the radio while you drive. If you don't mind not listening to the radio, play white noise over bluetooth through the car speakers and change the settings so that the sound only comes out of the rear speakers.
For toddlers, you definitely want to set up a pack and play like I talked about above because they're a bit less flexible when it comes to sleep. If that's not an option, the second best thing is bringing their stroller inside, reclining it completely, covering it with a darkening cover, and playing white noise while rocking it back and forth until your little one falls asleep. This also works well for a baby or infant. What can also work well for an infant is bringing inside their car seat, covering it, playing white noise and rocking it with your foot until they fall asleep. Make sure to take the cover off so you can monitor them after they fall asleep since car seats don't recline flat. With infants and babies under 1, you can also try a babywearing nap. Put them on you in a wrap or carrier at their regular nap time and pace around until they fall asleep. If they are very young, they can probably fall asleep in the middle of the party without any white noise. If they are older than about 5 or 6 months, that environment may be too stimulating for them to fall asleep, so go to a separate semi-dark room, play white noise on your phone and pace around until they're asleep. Keep the white noise going, but rejoin the party once they're 10-15 minutes into sleep because they will be in the deep sleep stage of the sleep cycle and it's unlikely that they'll wake until the cycle is over again. If you want to make the nap extra long, go back in the separate room about 50 minutes into their sleep and rejoin the party at the 1 hour 10 minute mark because they should be in deep sleep again.
Changing your baby's schedule
Sometimes it's impossible to keep your baby or toddler on their normal schedule with travel or party plans, and in that case you will have to change their schedule. If your little one needs to be up for an extra long day, you have a couple of options. You can extend each wake window 15 minutes further than usual because that shouldn't push a baby into overtiredness, but it will result in a later bedtime by the time the day is over. If their regular nap times are nowhere near your travel plans, add a nap and slightly shorten wake windows by 15 minutes all day. They probably won't nap as long as usual with the shorter wake windows, but they will still get plenty of total sleep because they had an additional nap. With newborns, late bedtimes are the best option under normal circumstances, so a party would be no different because they'll take so many naps. For babies over 3 MO, try to avoid a bedtime later than 9:30 because that is out of sync with their body's natural rhythms and it may make them very hard to put down. You want to avoid a bedtime later than 9 PM for babies 5 to 10 months old, and for babies over 10 months old, late bedtimes are usually fine as long as you slightly push wake windows all day and don't suddenly keep them up for way too long during their final wake window.
The plan for my 15-month old
Zoe's normal schedule is:
7 AM Wake up
11:30 AM-1:30 PM Nap
7 PM Bedtime
This is the schedule for our Christmas Eve travel:
10AM-11 AM Car ride to grandma's house and visit with family
1 PM-2:30 PM Ferry ride to Connecticut
2:30 PM-4:00 PM Drive to In-law's house
4:00 PM Christmas Eve party starts
5:00 PM Dinner
9:00-11:00 PM Drive to other sis-in-law's to stay the night
My plan is to keep Zoe up much later than usual and have her have a very late nap so that she can then stay up late on Christmas Eve. She is a toddler, which means I really don't have to worry about overtiredness much unless I push her way too far. From my experience with Zoe, I know she does well staying up past her wake windows at this age and she doesn't get overly cranky or upset.
Our first drive at 10 AM is much earlier than Zoe's normal nap time, so I don't think she'll fall asleep in the car. If she does, she will just take 2 naps (one during the first car ride and one during the second), but I am thinking she will stay awake for the first car ride and then I am planning to keep her up until at least 1 PM. With all of the kids and craziness at her grandma's house, she will probably be busy and won't want to fall asleep at her normal time. We have a very short drive to the ferry from her grandma's house (5 minutes) and I will keep her awake for the drive. Once we get on the ferry, I'll watch Zoe for cues. If she seems really ready for sleep, I'll put her in the stroller right when we get on the ferry and set her up with the darkening cover and white noise so that she can sleep the whole time. If she still wants to play, I will let her stay up until 1:30 PM and then have her start nap time. I am hoping she will sleep on the ferry ride and then keep sleeping for part of the car ride once we get to Connecticut. Because I am going to keep her up so much longer than usual, she should be extra tired and have the sleep pressure to take both a 1-1.5 hour nap on the ferry and then continue her nap on the car ride. If she is able to get over 2 hours of sleep in the afternoon, she will be super well-rested and fresh once we get to the Christmas Eve party and be able to play and stay up the whole time we're there. We will probably drive to where we're staying overnight around 9 (could be later), so I will do a feeding, diaper and pajama change and bedtime routine at the house where the party is taking place and then put her in the car to begin her night sleep. Once we get to my sis-in-law's house, I will bring her inside while keeping most of the lights off and hold her in a quiet room while my husband sets up her sleep space. I pack everything she needs for sleep like her pack and play, sheets, sleep sack, pack and play cover, and sound machine in a separate bag for easy access. Once it's all set up, I will give Zoe a bonus feeding (she doesn't normally nurse again after bedtime) and put her down to continue her night sleep. The bonus feeding usually helps Zoe settle down after all of the craziness of getting out of the car and going to a new house. Zoe is impossible to transfer without waking because she's a light sleeper, but if you can carefully transfer your baby and keep them asleep, that's the best option.
Other Travel Tips...
There's no guarantee you will have a highchair where you're going, so take either a portable booster seat with a tray or the high chair that attaches to the table. Bring your baby lots of snacks and food you know they will eat because they may not want to eat what's being served for Christmas dinner or they may get impatient waiting for their food. You'll also want to bring a silicone bib that catches spills because you can wipe them down and they don't have to be washed like cloth.
Here are some other favorite (non-sleep) travel items...
Most of these items (or a version of them) can be found on short notice at Target or Buy Buy Baby, but I am using Amazon links because that's the easiest.