It’s family vacay season, and while making memories is fun, the sleep disruptions that kids (and as a result, parents) encounter while away are not as enjoyable. We spoke to Craig Canapari, MD, a Yale Medicine pediatric sleep expert and author of It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train (2019 Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House), about the most common issues that pop up and how you can deal with them.

If you’re sleeping training this summer, how do you deal with that while on vacation?
My first advice would be to avoid sleep training during vacation–so much of the success for sleep training has to do with context. It is difficult to reproduce the conditions of home if, say, you are sharing a room with your child. Also, if there is crying involved, that can cause issues with your neighbors in a hotel, or if you are staying with friends. Perhaps the best reason to avoid any major sleep training is that, well, it’s vacation. Things won’t be perfect but if you accept that you will have more fun. I usually recommend that parents allow a month without travel after starting sleep training so as not to lose progress which they have made. 

However, if parents are in the middle of sleep training, I would recommend that they reproduce the conditions of their child’s sleep wherever they are staying. Thus, bedtime needs to be at the same time and the bedtime routine needs to remain as consistent as possible. Ideally, if you are trying to get your child to sleep in a different room than you at home, you will need to find another place for your child to sleep. You also may not be able to let your child cry if that is part of your plan.  

Let’s say you have a good sleep routine down, but are nervous about it going down the drain while you’re away…How can you prevent that?
Sleep in a new environment can be challenging for some children. Some children may be so excited about their trip, or nervous about a new place. Sleep schedules can get disrupted especially if you are crossing time zones. Also, most families tend to eat out a lot more and children may have more screen time than they are useful (especially in transit). This is a set up for sleep disruption, and honestly that is OK. Vacation isn’t necessarily going to be too restful if you, say, have two toddlers and an infant in tow. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Bedtimes can be tricky: Most kids have what is called a “forbidden zone”— a time in the evening during which they will not fall asleep. If your kid stays up a bit late and starts to act crazy, you are in the middle of the forbidden zone. Don’t even try for bedtime— this will usually last about an hour. As one mom told me, “My child needs to go to sleep by 7:30 or will be up until 9pm. There is nothing in between.” Lean into it and let your kids stay up a bit later. It’s not the end of the world. 

Respect the routine: When we go on vacation we try really hard to maintain our kids’ sleep times. This was harder when they used to nap. Of course, we bend the rules for special occasions like fireworks.  

Recognize that other families have different rules; be flexible: My kids always point out to me when other families we are with have different rules (usually if the kids have more iPad time than mine). This can be pretty challenging when some kids go to bed later or get up earlier than your kids. Make sure your kids know that their friends or cousins might have different rules, and that is OK.

Go to bed early (for the parents): We were vacationing with cousins, and all the kids got up earlier than normal. If you want to catch up on your sleep, your best chance is by going to bed earlier than normal.

Make the room dark: Don’t hesitate to hang towels over the windows if you need to—that can make a huge difference in when your child gets up.

Get creative with the sleeping arrangements: We were staying with several cousins at a vacation home. Our older son shared a “room” (which was a walk in closet) with his 6 year cousin. That way they did not have to get up with their younger siblings (and tired parents) the next day.

Jet lag can be tricky: You can prepare a bit by putting your kids to bed later for a few days before traveling west or getting them up a bit earlier before traveling east. The main consequence can be  a really early bedtime and wake time (when traveling west) or vice versa when traveling east. Children tend to adapt quickly if they have natural light exposure. Avoid “sneaky sleep” [like unplanned naps]. For short trips, an alternative may be keeping your home clock schedule. 

If your child’s sleep is terrible on vacation, are you going to have to start all over once you’re back?
Many families who have previously struggled with sleep get very anxious when they go away and their child has resumed some behaviors that the parents wanted to get rid of (bed sharing, night wakings, etc). However, the routines that  helped you create and sustain high quality sleep will still be available to you when you return. Be confident that vacation is the exception and not the rule. 

 What can you do once you’re home to get back on track?
For older children, I encourage talking a little bit through the vacation about how you may be changing the routine on the trip, but that things will be back to normal when you get home. Let’s say you are bedsharing with your child. Tell her, “I’ve really enjoyed having these special sleep overs on vacation, but won’t it be nice to all sleep in our cozy beds at home? You are such a big girl with a big girl bed.” When you get home, praise your child’s attempt to get back on the normal routine and don’t freak out about any pushback about bedtime, screen time, etc. 

Also, take the time to pat yourself on the back for having had a great vacation. Don’t stress so much about sleep so you forget about the wonderful time you had. (And also remember that everyone struggles sometimes with their child’s behavior on vacation, no matter what you see on Instagram). 

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