Silent nights: Helping children sleep well during the holidays

By Malia Jacobson

Parents’ holiday wishes are simple: children tucked snug in bed, dreaming of sugar plums. But for families with small children, the winter holidays aren’t always sleep-friendly. From late-night parties and holiday travel to school performances and visiting relatives, the holiday season is packed with sleep disruptions. Unfortunately, this can leave children tired and cranky during holiday celebrations—just when parents are looking forward to relaxed family time.  

Happily, parents can support sounder sleep during this hectic time of year, and doing so can make the holidays more enjoyable for all family members, says Charles Shubin, M.D., pediatrician with the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Read on for age-appropriate tips to keep holiday nights silent and restful, so kids can enjoy a merry season.

Tuckered-out traveller
When holiday travel spans the nighttime hours, plan ahead for a smooth bedtime on the airplane or in the car. An on-the-go bedtime routine should mimic your child’s at-home bedtime routine, Michael Hobaugh, M.D., Ph.D., president of the medical staff at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago, says. Familiar bedtime rituals serve as cues for sleep, easing a child into peaceful slumber. “Bring a child’s regular pajamas, toothbrush, storybooks, and anything else used in the bedtime routine at home,” Hobaugh says. “On an airplane, go to the bathroom and brush teeth and wash up, and read bedtime stories as usual. This serves as a transition to bedtime and helps children understand that it’s time to sleep.”

Sleepy scene
Similarly, if a holiday trip has your family sleeping at a hotel or relative’s home, create a familiar sleep scene for your child by bringing a few bedroom elements from home, like a special blanket, pillow, nightlight, even a special framed photo for the nightstand. Children crave routine and familiarity, says Shubin. Travel means new faces and new places, which can equal stress and poor sleep for little ones; surrounding a child with familiar comforts at bedtime reduces the stress of travel and helps children fall asleep more quickly and wake less often.

Cabin fever
Don’t expect children to bed down easily at night when they’ve spent the day cooped up in a vehicle or airplane, particularly if they’ve been napping during the trip, says Hobaugh. Kids need around 60 minutes of physical activity per day to help prepare for restful sleep at night. Take every opportunity to let kids burn off energy en-route; walk up and down airplane aisles, do a loop around the airport terminal when switching planes; on car trips, stop at a rest stop and allow kids a 15-minute play break every 90 minutes.

Comfort cues
When kids sleep fitfully in the winter, check the temperature. During the winter, bedrooms are flooded with stale, dry, overheated air—this is especially true in hotel rooms—and parents often dress children in footed fleece pajamas, pile on warm blankets, and dial up the heater in an attempt to keep kids cozy at night. This can backfire, because sleeping in a room that’s too hot can result in poor-quality sleep and nightmares; per the National Sleep Foundation in the United States, sleeping in an overheated bedroom is a contributing factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The ideal temperature for sleep is on the cooler side: around 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry, heated air can worsen coughing and snoring; some children may benefit from a bedroom humidifier to ease night-time breathing. 

Bedtime bend
Attending a long-awaited holiday party that you don’t want your child to miss? It’s OK to bend bedtime rules on special occasions, says Gary Feldman, M.D., medical director of the Stramski Developmental Center at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach, California. “It’s not fair to ask children to miss out on the excitement of the holidays, but you don’t want them to stay awake to the point of exhaustion, either,” he says. Keep the party fun for all, and a child’s daily routine intact, by altering a child’s bedtime slightly without completely disregarding it. For children under ten, set a “party” bedtime up to an hour later than a child’s normal bedtime. Bend bedtime by two hours or more, and you may be asking for a meltdown.

Morning after
When children stay up later than normal, parents may be tempted to let them “sleep it off” the following morning, says Hobaugh. But allowing children to sleep in hours later than normal can throw off that night’s bedtime, resulting in a routine that’s off-kilter for days. The morning after an exciting holiday party, let children sleep in up to 30 minutes later than normal, and accept that they’ll be tired that day. Plan for an appropriately early bedtime that evening. A good night’s sleep will help children bounce back from party-induced overtiredness quickly—and help everyone enjoy all the season has to offer. 

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades”.