What to do about toddler's sleep routines on vacation?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 5, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, We have Traveler Toddler woes!

We recently went away for the weekend with our 2-year-old to visit family. We stayed in a hotel and brought a crib with us, using the same mattress from home. He was fine all day, although refused to nap as we were in the car for a large part of the day and, as a result, was exhausted by bedtime. We did our usual bedtime routine of bath and books but when we put him in the crib, he cried hysterically for two hours. He stood up, refused to lay down, and was practically hyperventilating begging me to take him out. We tried various things and nothing worked. Finally my husband lay him down and it took, he fell asleep. This was just for one night as we came home the next day.

We are nervous as we are about to go away for a week for vacation, and he already told us he didn't like the "other crib." I don't know the difference - his usual mattress is used so it's the same size. I know it's not home, but how can we get him to be ok with travel? We fear we can never leave our house again and now are nervous to go on our vacation! Any strategies? Thanks!

From: Linda, Needham


Hi Linda,

Here's the problem with vacations with children: As adults, you look forward to and need a change in routine. Children do not do well with change in routine. In fact, routine is what keeps them feeling safe and secure. Sure, kids are adaptable and resilient and many kids can take change in stride. But the more the changes, the more problematic it can be for even the most resilient child. This requires advance planning, especially if you know you have a kid who is not particularly adaptable.

You're on the right track to bring whatever equipment you can from home. But everything that's different will likely register with a typical kid, from the smell in the room (that you might not even notice) to the sounds from outside. The more you are able to keep to bedtime routines, the better. But it's not just bedtime routine that trips you up, it's also the daily routine: The farther they get from their daily routines, the more likely kids are to fall apart. A good rule of thumb is to cater the day's activities and schedule around your child -- especially nap time -- rather than expect him to change to meet your needs.

That doesn't mean you can't do anything extraordinary, just be sensible about it. Don't expect a toddler to hold up for endless hours in a museum. In general, the more you plan activities and schedules around your child, the happier you all will be.

Most of this is common sense: For instance, if you're going on a road trip and your toddler typically falls asleep in the car, can you do your driving at night? Because it makes sense that if he sleeps more hours than usual during the day, he'll be less able to sleep at night. If you are driving during the day, even for just a few hours, plan roadside stops for playtime at a rest area where he can do something physical to get rid of pent-up energy.

The more you anticipate that change is upsetting to young children (well, not just young children), the more relaxed you are likely to be. It's still worth going!

By the way, the hardest transition for kids is not being on vacation, it's being back home again! Many parents who stay in a hotel will have young children sleep in a king size bed with them if they can't sleep, something they would never do at home. But, hey, it's vacation, right? That's fine, as long as you recognize the consequences: Your child will want to -- expect to -- be able to sleep in your bed at home, too.

What's also hard for kids once back home is that they have gotten used to being with you 24/7. Once home, a toddler doesn't understand why you are suddenly not as available as you were. Explain it to him: "Boy, it's hard to get back to normal after vacation, isn't it? It was so nice to have all that time together!"

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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8 comments so far...
  1. Great article. I take my children on mini vacations here and there and your advice is 100% correct. I learned the hard way at first, but now they are used to the trips and the experience becomes easier every time. One addition, explain everything to your child. Let them know your plans and the up coming schedule even if they are really young. I am amazed to see how much they understand.

    Posted by Elle August 5, 10 07:29 AM
  1. Honestly, the big mistake parents make is not traveling with kids from birth. We did and our daughter is a seasoned traveler. It's just like anything--if you only put them to nap with a specific toy or only with a certain cd playing or only in the dark...then they can't sleep any other way because it's just too ingrained. We never did that--we never made a point of being home for naps, we traveled by plane and car from birth (internationally starting at 9 months), never warmed a bottle (and my expressed milk was given cold or at room temp), and I think that is a big part of her easy-going attitude. She sleeps in cars and on planes and in her stroller without hassle.

    It's ridiculous that you took your mattress from home. Put them in the pack n play (most american hotels have them, sometimes you need to be specific about not getting the portacrib), toss in a blanket from home and call it a day. If they're fussy, distract them with Elmo on an iPod with speakers...relaxes them enough to fall asleep every time with ours if she's over-excited or jetlagged and awake at 3am.

    You're seriously overthinking it. You had an overtired kid...they'd probably be overtired and cranky at home too. Give it a day or two and they'll be fine.

    Posted by C August 5, 10 09:31 AM
  1. Pratice makes perfect! The more you do it, the easier it gets. You just have to plow through the tough transition.
    But don't deny you and your family a vacation because you think your child won't sleep - just expect that the first couple of nights might be a little tougher than normal to get him to sleep.
    And yes, I agree with C, you were also dealing with an overtired toddler, which can be awful and make you think there is something seriously wrong. But trust me, it was the exhaustion coupled with a new environment that threw your son off. Sometimes I think going away for a longer period of time is better than a shorter one, because at least during a week-long trip, that gives everyone a chance to get used to the new place and then be able to enjoy it.
    Good for you for sticking to your normal bedtime routine - that is so important.
    Keep it up, try it again and before you know it, your son will love going away!

    Posted by nmac8953 August 5, 10 10:17 AM
  1. @C, I don't think that's necessarily the case that it's a "mistake" parents make by not traveling with kids from birth. We don't often travel and our kids travel perfectly fine. Some kids can be "trained" to be good travelers and some just aren't.

    Posted by anita August 5, 10 10:58 AM
  1. @C -a 'mistake' that parents don't travel with kids from birth?! ummm maybe some parents can't afford to do that - so really is that called a mistake. your response is less than helpful and sounds very condescending.

    i think barbara gave some great advice

    Posted by babyblue August 5, 10 12:08 PM
  1. That's what the hotel TV is for. Our kids never slept where they were supposed to on vacation. Cuddle up and he'll settle down eventually. It's a vacation - why suffer 2 hours of screaming just to make a point?

    Posted by PatD August 5, 10 12:23 PM
  1. Did you try sleeping with your 2 year old in the same bed? We do that with our 4 year old whenever we stay at hotels and he actually ends up sleeping better and waking up later! It's a win-win for everyone.

    Posted by E August 5, 10 02:43 PM
  1. What if you have a post-colic toddler that never liked sleeping with you to begin with??? It frightens me of the thought of leaving the house overnight, considering he's never done so. And he's not the type that can cry and cry, and then fall asleep eventually...especially if he knows that we are RIGHT there (in a hotel room especially).

    Posted by Jenifer May 13, 11 10:10 PM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. Great article. I take my children on mini vacations here and there and your advice is 100% correct. I learned the hard way at first, but now they are used to the trips and the experience becomes easier every time. One addition, explain everything to your child. Let them know your plans and the up coming schedule even if they are really young. I am amazed to see how much they understand.

    Posted by Elle August 5, 10 07:29 AM
  1. Honestly, the big mistake parents make is not traveling with kids from birth. We did and our daughter is a seasoned traveler. It's just like anything--if you only put them to nap with a specific toy or only with a certain cd playing or only in the dark...then they can't sleep any other way because it's just too ingrained. We never did that--we never made a point of being home for naps, we traveled by plane and car from birth (internationally starting at 9 months), never warmed a bottle (and my expressed milk was given cold or at room temp), and I think that is a big part of her easy-going attitude. She sleeps in cars and on planes and in her stroller without hassle.

    It's ridiculous that you took your mattress from home. Put them in the pack n play (most american hotels have them, sometimes you need to be specific about not getting the portacrib), toss in a blanket from home and call it a day. If they're fussy, distract them with Elmo on an iPod with speakers...relaxes them enough to fall asleep every time with ours if she's over-excited or jetlagged and awake at 3am.

    You're seriously overthinking it. You had an overtired kid...they'd probably be overtired and cranky at home too. Give it a day or two and they'll be fine.

    Posted by C August 5, 10 09:31 AM
  1. Pratice makes perfect! The more you do it, the easier it gets. You just have to plow through the tough transition.
    But don't deny you and your family a vacation because you think your child won't sleep - just expect that the first couple of nights might be a little tougher than normal to get him to sleep.
    And yes, I agree with C, you were also dealing with an overtired toddler, which can be awful and make you think there is something seriously wrong. But trust me, it was the exhaustion coupled with a new environment that threw your son off. Sometimes I think going away for a longer period of time is better than a shorter one, because at least during a week-long trip, that gives everyone a chance to get used to the new place and then be able to enjoy it.
    Good for you for sticking to your normal bedtime routine - that is so important.
    Keep it up, try it again and before you know it, your son will love going away!

    Posted by nmac8953 August 5, 10 10:17 AM
  1. @C, I don't think that's necessarily the case that it's a "mistake" parents make by not traveling with kids from birth. We don't often travel and our kids travel perfectly fine. Some kids can be "trained" to be good travelers and some just aren't.

    Posted by anita August 5, 10 10:58 AM
  1. @C -a 'mistake' that parents don't travel with kids from birth?! ummm maybe some parents can't afford to do that - so really is that called a mistake. your response is less than helpful and sounds very condescending.

    i think barbara gave some great advice

    Posted by babyblue August 5, 10 12:08 PM
  1. That's what the hotel TV is for. Our kids never slept where they were supposed to on vacation. Cuddle up and he'll settle down eventually. It's a vacation - why suffer 2 hours of screaming just to make a point?

    Posted by PatD August 5, 10 12:23 PM
  1. Did you try sleeping with your 2 year old in the same bed? We do that with our 4 year old whenever we stay at hotels and he actually ends up sleeping better and waking up later! It's a win-win for everyone.

    Posted by E August 5, 10 02:43 PM
  1. What if you have a post-colic toddler that never liked sleeping with you to begin with??? It frightens me of the thought of leaving the house overnight, considering he's never done so. And he's not the type that can cry and cry, and then fall asleep eventually...especially if he knows that we are RIGHT there (in a hotel room especially).

    Posted by Jenifer May 13, 11 10:10 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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