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Sleep travel tips while you’re on vacation

We’d love to take our monster-loving five-year-old Xavier to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in DisneyWorld this year. The problem? It starts at 7 p.m. Xavier’s bedtime is 7:30.

Can we adjust his schedule so he can party, and not be Mr. Cranky-pants the whole next day? How much flexibility is really possible with a preschooler?

You need to know your child, says Saundra Schmidt Brook, of Waterloo, Ont., a mother of three. Her two-year-old slept contentedly in the stroller while the older children went on rides during their last Disney vacation, so keeping him out late wasn’t an issue. However, when it comes to her four- and five-year-old daughters, she says “We wanted everyone to have fun, so if they hit their wall, we just stopped for the day. They didn’t want to sit and wait for the parade, so we just left.”

Katie Thrasher of Montreal, whose children are five and eight, says she can do a late night once per trip, and avoids making it the first or last day. Having an afternoon nap (or at least a rest time) before the late evening makes a big difference. Katie says: “If they don’t want to nap, I put a movie on the TV or the iPad for them to watch in bed and often they fall asleep.” A hotel suite with a separate bedroom or a balcony where parents can sit and relax makes this easier.

Katie’s rule for the next day is that the first time someone gets miserable or melts down, they head back to the hotel for another rest. “Otherwise I find it’s just the first of many,” she says.

Marie-Lyne Pratt of Greenfield Park, Que., with three children, ages five, three and 20 months, has her own system. “With the young toddlers, what I like best is to bring a baby carrier. A good one. They’ll sleep in the carrier as mom walks around and can be easily breastfed when they need soothing.

“When older preschoolers get cranky or tired, snacks are your best friends. Things like drinkable applesauce have saved us countless times! They give your kids the energy they need to go on.” These snacks work during the evening when you’re hoping to keep the tired little one up a bit longer, and also the next day when he’s veering towards crankiness. Younger preschoolers often have more trouble than older ones adjusting to these changes, and your child’s personality might mean it’s better to stick with the usual schedule.

Ottawa mom Claudine Smith’s family reunion was to end with fireworks at 11:30 p.m. She thought two-year-old Henry would enjoy them so she arranged for him to take a long afternoon nap. Henry made it to the end of the fireworks show. But Claudine says “he was very cranky the next day and we ended up doing a lot of vegging on the couch. People say to me, it’s a vacation, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t have a routine. But it matters for Henry. He’ll have meltdowns and be miserable, so it’s not worth it.”

And Xavier? We’ve decided he can do one late night with a relaxing day to follow. He’s happily planning his costume.

Travel sleep tips

  • Know your child. If kids don’t handle changes to routine easily, then expect tantrums if they are kept up past their usual bedtime. Some children are flexible and will sleep in or nap the next day. You know your child best.
  • Make a deposit to the sleep bank. Sometimes a nap or quiet time during the afternoon before the late night will help even if your child doesn’t usually nap.
  • If you’re hoping for a sleep-in, set the scene. Close blinds to block out light and put a towel across the bottom of the door to reduce the sound if you’re in a noisy area.
  • Pack a snack. A little food can give a tired child renewed energy. Go for fruit or a protein food rather than sugary snacks.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2012.

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