About The Author
Dr Nicola Cann (DEChPsy, BSc Hons) is an educational psychologist and director and founder of The Family Sleep Consultant, an online consultancy service that provides sleep assessment, intervention and training for families, educators and other professionals. Dr Cann has worked with families and schools in the UK, New Zealand and Asia, in both the public and private sectors.
Why is the holiday season so disruptive to sleep?
If you look at any sleep advice online you’ll see that everything you’re advised to do to get good sleep is much harder during the holidays. You’re way more likely to be staying up late, having more screen time, and overindulging with food and alcohol. Throw in the extra stresses of a hectic social schedule, overstimulation from all of the festive fun, and the pressure to make Christmas perfect for the whole family, and you have a recipe for terrible sleep. But sleep doesn’t have to be another source of stress.
I put this question to families I’m working with:
“What is most challenging about family sleep during the holiday season?”
I had so many responses that I’ve had to narrow it down to the top four. Which just goes to show that if you’re struggling with sleep you’re not alone.
Here are my top ten tips for managing these common holiday sleep challenges.
Staying up late
If you’ve been diligently sleep training your toddler, or working hard to create good habits for your child, then a late night can feel really disruptive of all of that hard work. But remember, sleep is bound to be disrupted over the holidays, and part of developing healthy sleep habits is learning how to handle this. Adults who sleep well aren’t fazed by the occasional sleepless night. So try not to see a late night as a setback, but more as an opportunity to practice coping skills for you and your child.
Tip 1: Bedtime might change but stick to your bedtime routine
Maintaining something close to your child’s usual bedtime routine will help them fall asleep and stay asleep more easily. However late bedtime gets, as far as possible do the same things in the same order as usual before bed. This will give your child a sense of security when there’s lots of change going on around them, and will help them wind down from days full of overexcitement.
Tip 2: Schedule sleep
If you know there’s a late night coming up try shifting naps a little later to account for this. If your child isn’t napping, build in opportunities for downtime in the afternoon before the late night.
Staying with family and friends over Christmas should be relaxing and fun, and with a bit of preparation it can be. Sleeping in an unfamiliar environment, with others who don’t know your routines, can create some challenges. But these tips will maximise your chances of things going smoothly.
Tip 3: Talk it through with your child in advance
Explain what’s going to happen, where they will be sleeping and where you’ll be sleeping. Knowing this in advance will help them to feel safe and secure and get to sleep more easily. If they’re too young to talk it through, take them to their sleep space ahead of bedtime so that the environment feels familiar when it’s time to go to sleep.
Tip 4: Talk to your host in advance
Explain your routine and ask if you can set up your child’s sleep space before you start the celebrations. This will help them understand what you need, but also saying it out loud makes it more likely you’ll stick to your plan!
Tip 5: Recreate your usual sleep environment
Set up your child’s sleep space when you arrive. Bring familiar toys, books and bedding. Get them involved if possible, or at least show them where they’ll be sleeping before they go to bed. This helps with a sense of familiarity, and in sleep terms, you’re providing as many of their usual sleep associations as possible (the conditions your child associates with sleep).
Unsolicited sleep advice
Because of increased time with extended family over Christmas, the opportunity for ‘helpful’ relatives to advise you on your family’s sleep is maximised. Remember, it probably comes from a good place. Grandparents want to spend as much time as possible with their grandchildren. Aunties want to help by giving you advice.
If this isn’t your first Christmas as a parent you’ll likely be familiar with some of these phrases:
“He doesn’t look tired. Maybe he doesn’t need that nap.”
And classics like
“Can’t she stay up a little later? It’s Christmas after all.”
“One more cookie before bed won’t hurt.”
It can feel much easier to give in than to stick to your guns. But you know the repercussions of that skipped nap better than anyone. You know your child best, you know what your family needs in terms of healthy sleep, and if you’re following my advice so far you’ll already have a plan for making sure these needs are met.
Tip 6: It’s ok to say no
anytime you like, to anyone you like. If you know you’re no good at this (be honest), practice with someone you trust so that you have a script ready. This will genuinely make it easier. Aim for polite but firm, and explain your rationale so others can understand your decisions and be supportive.
Tip 7: Set expectations in advance
Make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. For example saying “We’d love to come! We’ll stay until 6 o’clock in order to get the kids home in time for bed”.
You can plan as much as you like but for stress-free sleep you’ll also need to embrace the chaos. In order to enjoy your family time as much as possible you might need to let go of some of your plans and expectations. Remember that good sleep habits develop over time. They aren’t disrupted because of a few late nights or missed naps. You’re playing the long game here. Deciding unexpectedly to stay out late seeing family isn’t something you need to feel bad about.
Tip 8: Prepare your child for changes to their routine
Children are happiest when they know that we’re in control. Talk them through what’s going to happen so there are fewer surprises, and maintain consistency where you can so their routine isn’t totally disrupted.
Tip 9: Plan for quiet time
After an unexpectedly busy day, you’ll all be tired. If you can, aim for a more relaxing day tomorrow, with a familiar routine at home. If possible, scatter some rest days throughout your holiday period and protect them!
Tip 10: Have a ‘Sleep Anywhere’ kit
Your kit should include anything that will help your little one get the sleep they need. You might include:
Ready to enjoy Christmas?
Last but not least, don’t forget about your own sleep needs as parents, because if you’re not sleeping well it’ll be harder to help your family get the rest they need. You’ll be more likely to cave to the inevitable bedtime resistance of your excitable toddler, more inclined to stay up late yourself and have that extra glass of wine, and less resilient for those tricky conversations with well-meaning relatives. For now, just aim to maintain good habits, and remember to celebrate your successes. There will be plenty of time to get more focused on your family’s sleep when life has settled back into a routine.
I hope you find my top ten tips helpful. I’d love to hear from you about what’s worked best for your family. And if you’d like more tailored advice and support, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
You’ll also find free resources here on my website, to help with improving your family’s sleep.
If you’d like to find out more about how I work with families, click here.
And if you’d like to book a free 30-minute consultation to find out more, click here.
Dr Nicola Cann (DEChPsy, BSc Hons)
Director and founder of The Family Sleep Consultant