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Grappling with sleep issues on (and after) a big trip

Matt Villano

We’ve been home from our most recent vacation for about 72 hours now, which means our little girls are suffering from what I like to call the post-trip Sleep Slog.

R, the baby, is totally off her game. Predictable 40-minute naps have devolved into random two-hour benders. Even worse: she has been awakening for her first feeding around 11:30 p.m., only five hours after she goes down for the night (previously she’d hold out until at least 2 or 2:30 a.m.).

L, our toddler, has it even worse, resisting naps all together, then fighting bedtime by jumping out of bed an average of 11 times per night. She’s also waking up at ungodly hours—the first morning it was 4 a.m., yesterday it was 4:30.

(Sadly, I am neither joking nor exaggerating.)

Unfortunately these troubles are par for the course; we travel a lot, and whenever we get home, it takes a while for the girls to get back into the swing of things. Add to this the troubles they usually have sleeping on the road in a different room and under different environmental conditions, and…well, let’s just say we grown Villanos have brewed through a lot of coffee around here lately.

Determined to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, I reached out to a number of sleep experts for their take on what I (and therefore you, dear readers) can do to avoid this debacle the next time around. Here’s some advice:

  • Stick to the schedule. Kids are creatures of habit, which means that keeping them in step with their biological sleep rhythms is key. If they’re itching to stay up later than usual, make a concerted effort to get bedtime back to normal. “Most parents mistakenly believe that if their child is up late he or she can make it up by sleeping in the next morning, or take a long nap later on,” says Jennifer Metter, a certified family sleep consultant in California.  “Unfortunately that is rarely the case.”
  • Stick to the set-up. Metter added that parents always should aim for sleeping arrangements that tactically mirror those at home. In other words, unless you co-sleep at home, avoid sharing a king-sized hotel bed with your kids. If options are limited, request a cot for your toddler, or fashion a makeshift “bed” out of couch cushions. If there’s no way around a co-sleeping arrangement, arrange pillows strategically to preserve the spirit of separate sleeping quarters.
  • Pay attention to details. Try your best to recreate a comfortable sleep environment, too. If your child relies on a sound machine in his bedroom at home, shell out a few bucks for a white-noise app for your Smartphone (I use BlackBerry, and swear by this one from TMSoft) and use it on the road. Dr. Sasha Carr, a psychologist and sleep expert in New York City, suggests that parents also consider bringing an improvised room-darkening kit by using a dark bedsheet with big hairclips for temporary curtains.
  • Bring totems. Most kids have special blankets, stuffed animals or other totems in which they find ultimate comfort. For my daughter, (as much as I wish it were an Ansel Adams photograph or Whitman's “Leaves of Grass”) it’s Minnie Mouse. Kerrin Edmonds, another family sleep consultant in California, says it’s important to bring these items with you when you hit the road. “Things may be different, but at least they’ll have that one familiar thing to take to bed with them,” she notes.

The bottom line: On the road, the whole sleep thing ain’t easy. No matter how well you plan ahead, no matter how diligent you try to be, after a vacation your children will experience some degree of adjustment. To deal with this, Edmonds preached that parents should practice patience. “As long we expect it, re-adjusting won't be bad, just like Daylight savings,” she said. “As soon as you’re home, jump right back into your normal schedule and supplement with early bedtimes until you have caught up on your children’s sleep debt.”

What techniques do you deploy when you’re traveling to minimize disruptions to your kids’ sleep? Please submit suggestions and insights in the comment field below.

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