'Tis the season for all the hustle and bustle of the holidays. There’s the shopping and the parties and the family time, and it really is the most wonderful time of the year.
But the nightmare before Christmas is a very real thing for most parents of young children who equate the holiday season with one very important and unavoidable truth: overtired kids.
“Let’s face it, nobody needs their child extra tantrummy during the holidays,” said Cudahy mom of two, Melissa Kaye Tomczyk. Tomczyk, who is the Social Media and Marketing Manager at RG Natural Babies in Racine, said that with her two under three, naps need to be a priority.
“Less sleep during the day equals less sleep at night equals less sleep the next day,” she said.
Understanding the science of pediatric sleep
And, according to Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant Joan Becker Friedman, doing your best to keep on schedule is one of the key things you can do to make sure your whole family gets the most out of this holiday season.
“The number one reason for sleep problems during the holidays is that most people’s schedules are inconsistent (this time of year),” said Friedman, who earlier this year founded Pea Pod Sleep Consultants LLC. “Another reason is that kids tend to stay up too late during the holidays.”
Some of it has to do with the excitement of the season, or even with the stress level of their parents. That's why Friedman suggests making sure parents take steps to keep the regular schedule as intact as possible.
“Even though it’s a fun and exciting time for most people, it’s also a stressful time, and kids can pick up on their parents’ stress,” she said. “Kids have a lot of exciting things on their minds – new games, new toys, decorations in their rooms that they don’t normally have, so it’s more challenging to relax and clear their minds before sleep.”
The solution? According to Friedman, the best way to deal with all of this is to plan ahead.
“The more solid your child’s sleep foundation is in general, the less likely they’ll be to be affected by minor changes in scheduling or routines,” she said. “They can bounce back pretty easily if they have regular bedtimes and regular naptimes.”
Plan ahead, spread out the fun
As tempting as it may be to try to sneak everything in, doing so can be challenging enough before you have children. Once kids are part of the equation, it is that much more important to prioritize what events are most worthwhile and enjoyable as a family.
“Don’t have an obligation every single day,” Friedman said. “Kids can handle occasional late bedtimes and missed naps, but every single day can be very challenging.”
Maintaining a balance can help keep things on track, as well as keeping your family in the loop with why you’re making the decisions you’re making. Friedman suggests employing an 80/20 method, which means sticking to the regular routine about 80 percent of the time and being flexible for the remainder.
Helping to equip your children at an early age with tools to calm themselves during a stressful time has a particularly beneficial impact during the holiday season.
Be mindful as well as joyful
It is never too soon to start working which children on being mindful, understanding that our minds and bodies are connected in a meaningful and powerful way.
“I found physical cues such as putting on pajamas or turning down the lights (at bedtime) aren’t always enough,” said Chris Neuser, a father who lives in West Bend. “Saying ‘settle down’ doesn’t mean anything to a little mind, and it’s unreasonable to expect that command to work.”
From an early age when his daughter Sydney would struggle falling asleep, Neuser and his daughter would do what he calls a body scan meditation.
“(We say) breathe out and let all the wiggles leave your feet, breathe out and feel all the wiggles leave your ankles, and so on,” Neuser said. “If a parent can commit the time and energy to this, it's so worth it because then messing with their schedule a little isn't the massive upheaval I always hear about.”
Routines are sacred
In addition to having techniques in place, routine is paramount.
Most children do not benefit at all from pushing back bedtime for both psychological and scientific reasons.
“Kids’ sleep needs don’t change during the holidays,” Friedman explained. “After 8 p.m., cortisol levels start increasing, and it becomes harder to fall asleep.”
Despite that, we all know all too well sleep sacrifices will still need to be made.
“Do your best to not sacrifice both nap and bedtime,” Friedman suggests. “If you know you’re going to miss a nap, have a normal bedtime. If you know it will be a late night, make sure to have a nap that day.”
And when it comes to the big night, when Santa is coming and chances are you’ve had a busy day filled with church and family gatherings and carols, Friedman says to remember the reason for the season.
"It may be more stressful than anyone likes to admit to make sure everyone has just enough fun and ample sleep, but ultimately that is what it's all about," Tomczyk added. "It's just one, potentially long, but amazing day, so whatever we can do to enjoy it together is well worth the effort."
Ty Schmidt is a freelance writer and mom to two boys.