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toddler sleep problems travel

Silent Night, Sleepless Night

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

Moxie just opened for the 2012 holiday season, and I want to throw up as it means holidays are around the corner. I have a 14-month-old son (who makes reading about Ike even more fun than it might otherwise be). He’s a darling, wonderful, brilliant child, but he sleeps like crap. We’ve had pretty good success with Ferber-style sleep training, and he goes to sleep on his own. The problem is that if ANYTHING (teeth, sickness, developmental milestone, overtiredness, grandparents, you name it) happens in his life, he starts waking up a ton at night. We’re talking 4 to 8 full-on, screaming screamfests, at least one of which requires parental intervention for any of us to get any sleep. He’s struggled with every single sleep regression anyone has ever identified, and we’re barely limping out of the teeth of yet another lousy two weeks (molars + cold + started walking = AGH).

Previously, when we’ve traveled we have just adopted an “anything goes, let’s just get through this trip and then we’ll get back to normal” attitude that generally results in me nursing him to sleep a lot and sometimes cosleeping. We’re not willing to deal with the screamfests in our parents’ houses, let alone hotels, and when he was younger it was pretty easy to get him back on the routine when we got home. But we traveled to my family at the end of June, and I feel like we never did get quite back to normal. We’d be close, and then there’d be a new setback.

We just cancelled a trip to see my inlaws this coming week, because I’m exhausted and we just, finally, maybe, touch wood, turned the corner on the latest set of sleep disruptions. But we are supposed to spend Thanksgiving with my inlaws, and Christmas with my family. My husband is of the opinion that we should just put a moratorium on travel until our son is 3 or so. He feels that if it’s really that important to spend holidays with our family, they will come to us. His family likely will, but my family can’t.


1) What do people with non-sleeping kids do? Do we cancel travel for a while, or deal with no sleep for a while, or is there a magic strategy I don’t know about?

2) If we have to cancel holiday trips, how do I explain to my family that we aren’t coming? Furthermore, I have two nieces who are local to my family, and who have spent the night with their grandparents before without incident. How do I deal with the inevitable judginess if we choose to accommodate our darling screamer?

3) It was my inlaws’ turn for Christmas last year. My family will feel it very keenly if they don’t get their turn this year, and also I’m sad at the prospect that they might never get to spend Christmas with my son. Long lasting sleep deprivation is not a particularly good basis for handling highly emotional subject matter, and so I’m having trouble evaluating the importance of fairness, and of family disappointment.

What to do, what to do?

Oh man, I am sorry. This is SUCH a tough issue. And one that I’m guessing there really won’t be any sort of consensus. Except to simply do your best, do what feels the most right, and try to cut yourself some guilt-slack.

Noah was only about two months old when we traveled from DC to PA for his first Thanksgiving. Because we always went to PA for Thanksgiving! And because we weren’t gonna start changing our plans and sit at home and demand people come see us on the holidays instead JUST because we had one teeny tiny easy little baby.

After the three-hour car trip turned into a six-hour nightmare excursion of traffic and screaming baby hell (BOTH WAYS), we cried uncle. We haven’t been to PA for Thanksgiving since.

Now, we still go up for other visits — last year was the first time we hosted Christmas here, though I’m not really sure that was “easier” in any way, shape or form — and while we certainly have had our share of travel-related sleep disturbances (strange bed! strange people! I slept too long in the car and NOW YOU MUST PAY! etc.), I don’t think we have experienced anything quite as brutal as what you’re describing. Maybe one initial rough night and some stressful nap times, but no screaming for hours and hours on end.

HOWEVER, even the worst sleeper at 14 months is not ALWAYS going to be the worst sleeper. Or always going to be 14 months old. If I could make a baseless prediction, I’d say by next year, he’ll be much, much better. Possibly even fine. At least from a screaming perspective. I mean, Christmas 2013 is 14 months away. That’s DOUBLE HIS WHOLE LIFE. You’ll be absolutely amazed at how much maturity and development is going to happen in that time. He might still be a sensitive sleeper, but hopefully not a screamer, and you’ll likely have other tools at your sleep-soothing disposal besides nursing and co-sleeping.

(THINK: cartoons and toddler apps loaded on a phone or tablet and a set of headphones. You sleep, he basks in the warming glowing glow until he eventually passes out. No, it’s not ideal, but it’s SURVIVAL.)

But yeah, I would totally have your back on skipping the holidays this year. But just frame it as ONE YEAR off, not some indefinite “we’re out for two, three years” hiatus. If you want to avoid the “judgment” because other babies in your family THAT ARE NOT YOURS have different sleep habits and needs, make up some other excuses. One of you has some work stuff — a big project, a deadline that means you can’t take as many days off. Someone suddenly comes down with a poorly-timed illness.

Or tell the truth that your son just isn’t a good traveler yet and you’re toast, and just really really need to spend ONE Christmas morning at home.

If your cancellations are met with much sturm und drang and DRAMAZ, you could try asking for a little help from the group. If your son is in a houseful of loving grandparents and/or aunts and/or uncles, cousins, etc., and that houseful of relatives REALLY wants you to come, well…enlist their help with the night shift. Ask Grandma if she can rock him for awhile. Or if that’s not helpful, insist that at SOME POINT during the day, you can turn him over to someone else and take a nap. A long one, so you’re more prepared for the night ahead. And stick to that plan and get some rest when you can.

Again, this is a really tough situation, albeit one that a lot of families with young babies and toddlers have been in, to some degree. The holidays are supposed to be wonderful and relaxing and yet suddenly this precious little person (for whom you are TRYING to create wonderful memories and traditions for) comes along and makes everything complicated and stressful. I’m sure everybody has made different choices and calls.

For some, it’s just too important to see family and carry on traditions and get the photos/videos while you can (especially in the case of elderly or sick parents), so you power through the sleep problems or traffic jams or airport nightmares. Others might just unapologetically choose their own sanity and sit one or two Christmases out. Others move to a hotel, offer to host instead, visit on non-major holidays so baby can have his own room and mom can avoid the traffic…or start booking family vacations and branch off completely with a new set of holiday traditions that don’t involve going to the crazy in-laws or whatever dysfunctional situation was going on before. 99 problems, 999,999,999,999 different solutions and compromises.

We personally called it quits on Thanksgiving, but stayed committed to Christmas. (Though in our case, we’re SUPER LUCKY that both of our parents live(d) in the same town, about 10 minutes apart. You don’t have that luxury and I completely recognize the wrench it throws in things.)

Now that we have three (THREEEEEEE) small children, I’ve gotten admittedly more stubborn about dropping everything and hauling them all over and have more or less insisted that people come see us. Some do, some don’t. But one day I will have three older children and won’t have to drag diapers and Pack-n-Plays and 500 million pounds of gear around, and it will be easier to visit family around the holidays. Maybe even Thanksgiving! But…uh…probably not yet. Not this year.

Readers? Any tips for powering through the holidays with a non-sleeping baby? Or tips for breaking the news gently to the grandparents that you’re staying home for Christmas?

Photo source: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock

Published October 15, 2012. Last updated October 29, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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