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toddler sleep problems travel

Silent Night, Sleepless Night

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

Moxie just opened Christmased.com 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.

So:

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

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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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Amelia
Guest

I just want to offer an “I’ve been there” message.  My first son didn’t sleep through the night, EVER, until he was 20 months old.  And he would scream.  Oh, how he would scream.  He would wake up and hate it, he would hate being put back to bed, he hated teeth, growth spurts and milestones made him cranky… it was all there, just like you.  And if I brought him into my bed he would either pass out and then turn sideways, thus shoving dad and mom out of the way, or he would magically be awake! awake! let’s… Read more »

Liz
Guest
Liz

Oh shit, girl. I have one of these and I’m so sorry. SO VERY SORRY. My son is now 28 months and is just NOW sleeping through the night, most of the time anyway. It’s been a horrible, sleepless, terrifying, screamfest of a first and second year. He never slept well, from birth. We have tried all the things, a few times, and been as consistent as possible with each until we gave up and tried something else. Cosleeping stopped working around your son’s age (this was our fourth baby, we coslept with all of them until this guy). He… Read more »

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I feel for you. Neither my parents nor my in-laws live anywhere near us, so it sucks. I absolutely hate having to travel, on a plane, with kids, especially during the holidays. Last Christmas I was pregnant with baby girl number 2, so both sets of grandparents came to us, thankfully at different times. Anyway, flash forward to today. I have a 7 month old who is generally a good sleeper, but if anything gets her off track, man. She will let us have it! Last night she screamed at the top of her lungs for 2 hours. I think… Read more »

Shannon
Guest
Shannon

Oh man, have I been there and I feel your pain. My advice is to follow your gut on this one holiday season. If you really feel like the travel is going to be more work than fun, just be honest with your family. Tell them it is only for this year and that you’ll re-evaluate next year. We had a nightmare travel week when my son was 10 months old and we had several families staying in one house. My son would wake up early (freaking different time zones!) and proceed to wake up the whole house of hung-over… Read more »

Bonnie
Guest
Bonnie

I, also, have no real advice, but I wanted to chime in and say that I’ve been there and it will get better in time. Maybe less time than you think, too. My son is now 21 months and I NEVER thought he would EVER go to sleep easily, much less sleep through the night, but gradually it just happened. He was definitely still a terrible sleeper at 14 months. We didn’t participate in any formal sleep training programs, aside from sending Daddy in to get him back to sleep boob-less if possible. It was the same situation as you… Read more »

Whozat
Guest

I’m just going to throw this out there – are nursing to sleep and cosleeping absolutely off the table for you? 

I’m a “do what works” kind of gal, and that’s what worked for us and for our daughter

I can’t imagine what we would have been dealing with if we’d been attempting to do it any other way.

Julie
Guest
Julie

I want to second this one. It’s so not for everybody, I know, but the day my husband and I gave in and threw a couple of mattresses on the floor for a giant family bed, the world changed. We sleep, we’re happy. Even when the kid wakes up a lot because she’s going through something, a boob in her face and a cuddle put all right within a couple of minutes and I only have to roll over.  And then there’s this, which may be obvious, but it wasn’t to me: just realizing that her bad nights had a… Read more »

Kailee
Guest
Kailee

I have a baby who is VERY sleep sensitive. He likes his crib and his room and sleeps best there. However, we recently moved from DC to Denver and we had to stay at my mom and dad’s house while our things were shipped.  They had set up a crib in the spare room with the exact same mattress we have in his crib at home. We had packed his mall fan we use for white noise and you know what? He did really well! Now, then adjusting into his new room and the new house, well that’s a different… Read more »

allison
Guest
allison

Oh man…my 18 month old still kind of sucks at sleeping and I hear you, it’s so hard. If you ask me at 1am on one of those nights when she’s been up already 2-3 times (or even once, really)…well sometimes I might growl that YES I AM READY TO WEAN HER THANK YOU. Then the morning comes, I feel guilty, I want to nurse her forever and it all seems ok again.

I’m so torn.

Susan:)
Guest
Susan:)

Ugh, flashbacks to the last two Thanksgivings! We spent them in one big cabin with all the extended family. Trying to put the baby to sleep was awful. She sleeps best in her room alone with her own bed. Sleeping in a cabin in a portable crib was not agreeable to her and she screamed and cried for hours. She was 1 yr old the first year. Last year, at age 2, she still did not want to sleep there, but she screamed and cried much less. This year, we are hoping she will do much better, as she will… Read more »

Hannah
Guest
Hannah

Thank you for this post – my kiddo is a great sleeper…until she’s not. And she’s just started skipping naps, and waking up in the middle of the night and generally driving me bonkers. So I’m glad, I guess, that I have a whole community of people who are also up in the middle of the night. I, too, dread Thanksgiving – we’re all going to be crowded into one little room, my parents are much less than understanding, but we can’t cancel OR ELSE, and etc. So, If you can cancel, do! I’ll be rooting for you!

Jessica
Guest
Jessica

Just a word of hope / testament to the unpredictability of toddlers. My son, now 3 and a half,  was a terrible terrible sleeper. He had major regressions with every out of town trip. He was still waking with some regularity overnight when, at 26 months, we visited the in-laws. He was sleeping in a pack-n-play in our room. When woke overnight, we would mumble night-night, lay down, etc from the comfort of our bed. And, he DID IT! By the end of the visit he was sleeping through the night. And, he kept on sleeping through the night once… Read more »

Lindsay
Guest
Lindsay

The ONLY thing that worked for us was “The No Cry Sleep Solution.”  It took a while, but it was the only thing that helped my oldest fall asleep on his own without the screaming.  For the love of God…THE SCREAMING! 

Good luck to you!

Jimmy
Guest

Sounds very familiar.  Our oldest wasn’t much for sleep until he was about one year old.  Our extended families live close together, plus my wife’s side has step parents involved, so we had three “home” bases to appease with each holiday.  I feel your pain.  Our families are big and close and not spending holidays together never felt like much of an option, even though we knew that it was going to be a baby sleep disaster.   We learned that two things helped (didn’t solve the problem, just helped) when we spent the night away from his own crib:… Read more »

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

My kids are little, so we’re still figuring out the sleep thing (and are cutting back on our holiday travel this year in part for that reason). My niece and three nephews are all elementary-aged or older. Of the four of them, the one who didn’t sleep through the night until he was almost three turned into the kid who put himself to bed from the age of four on. He’d disappear at family parties and we’d find he’d gone ahead and tucked himself in and gone to sleep. At age 15, he’s the kid who falls asleep first at… Read more »

K
Guest
K

I’m right there with you. My youngest child hates riding in the car. Actually hate is not a strong enough word for it, I suspect, but I’ve learned to dread anything more than a quick trips. Anything more than that, she’s miserable, we’re miserable, then it throws off her nap, which throws off her sleep, and blammo, we’re back a square one. The family is 6 hours and the in-laws are 9 hours away. We’ve gone the route of reducing our travel schedule considerably. And we pissed off a lot of family, but I’m just not going to make my… Read more »

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

I feel your pain.  My kiddo is about the same age, and she sleeps great except when she doesn’t.  We are going to do thanksgiving just cause my brother will be in town and I haven’t seen him for over a year.  Christmas is really up in the air, plus MIL drama that I just don’t know if I feel up to dealing with. Last Christmas she put all the food away before I was able to eat cause I was taking care of the baby.  Twice.   Do what you have to do.  Start your own traditions.  I’ve always… Read more »

Liz
Guest
Liz

I have the same child, but even worse probably. Up 8-10 times a night with inconsolable screaming, from birth through 20 months. I kept pushing for normalcy, tradition and travel, and it was all a huge mistake. Every holiday and vacay was essentially ruined, plus payback after returning home. Wish I would have just taken it easy and stayed home for most of it! Now at 22 months, she’s finally getting better with sleep. So maybe next year we can have travel holidays again. Don’t even feel guilty about it!

Liz
Guest
Liz

PS – we co-slept and breastfed on demand for 18 months and it did not make it better. Mostly worse, when you are dealing with such a light sleeper. I was dead set on it, but not every baby can handle attachment parenting if they are overly sensitive and can’t self-calm.

Susie
Guest
Susie

My munchkin sleeps great, and we still don’t l much! Both grandparents require planes to visit, and I can’t fathom how we’re gonna make that happen for great-grandpa’s birthday next summer. My son will be two. I’m terrified of that flight…

TwinMamaTeb
Guest
TwinMamaTeb

I vote for going another time. Holidays are tough bc you are stuck inside ALL DAY, with all of those new people, and NO WHERE ELSE TO GO. Go when its just you and your parents, who maybe 1 on 1 will be a little bit more understanding and not judgmental. When you can take him to new parks, museums, etc that will certainly tire him out. My kids pass out from sheer exhaustion every night when we make the 5 hr drive to Gigi’s house. 

Antje
Guest
Antje

Oh man, I hear you.  My daughter did not conform to anyone’s sleep expectations or training methods for the first year of her life.  My advice is to DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU, and don’t apologize for it.  Co-sleep, nurse to sleep, Ferberise, cancel holidays, WHATEVER. I mean, I would certainly try to imagine a few compromise scenarios for the sake of your family, but if they won’t work for you, then don’t to them.  Of course you’ll need to gently explain your decision to your family and acknowledge their disappointment, but you don’t need to apologize for doing whatever… Read more »

Myriam
Guest
Myriam

My 22 month old is now an amazing sleeper, but she was tough until last august. She went from not being able to fall asleep on her own EVER, to requesting to go go to bed, skipping the books, turning her music on and falling asleep! All that after a week-long vacation with my family. We were ready to cry-it out, with my sister’s help (she has 2 older daughters), and on the 1st night, we put her to sleep in a pack-and-play, she cried for 2 minutes, and then her dad talked to her through the monitor, and she… Read more »

Elizabeth
Guest
Elizabeth

I don’t have any solid sleep advice except to say we’ve been there. Even with my daughter, who was always a good sleeper, trying to put her down in a strange bed in a strange room while a dozen adults are making their loud holiday party noises downstairs was rough. I do want to put a vote in for being nice to yourselves and choosing what’s best for your family this year. Neither my husband nor I have family in town. After 11 years (!) of always being the ones to pack up, pay for gas/tickets, take on the stress… Read more »

Brooke
Guest
Brooke

I can tell from your letter that you really care about your parents and making them happy. If I were you, I’d call your mother and tell her exactly what you said in your letter. Maybe even read it – and then ask her to weigh in. She might surprise you and agree that it doesn’t seem to be a great time – and work to schedule a different visit at a later time, or just agree that the rotation you have going get moved so that you do Christmas with them next year. Or she may offer to help… Read more »

VG
Guest
VG

As what others have said, you need to do what’s best for your son. I know Holidays are special times to get together and see family, but THIS family (you, your hubby & son) always comes first. I don’t have any advice to offer for the sleeping, but I can tell you that doing the holiday house hopping with a semi-sick child is just TERRIBLE. That happened to us last year. I spent Christmas Eve sleeping on my couch with my daughter next to me in her Pack & Play since she wasn’t still sleeping well from a bad cold.… Read more »

Corinne
Guest

Ugh, this is a problem that we have had since our 17 month old was born. Actually, I take that back, the first trip back to Ohio when he was 3 months old, he slept better while we were there, because the room had blackout curtains. We quickly bought some blackout curtains when we got home. Now he sleeps pretty well at home (although anytime something is wrong, teething, cold etc. he’s up at night). But travelling is a nightmare. He is such a light sleeper, and if he can see (or sense or smell, I don’t know) that we’re… Read more »

Kat
Guest
Kat

We have a six month old and this will be our first holiday season. But we have already had to have a few conversations about what we can and can’t do regarding travel for other events. His family lives a good piece North of us, and initially we were driving up constantly so that everyone could see baby. I finally lost it one weekend (4 hours in the car with a teething baby who just wants momma and to nurse and nap and cuddle was just too much for me). It just wasn’t worth it to see our son so… Read more »

Erin
Guest
Erin

We have decided to stay home this year for our first Christmas at home with our almost two year old. And we just flat out told our families straight up that we were doing it and why (its important to us to start our own traditions) and when we’d be up to see them. I’m sure they’re miffed on some level, but they have all supported it and aren’t throwing fits. I think because we have mentioned that we aren’t cuttin them out altogether for the holiday helps. But also both of our families never dragged us kids around on… Read more »

Carmen
Guest
Carmen

My son did not sleep through the night until he was nearly 3 years old. I tried and read everything, as I’m sure you have and if you get another piece of advice you’ll probably want to scream. Here is what I would have done with regards to travel (because we did it): 1. Warn EVERYONE many times that your child does not sleep and if they expect to get any sleep either they need to bring earplugs or a white noise machine. 2. I highly recommend getting a white noise machine for yourself….some cell phones have the white noise… Read more »

Deborah
Guest
Deborah

I feel for you on this one. Different set of holidays (Passover, weekly Sabbath visits, etc), but same issue. When our son, who is now 4, was tiny, it was no big deal, as we knew we would be woken up several times a night wherever we were, and being away didn’t make much difference. However, when he was five months old we did a long, trans-atlantic trip over Passover. We were on five different planes, I think. He didn’t sleep for longer than 2 hours at a time the entire month we were away, and then, to add insult… Read more »

Nikasha
Guest
Nikasha

You didn’t mention why your family can’t travel to you, or how big your family is. However, if it’s for financial reasons and just your parents, another option would be offering to pay for them to travel to you this year as a Christmas gift. You would have been spending the same amount anyway to travel to them.