I love the holidays! If it were up to me, I would hop from dinner party to family gathering, never making it to bed before the clock struck midnight. But, as a responsible parent of two boys under three, I realize a packed social calendar isn’t realistic, especially when it comes to their sleep. “A little flexibility is okay,” says Elizabeth Pantley, mother of four and author of The No-Cry Nap Solution (McGraw-Hill). “But if you totally disregard your child’s usual sleep schedule, you’ll end up with a little one who is tired, cranky and having less fun.” The result is a holiday shopping trip that ends in tantrums and tears or an evening out that can be unpleasant for everyone involved.
A 12 to 18-month-old needs one to two daily naps for a total of two to three hours (some function well on more or less) and 11.5 to 12 hours of nighttime sleep on average. A two-year-old needs 12-15 hours of sleep including a nap. Consistency is essential for young children, so bedtimes should be at the same time each day, even throughout the holidays.
“Toddlers won’t sleep in to adjust for late bedtimes,” says Dr. Shelly Weiss, a neurologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and vice president (clinical) of the Executive Board of the Canadian Sleep Society. “If your child goes to bed late, he’s missing out on valuable sleep.”
Read more: Toddler Napping Transitions
“Some children are more affected by changes in sleep schedules than others,” says Dr. Nicky Cohen, a Toronto-based psychologist. As a parent, you know whether your child will be able to handle the occasional late night or missed nap. Likewise, some children can nap in the car and arrive rested, while others don’t sleep well outside of their beds. “If your child goes to sleep easily, sleeps all night and wakes up happy, then a night or two of late bedtimes shouldn’t hurt,” says Pantley. “However, if you have a finicky sleeper who has several night wakings and doesn’t always nap well it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect his sleep schedule as much as possible.”
“Parents need to find a balance between living life and what’s in the best interest of the child,” says Dr. Cohen. If you do decide to keep your child up late for a night or two, try to keep to your toddler’s schedule when it comes to everything else. “With sleep patterns, like any other area, the more consistent parents are from day to day and between caregivers, the better,” says Dr. Weiss. If you know your child is going to be up late, bring his favorite snacks and toys with you. And make sure he gets a good nap during the day. “A nap-less toddler will become progressively moodier, fussier or hyper-alert as the day goes on,” says Pantley. If your event is during the day, protect the nap and try to create a sleep area that is similar to the one at home.
If your child can’t handle late nights, or you have multiple events planned in a week, it’s time to think about alternate arrangements. This could mean hiring a babysitter or deciding one parent or family member to leave early with child in tow. If you decide it’s best for the entire family to depart before the event is over, be honest with your host about why you need to leave. “Most people are more accepting than you think,” says Pantley. She suggests using a simple statement, such as “Our little one is getting tired. We’d better get him home.”
Getting back on track
If your child has had a late night, it’s important to get back to his regular sleep schedule the next day. “A short extra nap, or quiet rest break midday, especially during the holidays when their sleep schedule is disrupted, can help your child catch up on missed sleep,” says Dr. Weiss. Perhaps the best measure of whether your child is getting enough sleep is her own actions, says Dr. Cohen. “An occasional change to a child’s sleep schedule that causes loss of sleep might be okay, but often there are still signs of sleep deprivation even if they are subtle.” However, she says, “If they seem okay, they likely are.”
Nancy Ripton is the co-founder of justthefactsbaby.com and mother of two small boys who sometimes stay up way past their bedtime for a good party.