I’m afraid we’ve gotten into some bad sleep habits this summer. My kids (aged 10 months and 4 years) had been doing great with their sleep routines, but this summer we’ve been on the road traveling, camping, and visiting friends, and we’ve let things slide. Now we’re getting back into a fall routine at home, and the 4-year-old starts preschool in two weeks, but sleep isn’t going so well.
With all of the sleeping-on-the-go, the baby has gotten used to napping in his carseat, carrier, or stroller, and now he’s having a tough time falling asleep on his own in his crib. The 4-year-old used to sleep through the night in her own bed, and now she’s coming into our room a few times during the night. (When we traveled to hotels and friends’ homes, she often slept in our bed with us, but at home, we’d like her to sleep in her own room). I feel terrible that we may have “ruined” our formerly good sleepers! Please help!
First order of business: please cut yourself some slack! When it comes to kids, I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a “bad sleep habit”—sometimes, we take sleep shortcuts to get us through stressful, transitional times. I think of these periods as “sleep survival mode”: we’re just doing our best to get kids to sleep, whether that means letting them sleep in our beds, driving them to get a nap in, or patting them to sleep. Remember, you can always get back on track in the future—sometimes we just need to focus on getting through the present. Spending nearly all summer on the road with two young definitely qualifies as stressful (I mean—fun!), and I’m betting you had your hands full just getting from point A to point B. So stop beating yourself up! Your situation is completely normal and totally fixable.
Now that you’d like to get back to a normal routine, it seems like both kids are having trouble making the transition. Remember that it’s completely acceptable to communicate to children that family rules may adjust slightly when you’re away from home. I know that all of the parenting literature stresses consistency above all—and as parents, we feel guilty when we can’t be 100 percent consistent about sleep or discipline. But really, kids are residents of the real world, and in life, our behavior depends on the environment we’re in. It’s OK to teach them that some family rules depend on context—i.e. our surroundings and situation. So, as you work toward getting their routines back on track, feel free to tell them that “that was how we did things on vacation. At home, these are the rules.” Simple as that, and no guilt required.
To begin, I recommend tacking one issue at a time, in order to be gentle to both yourself and the kids. First, after a long summer spent on the road, your kids may be overtired. (Check out this blog post on spotting the symptoms of overtiredness, and this one on correcting overtiredness.) Begin with earlier bedtimes to wipe out any residual overtiredness before making drastic changes to their routines. Otherwise, overtiredness will thwart your efforts, because very tired children have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep.
Next, I would start with the baby: once he is napping well, you’ll have more time and mental energy to focus on your older child. To get your 10-month-old back to napping in his crib, please see this post on helping a baby with a “motion” sleep association to sleep in his crib. This tactic works for older babies, and will work with any “move to sleep” association, including being rocked to sleep, driven to sleep, or carried to sleep. The trick is using a gradual progression.
Once he’s napping in his crib, work on the 4-year-old’s bedtime. First, ensure that her bedtime routine is rock-solid and that you’re communicating to her with your actions that you’re committed to a healthy, full night of rest for the entire family. (Preschoolers are smart little things and they pick up on nuance, so your language, vocal tone, and body language should convey a firm, friendly attitude toward bedtime and sleeping in her own bed.)
Above all, ditch the guilt up about adopting a temporary “sleep survival mode” mentality—we all bend our routines sometimes. That’s why I advocate for flexible routines—they bend, and they bend back. Good luck getting back into the swing of things.