With winter break fast approaching, you might be hoping that you and your kids will finally get to catch up on the sleep you’ve missed in the hectic rush of fall. Between homework, late-night events and early-morning school, it’s easy to get sleep deprived, and the long stretch of the holiday beckons like a two-week weekend. But sleeping in over Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, letting your family catch up on sleep by sleeping in late could be the worst thing you could do for your long-term sleep goals. Here’s why - and what you can do instead.
The Hazards of Holidays and Sleep
Bedtimes are prone to slide during any school vacation - when you don’t have to get up early, chances are you’ll start to sleep in, and your kids will join you. But winter holidays present special challenges when it comes to keep a sleep schedule. In addition to the simple fact of not needing to get up for school and work, there are a lot of other factors that combine to make it hard to keep on your regular schedule.
First, the obligatory parties. From “family-friendly” work parties that start at 7pm and go until long past bedtime, to relatives on the other side of town who insist on hosting a holiday dinner, the season is stuffed with obligations that keep your family out late. Many of these “fun” events can feel like your attendance is required - and your kids end up coming along for the ride.
Next, there are all the activities you really do want your kids to experience - so many of which seem to interfere with bedtime. The lighting of a tree may be prettier after dark, but even with the earlier dusk of winter, late-night events can still keep your kids out much later than you’d put them in bed on a school night. Caroling, lights and candlelit hayrides all conspire to keep you up, and sticking to a strict bedtime doesn’t feel as important when you’ve got two weeks of vacation stretching ahead of you for recovery.
And finally, there’s the food. Food can affect sleep more than you might think, and the holiday season is stuffed with sugary, high-starch foods that are likely to make it harder for your kids to fall asleep and stay asleep. The shifts from your regular meal schedule can affect your child’s biological rhythms, too - when your family hangs out at Aunt Martha’s house waiting for her to serve dinner three hours past your usual time, that can interfere with falling asleep, even if you still manage to make it back in time for bed.
It’s not hopeless, though - with a little commitment and some good boundaries, you can make it through the holiday season with your kids’ sleep schedules mostly intact.
Guidelines for Holiday Sleep Schedules
If you do nothing else over the holidays to keep sleep a priority, do this: say no. Setting priorities and boundaries can be hard when your family and friends are all encouraging you to let loose and let your kids stay up. But if you stick to your guns and your schedule, you’ll be rewarded with better sleep - which means happier, less irritable kids, with more energy, politeness and patience to go with the flow. As much as your kids might love the freedom of vacation, the lack of routine and consistency that they experience at school can be stressful, so they’ll need extra energy to handle the stress of being away from home and out of their regular routines.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to turn down every opportunity for holiday fun - just be smart about it. Make “no” your default response to late-night events that will interfere with bedtime, and if you need to make an exception, clear the calendar the next day so your kids can recover. You can only "catch up" on lost sleep within a 24-hour window, so the extra time to sleep has to be the day after the event, otherwise that missed sleep is gone forever. Get a sitter (even if your kids are older) for those late-night adult parties that will bore your kids anyway, and if you have to push bedtime back, save it for the kid-focused night of hayrides and caroling.
Next, keep regular mealtimes. If you’re going to a relative’s house to enjoy a big holiday meal, you may not have any control over what time the main dish is served, but you can still make sure your kids eat at their normal time. Don’t be afraid to ask the host what time you’ll be sitting down, and if you suspect it’ll be later than your kids are used to, bring something for them to eat at their regular mealtime, even if dinner isn’t ready. If you’re afraid of offending your host by whipping out a stack of ham-and-cheese sandwiches from your purse promptly at 5:32pm, consider bringing some substantial snacks like beef jerky, apples and cheese crackers. Your host may not be thrilled that your kids aren’t hungry by the time the real meal finally hits the table, but she’ll be a lot less thrilled if your kids get grumpy from low blood sugar. If your kids get most of their calories at the regular time and treat the later meal as a snack before bed, they’ll have an easier time falling asleep, since late-night digesting won’t be keeping them awake. And that will prevent a lot of grumpiness the next morning, too.
Finally, schedule time to recover. If you’re traveling, try to schedule a few days back at home before school starts to ease back into your routine slowly. And if you’re staying home, try to get any unavoidable late nights out of the way early in your vacation, and keep the last few days before school starts back up unscheduled. Use those days to get your kids back on their regular bedtime routine, gradually moving their bedtime by 15 minutes a night if it’s drifted off of the regular time. Even two or three days can make a big difference in ensuring your kids wake up bright-eyed and energized, ready to get back to school and friends when the holidays are over.