Plan a sleep-friendly family vacation

By Allison Wright-White
Content provided by Revolution Health Group

Ah, vacation. You've cleared the calendar, picked the sweet family destination spot and are looking forward to relaxing with your family and catching up on rest! Right?

Maybe not, depending on how much sleep you experienced — or lost — on a previous vacation with the children. Let's face it: Family trips can be stressful — even downright rough. (Remember the year Jimmy learned how to throw his diaper off the condo balcony?)

But smooth and restful vacations are possible if you think ahead, set reasonable activity schedules and stick to fairly firm nap, eating and bedtimes, according to sleep experts and travel specialists.

Get busy now in establishing bedtime cues and rituals, and everyone will sleep better on vacation, says National Sleep Foundation (NSF) spokesman Daniel Lewin, Ph.D., director of pediatric behavioral sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Lewin suggests that parents check out the NSF's Web site (sleepfoundation.org) or the children's Garfield Star Sleeper Web site (starsleep.nhlbi.nih.gov) — a program of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) — for sleep pointers.

"Make sleep a priority during vacation, and you'll have happier kids," adds pediatric sleep expert Judith Owens, M.D., M.P.H., pediatric sleep disorders clinic director at Hasbro Children's Hospital at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

"When children get inadequate sleep, they are more likely to act out and be impulsive," she says — which of course can impact the whole family's peacefulness. Sleep loss can also become a safety issue for children because it influences motor function and the ability to stay alert, Owens adds.

Start right, sleep tight

Keeping daytime tension low will have a positive impact on nighttime sleep. Start your trip off smoothly with plans that allow for the unexpected. If you're flying, plan plenty of time for check-in as well as between connecting flights. Get your seat assignments in advance so that everyone can sit together.

If you have little ones, bring their car seats. The Federal Aviation Administration recommends them for children weighing less than 40 pounds, and most tykes are used to being in them for extended periods of time. Encourage children to settle into a nap at some point during the flight. Have them cuddle up with a soft blanket or favorite stuffed animal while you read them a story or two. And get out of your own seat to stretch and walk around often.

If you're driving, avoid leaving in the dead of night. (Yeah, we know, you want to beat the stifling traffic, but that, too, could have consequences.) Get a full night's sleep before bolting, says sleep counselor Kim West, a licensed clinical social worker and author of the popular guide book Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, And Wake Up Happy (CDS Books, 2006).

"Everyone will be less cranky, and you won't be starting your vacation with a sleep deficit," West adds.

Make the trip as comfortable as possible. Bring pillows, blankets, books, activities, music and/or DVDs that everyone can enjoy. When driving with the kids, stop often at rest areas to stretch (often means at least every two hours), use the restrooms and run around a little bit.

Fluffing the nest

You pull up to your hotel, beach house or condo, and the kids spill out, ready to sprint up and down the walls to investigate. Fight your urge to keep the herd assembled, and let them roam — with another adult or responsible sibling, or course — while you focus on the room situation.

"If you are staying at a hotel, get there as early in the day as possible," recommends Margie Jordan of ASAP Travel in Jacksonville, Fla., who's an American Society of Travel Agents communications committee member. "This way, you can make requests for quiet rooms at the ends of halls — away from ice machines, elevators and other noisy areas." Check in late and these rooms may be gone.

If you're going to be traveling all day and won't arrive until late, take your hotel's phone number and call-in before noon. Let the front desk know where you are, when you'll arrive, and request that they secure quiet rooms for your family. If you cannot get a guarantee from the front desk, Jordan suggests politely asking to speak with a manager who may be able to help. (Sometimes this really is dictated by availability, so don't push your line of questioning too far.)

Once you've checked in, before unpacking your bags, make sure the rooms have comfortable beds. If the rooms are in a noisy area or have uncomfortable beds, ask to change rooms. Don't be shy.

"Hotels are catching on that a comfortable night's sleep is a requirement," Jordan says. "Most hotels are replacing uncomfortable mattresses with luxury beds and upgraded bedding." You may even find that you sleep better at the hotel than you do at home, which is why many hotels sell their exclusive luxury beds (made for the hotels by well-known manufacturers).

Convene the sleep committee

Before you head off to the pool, spend some time deciding where everyone will sleep.

"You may need to move things around and figure out who's going to sleep next to the scary closet," West says.

If naps haven't already happened, take a test run before going out for the evening. This first sleep episode is important for setting up your vacation sleep model. West suggests making the room cool, dark and quiet. Plug in a familiar night-light and turn on a fan or white noise machine. Get the children to lie down with cuddly blankets from home that feel and smell familiar, and employ your regular naptime rituals such as reading a story or singing a lullaby.

Getting everyone to bed the first night should be easier following the afternoon nap. Take a little time to wind down quietly. Owens suggests taking warm baths and eating a light snack of cookies and milk before story time and turning the lights out.

Remember to pace yourself on that first real vacation day. Amusement park and boardwalk temptations are famously fun vacation activities, but indulge them in moderation, West says. "Parents get their kids overtired on vacations," she says. So, slow down and mix in quiet breaks whenever possible.

The time and effort you put into your sleep plan will impact your vacation. Get it right, and your children will be more agreeable — which means more fun for all and more time to smile about the memories you're creating.

Reviewed by: J. Steven Poceta, M.D.