I recently took my energetic 16-month-old on an 8 hour road trip to stay in a cramped room for three days because I have a death wish. Or because it was Thanksgiving.
My son is a champion sleeper thanks to a religious devotion to his sleep schedule, so I was terrified this trip was going to undo all the good work we’d established.
I was right. Traveling totally screwed it all up.
Fortunately for you, I know a phenomenal sleep coach, Chelsea Kunde, from BuildingBlocksAZ.org, who can break down everything I did wrong so you won’t make my same mistakes. I won’t be making these mistakes ever again, because I am never traveling with my child ever again.
Okay maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But seriously, never again.
A few words from the Sleep Goddess herself before I delve into my traveling fiasco…
From Chelsea Kunde: Before I begin commenting on the situation, let me first start by saying you did NOTHING wrong. I believe strongly in practical parenting. What does this mean? This means that parenting is trial and error. We grow and learn from situations we may call failures, but I really look at these moments as steps to get to the successes. If there was one way for every child and for every parent, parenting would be easy — and I would be out of a job 😉
So before we dive in, remember, nothing you do is “wrong.” Could there be a different and (dare I say) better way to approach something? Sure. However, I am also aware of what it is like in the moment. Those moments where you feel like your head is going to explode or all you can do is cry — those moments are hard. Those moments are the ones we unfortunately agonize over. Those moments also shape us. I believe they can shape us for the better. It is all about reframing the way we see something. Turn your failures into teachable moments that will lead you to future successful moments. For me to “dissect” your trip is incredibly simple compared to being in it. This I understand and recognize, but with that said, you asked for some pointers and here they are! Practical parenting, loving family solutions, from yours truly, Chelsea, founder of Building Blocks.
1. We departed for our long road trip shortly after my son woke up so we could try to stay on schedule and play for a few hours in the car before his regularly scheduled nap time. I ride in the backseat so he can be entertained and because the sound of a screaming child makes me stabby.
I also believe in positive praise for adults and kiddos! I think your time to leave for the road trip was perfect. We want to always “set the stage for success” for our kiddos. Leaving after he woke was perfect. Not only is the morning the best time of day for kiddos (especially for well rested ones), it also allowed you plenty of time to get to your destination without throwing your schedule off completely.
My biggest advice in this scenario would have been for you to sit up front.
I can empathize that hearing your child cry can be heart wrenching and, quite frankly, annoying at times. I always try to remember this is their biggest way of communication. Crying is not always a bad thing. I also remind myself that frustration can be motivating. He may have been frustrated with parts of the road trip (I would have as well, my strength is not long car rides), but he would problem solve ways to get through the frustration. He would find ways to entertain himself without you being his one source of entertainment. As we know, the world is not constantly entertaining and we want to set the stage for success — for life!
(Side note: this is also why I encourage parents to let their kids play by themselves everyday for a period of time. This can be short, but it is important for their creativity, brain development, and independence to learn to entertain themselves.)
Trips are different than day-to-day. I would recommend letting him watch a show or two by fastening an iPad to the back head rest for him. I do not recommend this as a daily exercise, but on a long road trip, everyone can bend the rules. Make sure he has lots of snacks as well. This can help with any road trip.
I also fear with you in the back with him, continually entertaining him, he will have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Mom is always fun and always right here with me, so why do I need to sleep or relax at all?
2. He started to get sleepy during his usual first morning nap time. Yay! Gave him a bottle, turned on the noisemaker, and let the car lull him to lala land.
Only note I would have is to remember that his napping may be compromised today somewhat, but to not hyper focus on that. Do the best you can for him to sleep, but ultimately do not put too much pressure on yourself or them. We need to be flexible as the day is very different then a typical day.
3. 10 minutes later he woke up. He figured he just slept an hour and it was party time. I went back to reading Pete the Cat 1,000 times and playing peek-a-boo with any object I could find.
I do wonder here if he was alone in the back seat, if he would have been able to put himself back to sleep. He may have fussed some and maybe even be annoyed he was awake so quickly, but I have a feeling he saw you and was reinforced to stay up to be entertained and play with his mom. Again, your intentions are great, but just looking back, I wonder if he could have slept more successfully on his own with less back seat distraction.
4. A few hours later, we’re both seriously pissed. The game of throwing a ball against the seat and watching me search for it on the ground is entertaining for him, but I’m about to lose it. Should I have let him “cry it out” because I knew he needed sleep?
Constantly having to be the entertainer for any child, on any day, would be exhausting and stop working. Kiddos can pick up on our moods faster then we can — I swear they are so much smarter then we give them credit for! I think he would have fussed and cried some upon the first waking, but would have put himself to sleep. He is capable of great sleep, so I know he has a great skill set. I think in retrospect letting him fuss for a bit would have lead him to a nap. Again, him fussing is his way of communicating, “Ugh! I am in a car and sleepy! I am pissed!” and that is okay and, quite frankly, great. I want my daughter to always communicate her emotions and crying is always allowed. However, sometimes I cannot fix the problem right away. Why? Because that is life. I want to set her up for success (get the pattern?). I want her to learn that sometimes in life you have to work through the frustration. That sometimes things, to put it simply, suck. But you are loved and cared for, and you will get through it. Make sense?
5. FINALLY he’s asleep! A solid two hour nap when we were two hours away from our destination. Thank the Lord in heaven.
Amazing!! See, I am confident in his sleep skills! He has them, he just needed some time to get there 🙂
6. Hang out with the fam until it’s time for the usual bedtime routine. He went down in the pack ‘n play at his usual bedtime with no problem!
I love this! I always tell people to stick to your schedule as best you can on vacation. Of course you will stretch bed times some days and maybe even nap times, but do not do that all the time. Can you guess what I am going to say next? That’s right — set them and yourselves up for success. If one night they stay up later, make sure the next night, they get to bed on time. This will make everyone involved happy and pleasant to be around.
7. Since we are staying in the same room, my husband and I sneak into the room to crawl into our own bed a few hours later. Our efforts are in vain. Even with the noisemaker on full blast, he wakes up and sees us. Time to party/scream.
This is the hardest part about vacation at times… room sharing! I would ask you if there was a better location for the pack ‘n play? Big closet? Bathroom? I have put pack ‘n plays in both and this can be really helpful in a hotel room! It allows them to have their own little space and you to have yours.
8. Since I’m weak, I can’t let him cry it out while I’m in the same room. If he can see me he’ll never let up, right? I crawl into the pack ‘n play and lay down and nurse him to sleep. He’s totally happy. I’m… curled up in a pack ‘n play. I wait a few hours until he stops sucking (seriously he sucked for that long) and I determine he’s officially passed out before I acrobatically climb out of the pack ‘n play like Catherine Zeta Jones in that movie with Sean Connery. I slide back into my grown up bed and attempt to realign my spine.
You are not weak — it’s hard to hear our kids cry! Especially in the same room. However, I would have suggested leaving the room. Leave and let him “fuss it out” in increments if you need to. Going back in and comforting him when you need to, but always putting him back down. Once he falls back to sleep, try to enter again. This will set up a good expectation for him. Even though we are on vacation, these are the rules and it is time to sleep on your own through the night. It might take a few times of leaving and re-entering, but essentially when a behavior (i.e. fussing and crying) is not reinforced, it will disappear because there is not a function for them. His job is to test the limits and he was doing his job. He was thinking, “wow, hey mom & dad, this is awesome, let’s play!” and our role as parents is to teach them the boundaries and expectations in typical and new situations. Those expectations here would be for him to sleep in his pack ‘n play, on his own, through the night.
9. Naps go well the next day (nurse him in the pack ‘n play until he’s semi-asleep, climb out, shut the door, let him cry a few minutes, see in the monitor that he’s asleep). I suspect it’s because I can actually leave the room to let him settle himself?
Bingo! And look how quickly he learned the fussing did not work. He has the skills, but if he knows you will sleep next to him and nurse him to soothe, he is going to fight for that. I would apply these same techniques at night time as well. Kiddos really do adjust quite well — they are so resilient and way less jaded then we are!
10. Bedtime goes well the second night. This time we snuck in the room successfully, but he’s up a half hour later and can see me. He screams. I crawl in the pack ‘n play. This time he nurses all night long and anytime I try to detach and/or sneak out, it’s screaming again. I attempt to let him cry it out by leaving the room.
I think leaving the room is key. I think if you would have done that from the start, he would have cried or fussed even less not knowing that you can crawl in with him and nurse. However, it is all about trial and error!
11. He’s finally asleep! I sneak back into the room after he’s been down for 10 minutes and pray I can at least get a few hours of sleep.
Great! Make sure to stay calm… they can smell fear 😉
12. He’s up about 10 minutes after I sneak into the room. I crawl back into the pack ‘n play. I cry a little.
I would have cried too. That is really frustrating 🙁 Again, I would try to move the pack ‘n play out of view of you both if that was an option. That would be the most helpful. Next, I would continue to teach him the expectations of sleeping through the night even if you are in the room, teaching him to be in his sleep space without you being in the pack ‘n play with him. You can’t blame him for trying though — look at it from his perspective: if he cries, he is getting his mom next to him all night and a milk shake! So I think if some of those things were eliminated, he would be able to learn that it is time to sleep, just like when he is at home.
13. Scenario repeats itself: child falls asleep, mom crawls out, mom leaves room, mom comes back, mom thinks all is well, child wakes up, mom dies inside.
It is so hard and exhausting… but I would highly suggest removing the crawling in. And continue to work on him falling asleep by you leaving.
14. It’s now 3:45 a.m. on the morning we’re set to drive home and I decide “Screw this shit, we’re leaving now.” Husband (who has also not slept through this circus occurring in his bedroom) also decides to screw this shit. We throw everything in the car, leave a goodbye note, and head home.
You have to do what you have to do! At 4 a.m. on little sleep, no one would blame you! And sometimes the best medicine for all is “screw this.” Toss it up to a crappy day and start over tomorrow.
15. I buckle up my son and sit in the front seat because I simply cannot deal anymore. He cries. After a full night of roughly an hour of sleep for everyone, he falls asleep 15 minutes into the drive.
Tada! Sleep finally — how frustrating though! I am glad he was able to fall asleep on the drive home and give you both some well deserved quiet. This sounded stressful and tiring, which also is hard to make changes when you feel defeated and deflated. I can empathize with that. I think if some of your techniques were tweaked, the outcome could have been different. I think every vacation comes with its own set of drawbacks, but I am hopeful for your next trip — adding in some of these tips would help, tremendously!
Sleep is so important for everyone. Routine and clear expectations are also important ways our kiddos learn. We can set them up for success in any situation, but sometimes we have to tweak the plan as we go. I hope this was helpful. You are such a wonderful mom and a transparent writer. I love reading anything you write. You always make me smile even when reading frustrating situations!
Thank you, Chelsea, for your brilliant insight! I see now that the biggest mistake of all was not contacting you first. A small tear comes to my eye when I think of the 13+ hours of sleep you could’ve given me that I’ll never get back 🙂
What about you, mamas? How have you survived road trips with your little ones? If you want more help getting your little sleep thieves to go down (on the road or at home), contact Chelsea Kunde at BuildingBlocksAZ.org.
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