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  • Writer's pictureJulia Brady

An Important (and Often Elusive) Travel Accessory - Sleep

Holiday Travel. I can think of few other words that elicit an equal mix of fear and excitement in parents everywhere. There’s the packing, the last-minute arrangements for pets left behind, and for a Glenview family I saw early this morning in the United terminal, the 3:30am wake up to make sure they’re on time for a 6am flight to Florida.

And that’s all before stepping on a plane. Once arrived, there’s a whole new routine that must be established. A routine that can be difficult to plan for, especially when visiting family or destinations with predetermined schedules. While decades of business travel has taught me to be adaptable, small children aren’t wired for this. For me, the thrill of travel is the anticipation, a departure from everyday routine and the promise of new experiences. However, this same disruption of routines in addition to new surroundings can be exactly what makes travel so stressful for young children.

This realization took some time, and an ill-conceived two week visit to California with my toddler and newborn sons. It was there that I came to understand that certain routines, or “rituals” were exactly what we needed to ensure everyone had an enjoyable travel experience. I was reminded of this on a recent flight from the West Coast when I sat behind two brave parents and their toddlers zipped into matching sleep sacks. While it was clearly bedtime for the twins, they had no intention to sleep. They were too intrigued by their surroundings, a challenge for parents trying to persuade their child to nap on a flight, or sleep in an unfamiliar hotel room.

Sleep Rituals

Like many new parents, I learned the importance of consistency in bedtime routines early on. A predictable bedtime, putting a child to bed drowsy but not yet asleep…All important rules that go out the window the first time you travel during naptime, or arrive at a hotel after bedtime. What I discovered to be more important at these times were sleep rituals. Special traditions I created for the boys that comforted and signaled a time to sleep.

Two of the most soothing things for young children is a caregiver’s voice and touch. While I spoke often to my newborn, I would not have thought of reading to him if had it not been for our very first babysitter, a college junior who just happened to be the daughter of two child development specialists. When interviewing her we let her know that three-month-old John was not a good sleeper and tended to fuss a lot. We were nervous about how he’d do with a stranger, but when she arrived to work her first day with books in hand, I became more intrigued than nervous.

These were books I had not yet heard of. They were not the enduring books from my own childhood like Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon. The books our sitter brought were short, with more illustrations than words. This meant all three could be read in a matter of minutes. Better yet, these books were incredibly portable, easily tucked in a diaper bag. Twice a day she would sit with John in the rocking chair in his room, books in hand and read these prior to naptime. It wasn’t long before we started to read them at bedtime as well.

These three books provided a degree of comfort and predictability to the bedtime routine. However, it was another caregiver, an au pair from Brazil, who gave us the second invaluable sleep ritual. I first learned the importance of soothing touch for babies from my sister Monica, a mom of two daughters. She showed me how to give infant massages after bath time, something John absolutely loved. This provided much-needed sensory input for John, a child whose sensory cravings were so great that once he could stand on his own, he would jump in his crib until well after bedtime.

While working at home one afternoon, I heard two-year-old John and his Brazilian au pair on the baby monitor as she was putting him down for a nap. She helped lay him down then proceeded to apply a soft touch to different parts of his face, starting with his eyes. Softly whispering “two eyes,” she gently closed his eyes, then moved to his “one nose”, then proceeded to touch and name different parts of his face and head. When she emerged from his room a short time later, John did not get up and start jumping, nothing short of a miracle in my opinion.

The beauty of small books and the soothing touch of “two eyes,” is their portability. We quickly found these two short rituals could be done on airplanes, in hotel rooms or when visiting cousins. The enduring gift of these rituals has been their durability. At thirteen John is an avid reader, and Will still loves me to read with him. While he may not openly admit this, John still occasionally requests “two eyes, and Will is a sucker for a good bedtime back massage.

Integrative Therapist Merikay Kimball of NorthShore University HealthSystem shared with me that, “Touch is a powerful way to reach children. It can be a calming, quiet activity that transitions them from the verbal to the sensory.” At bedtime these small comforts can make all the difference between a stressful or successful trip. And a good night for the kids is a good night for all.

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