Just when you thought you had all of your child’s sleep challenges worked out, here come the grandparents for a visit. While grandparents mean well and are absolutely fulfilling their grandparently duty by spoiling their grandchildren, I believe it was Dr. Marc Weissbluth who called grandparents the “enemy of sleep.” Make no mistake, they, of course, do the things they do out of love, but they often don’t adhere to the same limits that we work so hard to establish for our children. Here are some tips to help everyone get through these visits with minimal disruption. Although we will mostly be talking about grandparents here, these tips and guidelines can apply to any visitor who disrupts your children’s daily routines.
For the sake of clarity, we will discuss the challenges that grandparents present as two separate categories: those related to grandparents who come in town to visit for brief periods of time and those who live locally and may take on more ongoing caregiving responsibilities. Visiting relatives tend to cause short term (although still stressful) disruptions where as if you have a relative caring for your child on a regular basis, this can have many more long-term consequences for your child’s sleep.
So why do we run into trouble with our children’s sleep when grandparents visit? There are a variety of reasons and ways that they may present challenges. Most commonly, I hear from parents that their children becoming more overtired when grandparents are around. Remember, your parents haven’t had a small child to care for in probably 30 years (give or take a few years). It is highly unlikely that they remember what the actual, day to day, experience of having a small child is really like. We repress those early memories very quickly so that we might someday decide to have another child and therefore the human race can continue. If parents forget the experience of having a small child after just a few months, imagine what 30 years must be like? Just try asking a friend of an 8 year old if they remember what it was like to get their child to sleep when he was a baby, and it is likely that she already doesn’t really remember how that actual experience felt. Although grandparents love their grandchildren, if they visit sporadically, they don’t know how to read your child’s tired signs like you do. While you may read your child’s glassy eyes and louder then usual vocalizations as signs that your baby is ready for a nap, grandparents often read that as boredom and a call for increased activity/stimulation (which you know is exactly the opposite of what your baby needs). You probably have heard a grandparent or two utter the words, “he doesn’t look tired to me.”
Another challenge is that children often become over-stimulated or excited when a new person shows up. Whether this causes a problem for your child is largely based on his or her temperament. Some children adjust fine to having new faces around whereas others have a harder time winding down when there are visitors in the house. For children who are very sensitive to disruptions in their routines, new and unusual family outings related to the visitors may also contribute to some sleep setbacks.
Lastly, it is unlikely that your visiting relatives have had as much recent practice at skills like “door closing, ninja-style,” “silent dishwasher emptying,” and generally not clomping around. They also don’t think about when the optimal time (meaning NOT naptime) might be to do a noisy activity such as taking out the garbage or calling the airlines on speaker phone.
Here are some tips for handling stressful grandparent visits:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Ideally before the visitors come to town so you aren’t discussing these issues in an already escalated circumstance. If there are things that have frustrated you on previous visits, make a point to discuss it prior to the upcoming visit so you don’t have a repeat problem.
- Point out things that you do that are important. Most often, I hear from families that I have worked with that things were going great with their child’s sleep and then grandma came to visit. Because grandma loves to hold her grandson, she rocked him to sleep for all naps and bedtime. Now, a baby who was going down for all sleeps awake will be again used to rocking and when you go back to your routines, expect protest. Let’s give grandma the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she didn’t know how hard you worked to help your child learn independent sleep skills. Talking about how you have helped your child to fall asleep without rocking can, not only help to clear the air, but also prevent future regressions after visits in the years to come. If your relatives are watching your child and will be putting him/her to bed, have them watch you do it (if possible) before they are responsible. Tell them what you do if your child protests going down. Help them have the tools to respond to they don’t feel like they have to resort to using a sleep crutch, which will be a quick fix but could cause more long-term troubles.
- If your baby or toddler becomes over-stimulated before bedtime due to visitors, spend some extra time before bedtime winding down (without the visitors). You can do all your good night kisses with your visitors before going into your routine but then give your child some extra quite time in their less stimulating room. Maybe you read an extra book that night, do a quick puzzle or sing a few songs.
What if the grandparents live locally and either care for your child while you work or you make frequent trips to their home where sleep may be required? This may necessitate a firmer set of limits.
- As with grandparent visitors, communication is key. Regardless of who cares for your child when you are away, there is always a degree of control that we have to give up when someone else is caring for our children. No one is going to do things exactly the same way you do. If your parents or in laws are responsible for caring for your child, try to prioritize what is important about how they care for your child and handle sleep. This may mean that you have to pick your battles. Maybe it is most important to you that they adhere to your rules about your baby going down awake but getting them to wind down early for bedtime may be asking too much. If your parents watch your child frequently, they may learn the hard way what happens when your baby becomes overtired and then have more incentive to adhere to your limits.
- If they can stick to your same routines, more or less, this can be helpful with creating consistency. Try to create as much of the same environment for sleep as possible. This is true if you spend every weekend in the suburbs or if your child goes to grandma’s house every day while you are at work. Here is where having a bedtime/naptime routine and a security object can be particularly helpful. If your child understands the association between the routine, having his blankie and going to sleep, it can make that experience much easier, no matter where he is.
- If you want your baby to be able to sleep at grandma’s house on the weekends (especially without you), practice. The more you are able to make the experience of sleeping someplace different, a familiar experience, the easier it will be.
In our world where families often live far apart, grandparent visits are a reality for many families. When they relationships are good and the communication is open, growing up knowing and having a relationship with one’s grandparents is a gift to your child. Working together with your family to help your child sleep will lead to a much more relaxed visit and enjoyable time for everyone!