Travel: Use or lose your routine?

Should you maintain your children’s routine on holiday, or go with the flow and pay the price afterwards?

In the heady days of romantic holidays, when you were asked what you planned to do for two weeks, you’d probably answer, “Not much!” anticipating a fortnight of uninterrupted pool-side reading and nights out.

Post partum, some parents are regimentally planning the day on vacation, in order to achieve a child-free evening when the small people are in bed. Others want to preserve a hard-won routine in an attempt to avoid major meltdowns from tired toddlers and even more exhausted parents. But many of us lose sight of our routines on holiday, whether through intent or carelessness, and then have to endure weeks of disrupted sleep back home, as bedtimes and wake-up times have to be re-programmed.

Hoping to discover an easier, middle way, I asked a number of parents what their plans are for this summer’s family holiday.

“I expect my evening to start at 7pm, especially when I’m on holiday,” says Isabelle Haigh, mother to Amelie, three and Ellis, one. “Maintaining bedtime is so important to us that we always book a cottage right on the beach so the kids can come home at lunchtime for their regular nap and there’s no issue with sleeping in the car on the way home.”

“We spend a lot of time focussed on the children during the day making sandcastles and playing games, then there’s parent time in the evening – enjoying the sea view with a glass of wine. That way everyone gets a nice holiday.”

Isabelle is not alone – most of the parents I spoke to who have established a strong routine with a reliable bedtime are reluctant to give that up while they’re away. But if, like me, you’ve always been a bit sloppy about routines, the choice about what to do on holiday is less clear.

Once over the age of six months, if one of my children has a nap after 3pm there’s no chance of a bedtime before about 9pm, so I’ve banned soporific car journeys in the afternoon, which exasperates my husband as I always want to pack up and leave the beach or the farm just after lunch.

If we follow his way and the kids don’t go down till 9pm or 10pm, they’ll sometimes both sleep in till after 8am, giving us the all-too-rare luxury of a lie-in together. However, that’s all but forgotten by the evening when I’ve exhausted myself trying to tire them out enough to go down at anything like a child’s bedtime.

Some parents say if you’re on holiday, stop worrying about such things. Structure is necessary when we’re all getting up for work or preschool, but holiday time should be about spontaneity.

“Every year my husband and I book a holiday intending to stick to the children’s routine, then fail spectacularly,” says Amy Mulvihill Paterson, mother to Isabella, three, and Harry one. “We deliberately book self-catering holidays so it’ll be easy to stick to the fairly rigid routine we have at home, but somehow by day two the children are staying up late into the evening, going to bed at 10pm or 11pm. In Spain last year the culture was so child friendly that it felt normal to take the children out at night. We enjoyed their company and didn’t want to put them to bed.”

In an alternative approach, Sue Clayton, mother to Madeleine, four, says she’s developed a deliberate ‘holiday routine’. “We encouraged Maddie to have an extra nap in the late afternoon, so we could take her out for dinner with us and she wouldn’t be overtired. She’d go to bed about 10pm, and wake at her normal time. When we went home we just dropped the nap and she was tired at her usual bedtime.”

This sounds like a perfect solution, but it might not be possible to develop a holiday routine that follows a consistent pattern if your holiday or your family is a bit more unpredictable. If you’re travelling from place to place or staying in a noisy campsite naps can’t always be taken when scheduled, and older children aren’t often pleased to break off their activities to pop home so the baby can get to bed. So does it really matter if the baby just fits in with whatever the majority want to do for a fortnight?

“Of course parents can relax or adjust their routine when on holiday, but they shouldn’t abandon it,” says Gina Ford, author of The Contented Little Baby, which advocates following a detailed routine for the first few years of life.

“A baby’s routine is a sequence of events: breakfast, lunch, tea, bath, bed, perhaps with various naps or stories in between. This is what the child expects, and most children find it reassuring to have these elements maintained.

“At bedtime I suggest a routine which includes tea, playtime, bath and bed. On holiday you can do the same things, in that order, but perhaps later in the evening. It’s the sequence of events, not the time of day, that’s important to settling young children.”

But even if you manage to have happy, well rested children with a slightly later bedtime while on holiday, it’s not always easy to get them into their old routine once you get home – especially if you have more than one child to re-educate. I vowed we’d never go on holiday again after one deliciously carefree week away threw bedtimes in our house into total unpredictability for nearly a month.

Gina Ford rather admonished me for allowing this to happen: “The first night back after a holiday is often tough,” she says, “but you must take control. Babies can’t put themselves back into a routine – you have to do it for them. Perhaps use gradual withdrawal, and return to the child for reassurance, but don’t let them stay up late because they were doing that on holiday. Parents ask me if they should let the children adjust back over a week but that’s just prolonging the problem. You must get back into the normal routine on the very next day after getting back.”

Unfortunately all the mums who had an established routine at home agreed with her. If you want a 7pm bedtime it seems you have to make sacrifices for it, either when you’re away or when you get home. But one mum suggested a great alternative way to get evenings out and lie-ins together while you’re away, without disrupting the children’s routine at all. Simply take the grandparents with you.

Hints for a happy holiday

• Agree your approach to naps, mealtimes and bedtimes before you go away, especially if travelling with other families
• Try to stick to the sequence of the child’s normal routine, even if the timings are all different – it’s reassuring for little ones
• Avoid car journeys in the late afternoon if you want an early bedtime
• Consider an extra nap in the afternoon to take your child happily through a long evening out
• If you’ve all stayed up late every night prepare to be tough about bedtimes when you get home