Originally published on December 25, 2013, in the Wisconsin State Journal. Dr. Johnson is a pediatrician practicing at the Meriter McKee clinic.
Dear Dr. Johnson: How do I allow my child and myself to enjoy the holiday season more completely?
Dear Reader: Planning ahead and realizing that the holiday hustle and bustle can affect your child is the first step. The holidays should be a fun and exciting time for everyone, especially young children. As hard as it may be, children will handle all the excitement best if they are kept on a somewhat normal schedule.
Children appreciate consistency, so even when sleeping somewhere other than your home, it is best to follow typical nap times and bedtimes as well as pre-nap and bedtime routines. Sleep deprivation can cause a child to sleep more poorly, which further exacerbates the sleep deprivation.
While most adults can make up for late bedtimes by sleeping in later, many young children will not do this. There are children who will wake up about the same time every day no matter what time they fell asleep. If you will be at a party beyond your child’s bedtime, consider hiring a babysitter or talking with the host ahead of time to determine if there is a place your child can safely be placed to sleep.
It is difficult for adults to avoid all the delicious food temptations of the holiday season, and it is even harder for children. Before all the sweets and goodies are made available, offer your child a nutritious, well-balanced snack or meal. This may mean feeding them before going to a party or bringing healthy options with you. If they are already full, the temptation of sweets will be less.
Remember moderation is best. Combine sweets with healthy foods. Don’t leave the sweets sitting out within reach, as it is much easier for adults and children to nibble and consume numerous calories. Many of the holiday treats also can be choking hazards for young children.
Safety can be an issue during the holidays more than other times of the year. Unless the family you are visiting has young children, their home is unlikely child-proofed.
Most holiday decorations are not designed with the safety of small children in mind, as they often are breakable and have small pieces. Other hazards include decorative stocking hooks on a fireplace mantle (children can pull on the stocking, causing the heavy hook to land on them); Christmas trees (children can pull the tree on top of themselves, and real trees can become a fire hazard if they become overly dry); and lights (check for frayed wires or loose connections that could spark a fire).
Also, be especially aware of fireplaces, as many young children are burned by the glass on gas fireplaces each year.
It’s not just decorations that can pose hazards — the actual gifts can as well. Make sure toys are age-appropriate. Children under age 3 should not have toys with small parts, as these can pose a choking hazard. Keep older children’s toys and gifts that may have small parts or are breakable out of reach of younger children.
Some electronic toys and other gifts require button batteries, and many toys also have magnets. Either of these can be hazardous if swallowed. A healthcare provider should be called immediately in such cases (or even suspected cases).
If your child will be getting a bike, skateboard, scooter, skis, snowboard, etc., make sure he or she has a well-fitting helmet. If car travel is in your holiday plans, make sure children are secured in age-appropriate car seats or booster seats. Make sure the car is in good maintenance, keep the gas gauge above half a tank and have a winter emergency kit in the car.
Overall, be patient with your young child this holiday season. Schedules change, children are often around many people they don’t regularly see, and on top of it all, there is the added excitement of the season. Allowing them a little leeway is in order, although unacceptable behavior should still be corrected.
Have a wonderful and safe holiday season!