Sticking to a Routine While on Vacation

The dos and don’ts of sticking to your kids’ routine while on a family trip.

My daughter and I spent a week at Disney World this past April, with my mother and my sister’s family. I can never quite remember the moment I agreed to what I’ve come to refer to as “that madness last spring.”

I’m beginning to think they slipped me a little sumpthin’ sumpthin’ in my drink, because agreeing to go to Disney for five days with a 2-year-old—and without your spouse or partner—is a little like saying, “Yeah! I’d love it if you poured gasoline on my head and lit a match! Please do!”

While I struggled to keep my daughter on some semblance of a routine, my sister kept her kids out from sun-up to sun-down, often returning to our rented condominium with her son asleep in the stroller and her daughter sleep-walking by her side.

Me, I was glassy-eyed by 6 p.m., ready for a hot bath and a totally stimuli-free evening of bad network television.

Not wanting to deprive Emmeline of—God help me—“The Disney Experience,” I relented and one day we arrived at the park by 10 a.m. and didn’t leave the grounds until well after the signature evening parade and fireworks.

It was nearly midnight when we got home, and when I tried to change my kid into her jammies, she opened one angry, sleepy eye and gave me the business:


Ah, the memories.

But what’s a mommy to do? You’re on vacation, and you’ve spent weeks planning and packing and preparing and counting on having The Time Of Your Lives. So do you get to your destination, only to make sure that everyone gets a nap at precisely 1 p.m. every day no matter what?

Flexible, Yet Structured

According to Tovah Klein, Ph.D., there’s no reason to break out the bullwhip and goosestep the kids through their normal at-home routine. After all, a vacation is supposed to be a break from the everyday hum-and-drum.

Klein, director of the Barnard College Center For Toddler Development in New York City, says that there is no need to remain on the rigid—er, regulated—schedule you have at home.

“Vacations tend to be big, big fun, the beach or an amusement park,” says Klein. “There’s nothing wrong with that. You just have to read your kid.”

Young children, and toddlers in particular, have no sense of time passing so they need certain markers to understand that the day is moving forward, Klein adds. There are some routines that need to be kept, no matter where you are: grandma’s house, the beach, Disney.

“The main thing is that toddlers thrive on consistency,” she says. “Of course, when you’re on vacation there can be some flexibility, but they still need structure.”

So if you sit down for breakfast every day at 8 a.m., you should try to do the same on the road. You may be in a different environment, but the child will still recognize the familiarity of eating at the same time that they do at home.

The Best Intentions 

When we spent three weeks at the ocean this past summer, our days got a little loosey-goosey. The fresh air tuckered us all out, and glory be, my kid slept some days until 9 a.m.—a good two hours later that her average wake-up call at home.

While the timing wasn’t exactly the same as it is when we’re in our little house on the prairie, we tended to stick to the basic rhythms of our days at home: breakfast; a morning activity; lunch; an afternoon activity; quiet time; and dinner, bath and bed.

Some nights we didn’t eat until 7:30 p.m., and then went out for ice cream instead of having a bubble bath, but for the most part everyone behaved, and meltdowns didn’t seem to happen any more often than usual.

And that, my friends, is what you call stellar parenting, according to Klein.

She advises creating a vacation routine, one that echoes your days at home, but without quite so much structure.

“Think of your day as two parts, morning and afternoon, and try to get some downtime in,” Klein says. “This sets up a rhythm for the vacation that the kids get used to, and you’ll find that they even will ask you what is planned for the afternoon or morning that day.”

And while late bedtimes may be fun for both the kids and the adults, remember that small bodies have small batteries—little ones need to get to sleep at their normal time most nights.

“If you consistently keep the kids up past their bedtimes, you will pay the price,” Klein warns, stressing that everyone needs to get their rest, especially when you are on the go every day.

Because vacations are filled with lots and lots of together time, children can also have trouble transitioning back to their normal day-to-day lives when it’s time to go home, Klein adds, and cautions parents against planning departures that force everyone back to work or school the very next day.

“Often for children, the hardest part is separating from mommy and daddy,” she says. “It is a good idea to have a day or two to transition, before you have to say goodbye on Monday morning.”

Planning something fun to do shortly after you arrive home will also help ease the pain of going back to the daily grind, she adds. “You don’t want it to seem like vacation is fun and home is not.”

Vacations are supposed to be fun? Now you tell me.

Themes: Family Travel