The holiday season is approaching once more, and that means family gatherings, time off from school, parties, and presents. As much as kids love the festivities, there is a flip side to all that excitement—the major shake-up to your child’s daily routine.
Changes in routine can be fun, but they can also leave children feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated, and anxious.
So how do you establish a kid-friendly holiday routine while still embracing the spontaneity of the season?
Let’s explore the significance of family routines and how a daily schedule can help with managing anxiety. We’ll also provide some practical tips to help you strike the right balance between going with the flow and maintaining a sense of structure.
Setting the Foundation for a Kid-Friendly Holiday
What does the holiday season mean for your family? Maybe it’s all about special outings and traveling to see extended family. Maybe curling up at home, baking, and watching movies is more your speed. Whatever your plans include, it’s likely to mark a change of pace from your usual routine.
Shaking up the daily routine is almost guaranteed to create some level of stress for you and your child (this is especially true if your child is neurodivergent, highly sensitive, or anxious). That’s why it’s helpful to make a plan for the holidays that still provides structure and predictability.
To make a plan that works, you’ll need to consider:
- Your family’s priorities, preferences, and needs
- What you can reasonably expect to do and make time for each day
Assess Your Family's Needs and Preferences
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to holiday routines. Your family is unique, and what will make a healthy schedule for your holiday season will depend on many factors, such as your family structure and what traditions are most meaningful and important to you.
Take some time before the holiday break begins and think about what makes a good routine for your family. Some questions to consider might include:
- Scheduling – Does your family do well with a strict schedule, or more loosely-planned free time? Are there special events or activities you want to attend or do?
- Traveling vs. hosting – Do you need to make travel plans to see family, or will you have guests come to you?
- Time off – How much time off will each family member have from work and school? When does time off overlap, and when will you need to plan for childcare?
- Developmental stages – Does your child play independently? How much structured vs. unstructured play time should you plan for?
- Staying active – What screen time limits will you set? What alternative activities will you provide?
Creating Realistic Expectations
Before the holidays begin, many of us have visions in our heads: Perfect decor, perfectly behaved kids, impressing friends and family with a beautiful holiday feast—you know the scene.
But the truth is, the pressure to bring that holiday vision to life tends to create an experience that’s no fun for anyone.
So, before you kick off your festive plans, map out a set of realistic goals for the season, and don’t try to do it all. Set a limited number of lower-stress targets, such as1:
- One or two scheduled blocks of family time each day, like bedtime and dinnertime
- Accepting one invite to a holiday gathering, but saying no to the rest (or any limit that makes sense for your family)
- Minimizing holiday decor—choose a few favorite ornaments or decorative objects to bring out, and leave the rest in storage
While you’re planning and organizing, it’s important to practice self-care for the holidays and check in with your personal needs as well.
The Impact of Routines During the Holidays
Kids may adore the holiday season, but the fact is, that whirlwind of activities and plans is a big disruption to regular family routines. School breaks, travel, visitors—it all adds up to multiple changes in your child’s typical schedule.
Why does a disruption in routine matter so much? For one thing, stable family routines have been shown to be foundational in building self-regulation and time-management skills in adulthood. Instability in childhood routines is also linked to attention problems in adulthood.2
While a brief interruption in routine for the holiday break isn’t going to cause long-term harm, abrupt changes can still leave them feeling overwhelmed and dysregulated. Not only is that rough on your child, but it’s also likely to leave you dealing with issues like whining at bedtime or meltdowns in public.
That’s why, as much as possible, families should aim to stick to their normal routine even while enjoying the holiday fun.
Designing a Kid-Friendly Holiday Routine
There’s no avoiding it: Your family’s routine isn’t going to be the same over the holidays. If nothing else, kids who attend school or preschool are going to have time off. So how do you incorporate changes like school breaks and travel without throwing the routine out the window?
#1 Structure Daily Activities
Just because they’re not getting up for school, it’s still important to plan a daily structure. At the start of the holiday, plan a schedule:
- Stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even if you’re traveling3
- Set regular meal times, and plan a routine around meals that includes the kids (setting the table, clearing the table, doing simple cooking tasks, etc.)
- Schedule daily outdoor time
- Plan simple daily activities (there are lots of online resources you can use for inspiration, like our Gratitude unit plan)
- Do your normal bedtime routine, even if you’re staying with family or in a hotel
#2 Incorporate Family Traditions
Your family traditions provide an important sense of continuity and stability for your child. Holiday traditions are central to your family identity and can honor past traditions and celebrate new ones. All of these activities can give your child a comforting anchor amid the holiday hustle and bustle.
While the holidays mean a change in their daily routine, your traditions make the holidays part of the yearly routine. However, young kids don’t have a strong grasp of time on a bigger scale.
You can help by:
- Talking about when special events will happen
- Asking them what they’re looking forward to
- Using a wall calendar and stickers to mark important days—when Grandma is arriving, when you’ll put the lights up, and so on
- Sharing memories of these traditions from previous years
#3 Managing Screen Time
All that free time during the holidays typically means an increase in screen time. And it’s okay for kids to enjoy a little extra—you don’t need to pressure yourself to keep them away from screens all day long. After all, it’s essential for you to find time for self-care during the holidays too. If an extra episode of Bluey or Slumberkins on Apple TV+ lets you do that, we’re all for it.
However, a big increase in screen time can lead to signs of dysregulation, including restlessness, sleep disturbances, irritability, or seeming withdrawn or detached. The American Pediatric Society recommends screen time be limited to one or two hours per day.4 Replacing screen time with quality play time can be a great New Year’s resolution for kids!
To keep screen time under control, try:
- Using parental controls to set a one- or two-hour time limit on all screens
- Keeping engaging, hands-on alternatives such as sensory play items, craft supplies, and building toys freely available
- Planning daily outdoor activities such as hide-and-seek, tag, or catch
#4 Emphasizing Rest and Self-care
Adequate rest and self-care are important for both kids and grown-ups in your family. Sticking to a routine will help you keep the peace at bedtime and make sure that everyone is well-rested and refreshed.
- Ensure that your child goes to bed on time and gets up close to their regular wake-up time, even if they’re not going to school.3
- Be sure you’re getting enough sleep too by avoiding screens close to bedtime and winding down quietly before bed.
- Take time as a family to do calming activities like reading bedtime stories, practicing mindfulness, or doing a nightly gratitude activity.
How to Get Kids Involved With Planning
Involving your kids in planning the holiday routine not only empowers them but also makes the season more meaningful for everyone. Here are some tips on how to get your child actively engaged in your planning:
- Have a family meeting – Sit down together and talk about what each family member would like to do for the holiday. What are everyone’s favorite traditions? Is there anything your child would rather skip? Even if the visit to the grandparents is mandatory, it’s important to make sure your child knows that their opinions are heard and valued.
- Make a holiday wish list – We don’t mean a gift list, but a list of activities that your child would like to do this season. This way, you can set reasonable expectations of what can be done, and agree on family priorities.
- Create a calendar together – Use a whiteboard, chalkboard, or large wall calendar to write out your daily schedule for kids so your child has a visual aide to track the days and understand what’s coming up. For pre-readers, use colorful stickers to mark events. Talk about your plans as you mark events like the last day of school, family outings, family game nights, or movie nights.
Craft a Harmonious Holiday With Help From Slumberkins
The holiday season is a time for celebration, but it can also bring an extra helping of stress and sky-high expectations. By planning a routine for your family that balances structure and flexibility—as well as managing your own expectations of what the holidays should look like—you can enjoy a happier, less stressful holiday season this year.
At Slumberkins, we love the magic of the holidays—but we also know how much extra pressure can accumulate on parents and caregivers at this time of year.
That’s why we’re here with inspiring resources, activity ideas, affirmations, and more, all designed to help you and your family build deeper connections. Explore the Slumberkins collection and let us help you make this holiday season a time of peace, togetherness, and unforgettable memories.
- "My holiday survival guide." Janet Lansbury. https://www.janetlansbury.com/2016/12/my-holiday-survival-guide/
- Malatras, Jennifer et al. "First things first: Family activities and routines, time management and attention." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published November-December 2016. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0193397316301241
- Kitsaras, George et al. “Bedtime routines child wellbeing & development.” BMC public health vol. 18,1 386. 21 Mar. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5290-3
- "Children and screen time: How much is too much?" Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/children-and-screen-time