For most of us, moving to a new home does NOT top our list of things we enjoy. Moving creates a multitude of things to worry about, after all. Once you’ve found a new place to buy or to rent, you’re still not even close to done. What about transferring your mail? Or shutting off your utilities? And if your move is an international one, the list gets even longer — what about work visas and passports? Which possessions should you sell, and which should you ship?
Moving is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure!
But what about our kids? Moving is a stressful event for an adult; is it stressful for your baby? What about for your toddler or preschooler? The answer is yes — moving is just as stressful for children as it is for adults. And that stress can cause some big sleep problems for your baby or toddler.
Why Moving Affects Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
According to a report by the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Moving to a new community may be one of the most stress-producing experiences a family faces.” As adults, we tend to stress over the logistics of the move itself — selling the house, packing the belongings, etc. While young children won’t stress about those details, they will feel the anxiety that such an enormous change causes. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers tend to thrive with predictable routines; when those routines are disrupted, it can make them anxious, particularly if they are slow to adapt or sensitive. And of course, moving is totally disruptive — new room, new house, new school/daycare, new friends, etc.
How Moving Affects Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
For babies, the stress of moving is directly related to a disruption in routine, and there is no emotional or psychological element involved. For toddlers and preschoolers, however, it’s a different story. Toddlers and preschoolers feel the stress of a move the same way adults do, but they lack the vocabulary and self-awareness to articulate those feelings. Some of the ways toddlers and preschoolers may express their anxiety include:
- Increased clinginess
- Regressive behavior (bedwetting, thumb sucking, etc.)
- Decreased appetite or complaints of stomach aches
- Anxious habits (licking lips, twirling hair, etc.)
- Unusual behavior (increased shyness, increased aggressiveness, etc.)
How Moving Affects Naptime and Nighttime Sleep
All phases of the moving process (before, during, and after) can impact a child’s sleep:
Before the move:
Stress always hinders sleep, for both children and adults. And since moving tends to be a very stressful process, it can disrupt sleep in a big way. You may find that your “normal schedule” is far from normal as you work to house-hunt, pack, and sort out the details of your move. This can lead to short naps or missed naps for your child.
In addition, the stress of the upcoming move might cause your toddler or preschooler to have frequent nightmares, or to begin grinding her teeth at night, two sleep issues that are known to be caused by stress.
On moving day:
When the time for the move finally comes, everyone’s bound to be more sleepless than usual! This is especially true if your move is cross-country or international and will take a few days of traveling to complete. During those days, your children may have to sleep in hotel rooms, or even on an airplane. Unfamiliar settings like this certainly don’t encourage sleep, and you’ll likely find your child waking more frequently, or even refusing to lie down and sleep for naps and at bedtime.
After the move:
Once you actually get to your new place, the unfamiliarity of your surroundings may cause your child to wake frequently, or to resist going to sleep at all. This is particularly true if you use the move as an excuse to redecorate and end up purchasing your toddler a new bedroom set, or if you paint your preschooler’s room a new color. That’ll only add to the unfamiliarity of the new room.
In addition, your new home may be associated with new noises. If you’ve moved to the city, for example, you may have more traffic noise to contend with. And moving to the country doesn’t necessarily mean peace and quiet — when my husband and I moved into our first house (a rural little ranch), it was the middle of summer, and the bug noises at night were deafening!
Finally, if you’re moving cross-country or overseas, your child’s sleep challenges may be extra difficult. You have all of the above factors to contend with PLUS the jetlag that comes with traveling across time zones. Even a one or two hour time difference can be hard on very young children!
How To Help Your Baby, Toddler, or Preschooler Sleep Well During the Move
A move will be less disruptive for babies than it will be for a toddler or preschooler. For infants, simply do what you can to keep the routine as normal possible, and keep familiar objects (bedding, loveys, etc.) on-hand — make sure they don’t end up packed away in a box!
For toddlers and preschoolers, there’s no way you can make the physical and psychological stress of moving completely disappear. There are, however, steps you can take to minimize it.
Before the move:
- Talk to your toddler or preschooler about the move well in advance. It may seem like waiting until the last minute to tell your child about the move will make things easier, but the opposite is true. Your child needs time to process and prepare for the move, so start talking about it early.
- Give your toddler or preschooler the grand tour. If possible, take your child on a tour of the new house and the new town. Show them their daycare or preschool, point out playgrounds, and show them each room in the new house.
- Turn your toddlers and preschoolers into packers! Encourage your child to help you pack, especially when it comes time to pack up his own room. If he feels like part of the process, it may help ease his fears a bit.
On moving day:
- Say goodbye. Walk through each room of your house and say “good bye” to it. This’ll help toddlers and preschoolers develop closure. If your preschooler has a few special friends she’ll no longer be able to see, make sure she has a chance to say goodbye to them, too.
- Get help, if you need it. If the moving process is going to be an extended affair, consider hiring a professional moving company to do the loading and unloading. That way, you’ll be available to your child and won’t be preoccupied.
After the move:
- Set up your child’s room first. Make sure that your child’s bed is made, clothes put away, and toys in their appropriate places before you tackle the rest of the unpacking. It’ll be easier for her to sleep in a neat, tidy room than in a chaotic, box-filled one!
- Take a few days. In the first few days after your move, stay home as much as you can. Consider taking time off work. This’ll facilitate unpacking and will help your child adjust faster.
- Keep things normal for a while. Make sure that the first month or so after your move is as “normal” as possible. Don’t plan a family vacation, or a major surgery, etc. in those early weeks after the move.
If you’re moving across time zones, and you expect jetlag to be a problem, the following steps can help your child adjust to the new time schedule:
- Think twice about keeping the baby awake. It might be fine to keep a preschooler awake even when he’s tired and have him sleep and wake according to the new place’s time schedule. But beware of that approach with babies and young toddlers; it could make them overly tired, which can create even more problems. You may need to wake her from sleep or make her go to bed when she’s not tired, so that she’ll adjust to the new day-night cycle but prepare to be patient — it’ll be best for everyone if she’s allowed to adjust gradually.
- Get some rays! Exposure to sunlight can help “re-set” your body’s clock and help differentiate between day-night cycles, so spend time outside, if possible.
- Take a few days (at least!) If possible, plan a few days off after the move to give everyone time to adjust to the new time zone. In general, it takes one day for each hour time change.