12/08/2014 12:02 EST | Updated 02/07/2015 05:59 EST

The First Noel: Keeping routine helps parents of new baby cope during holidays

The festive season can be a stressful time for anyone. But for parents with a young baby, trying to keep up with family traditions and expectations while juggling feedings and diaper changes can make the holidays anything but the most wonderful time of the year.

So how can typically sleep-deprived new moms and dads enjoy their little one and embrace the joys of the season without turning into a pair of Grinches?

"There are inordinate stressors for new parents and the biggest problem that most face is the interruption to routine," says Michele Kambolis, a child/family therapist and parenting expert in Vancouver.

Keeping to a routine — feedings, diapers and nap times — is one of the most important factors in bonding with a baby and getting to know their emerging personality, says the mother of two.

"The problem is the routine gets crowded out by the pressures of shopping and cooking and visiting, so there are two conflicting things going on — the pressure of the holidays and the need to turn inward and focus on the needs of bonding with the baby."

While figuring out how to manage all the demands inherent in the season, Kambolis says, parents need to remember their highest parenting purpose, which is ensuring that their baby's pattern of care isn't rushed or disrupted.

"Because all of this can add a great deal of stress to an infant," she says, pointing out that being exposed to new people, a new environment and lots of noise can be disturbing for some babies.

Toronto child and family therapist Jennifer Kolari says life with a tiny tot is taxing enough on its own for parents, even without the added crush of holiday demands.

"Your whole life goes upside-down and simple things like taking a shower become a challenge, so imagine parties and getting ready and trying to stay organized at the same time," says the mother of three.

And then there's shopping for gifts, known by some as the nightmare before Christmas: trying to find a parking space at the mall; navigating the crowds with a baby carrier or stroller; and sticking to the little one's feeding/changing/sleep routine.

"This is the joy of online shopping," says Kolari. "Unless you're cooped up in the house and you're dying to get out — in which case I would shop in the morning and get out of there by the time it gets busy — you can shop at home."

Of course, there's also the gatherings with kin — and all the expectations of grandparents, parents and siblings to maintain long-practised family traditions. That can mean trying to accommodate both families of a couple — often on the same day — and travelling from one place to another, baby in tow.

For Natalie Milne and her husband Patrick, connecting with family at Christmas is even more complicated.

"We're both from divorced families, so we typically do have four Christmases," says Milne, 37, mother of six-month-old Isla and Julia, who's almost four.

The couple usually visits with Patrick's father during the week of Christmas, her father on Christmas Eve, her mother on Christmas Day, and his mother, who comes to their Toronto home from North Bay, Ont., at some point on the 25th, usually in the morning.

"I'm from a bigger family and we've always celebrated Christmas Day together," says Milne, who works for the online parenting resource Savvy Mom. "We tried to keep all the same family traditions that we'd always had, but I guess we've realized over the years that that's just not possible anymore."

"You don't want to ruin everybody else's Christmas or make changes too much. But last year on Christmas Eve, we were out with Julia until almost 11 o'clock and it almost ruined her Christmas morning because she was so tired ... So we kind of had that realization last Christmas, carting Julia around at all hours and travelling so much, that we've made some changes this year with the second baby."

This year, Milne says she and her husband have decided to simplify their December celebrations. They're staying home on Christmas Eve and the following morning, then going to her brother-in-law's home nearby for Christmas dinner.

"So we're changing it to really focus on our own family. We'll see our extended families, obviously, but the priority's going to be the kids this year."

She suspects there may be some push-back, but believes most of her loved ones will understand that cutting back on tinsel and turkey time with extended family is a necessary and natural progression for those with a baby or very young children.

And while keeping a baby in a bubble that robs them of stimulation is not healthy, Kolari says dragging a wee one to several gatherings on the same day is not the best idea either.

"There may be times when you have to really pick and choose and prioritize which events are really important to go to and which ones aren't. Or stay at each one for a shorter amount of time."

Kambolis, author of the book "Generation Stressed," says parents also have to look after their own health and well-being during the holidays, which can involve a lot of sedentary activities.

"So the exact thing that they need in order to combat stress, which is self-care and exercise, tends to go out the window and instead there's a lot of couch time and visiting and unhealthy eating. So parents need to be really mindful of taking a break, going for a walk, being mindful about their eating."

And if trying to accommodate everyone else's wishes and expectations becomes just too much, parents need to pull back and learn to say no, adds Kolari.

"This is a moment where you have something scripted and ready to say, such as 'Oh, we'd love to see you and we know how much you're excited to see the baby. I'm really sorry, but we're so exhausted, we're so overwhelmed, we can't.'"

"And if they're mad, they're mad."


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