How do you help your little ones deal with jet lag?
We all know, jet lag is tough! Throw kids in the mix and there is the potential to ruin your long-awaited family vacation. Parents can push through the fatigue and adjust to a new time zone usually within a few days. Children, on the other hand, well that’s a different story! Here are some tried and tested strategies for helping kids settle into their surroundings with (relative) ease.
The Basics of Jet Lag
Jet lag occurs when we travel rapidly across time zones. We all know it affects sleep patterns, but it can also impact appetite, digestion and cause headaches and irritability. A recipe for disaster with little ones in tow!
Unfortunately, there’s no miracle cure (we wish). The severity will depend on your child’s age, how many time zones you’re crossing, the direction of travel, and how much sleep you get along the way. As a general rule, plan on it taking 24-hours per hour of time difference to adjust to your destination.
Impact of Age
Young bubs are still working out the day from the night and feeding every few hours. In theory, they are the easiest to travel with (hooray!). Older children and teens have more awareness of their surroundings and coping mechanisms in place to deal with jet lag, in a similar way to Mum and Dad. The sleep patterns of babies and toddlers are often the cause of most stress for parents. You’ve finally got them sleeping through the night and now you want to throw jet lag in the mix? When they’re at an age where your reasoning with them is futile? You must be crazy! Luckily there are some easy things you can do to help everyone sleep better.
Before You Leave
Depending on how long you are travelling for, you might like to start adjusting to your new time zone in advance. Change bedtime by half an hour (earlier or later depending on if you’re going forwards or backwards in time) every few nights for a week and give yourself a head start.
Kid’s thrive on routine. Have you ever had trouble sleeping in a hotel room simply because it’s different? Imagine what that feels like for your baby! If you are travelling with your own port-a-cot, start using it for nap time at home in the lead up to your trip. When you travel, use the same sheets (even the same blanket if you can), make sure you’ve packed their favourite comforter or toy, and even have bubs wear the same pyjamas for the first few nights away. This way, when everything is new around them, babies will still feel the consistency of home.
Choose Your Flight Wisely
Day flight or overnight? That is often the question when it comes to booking air travel with kids. Some people swear by travelling overnight, though generally kids sleep (reasonably) well on the plane, so when you arrive at your destination you can start the day in your new time zone as best you can. The downside, if you don’t sleep well inflight, the first day might seem very long. If you’re not the kind of person who can function on zero sleep, get a decent night’s rest at home and prepare plenty of activities to keep your little one occupied on the plane.
Travelling west (towards Europe from Hong Kong) is generally easier than travelling east (to North America). Unfortunately, when we’re visiting family we don’t always get to choose the direction of travel. Whichever way you go you’ll have to return in the opposite direction anyway, so prepare for both!
Arriving At Your Destination
First, ask yourself this question, is it worth adjusting to your new time zone? If you are only travelling for a short time, it may be worth just taking sleep as it comes to make the transition back to your Hong Kong routine easier. Most of us want to be out and about at a suitable hour and that means trying to adjust the kids sleep routines.
Don’t pack your arrival day with too many plans. Try and go with the flow and rest up. If you arrive in the morning you can encourage naps according to your home schedule, but remember your child’s body clock might be telling them it’s the middle of the night. Try to limit naps to two hours and if needs be, to sneak in one extra sleep into their day. At bedtime recreate as much of your home routine as possible, so that you are giving your little ones all the right cues that it is time for sleep.
Don’t be surprised by midnight awakenings. This is perfectly understandable as your child’s body clock is telling them it’s morning! They’re also likely to feel hungry in the middle of the night as it would normally be breakfast time. Be sure to keep lights either dim or turned off completely to simulate night conditions and maybe put a quiet and safe toy (nothing too stimulating) in your toddler’s cot that they can play with until they hopefully drift back off to sleep. You may need to offer a snack or some milk.
The next day, wake your child gently, take them out in the daylight to help reset their biological clock and don’t let them lie in too long to make up for lost sleep. Ensure the whole family is staying well-hydrated, eating nutritious food and getting some physical activity in during the day.
We all have to return home at some point and deal with the jet lag all over again, this time in reverse! Try and get your routine back on track asap by following the same advice as above. If the afternoons are too long for grumpy toddlers, don’t be afraid to move bedtime forward for a few days and gradually work on getting back to your usual routine. Remember that the body adjusts approximately an hour of time difference per day, so prepare yourself for a week or more to reset after a long-haul trip.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2015 and November 2017 by Deborah Taylor and updated on 12, April 2019 by Jess Mizzi.