How to handle baby and toddler jet lag
By Helen Wright
Something that makes parents everywhere nervous about flying long-haul is the fear of baby and toddler jet lag. It’s totally normal to worry about something like this, as tiredness can set off the almightiest of meltdowns and no one wants the first few days of their holiday to be marred by lack of sleep.
I love travelling with my kids and despite the extra faff, stuff and organising that comes with taking children on holiday, we always have the best time when we’re all together. But, the reality of longer journeys by plane is that it’s inevitable you’ll encounter some jet lag from the time difference. However, the good news is there are things that you can do for toddlers and babies with jet lag to better manage their sleep without the whole family being up all night. Plus, some of our jet lag tips have actually helped us when sleep has been disturbed at home too – bonus!
Can you do anything to help baby and toddler jet lag?
Without wanting to go into the murky waters of day-to-day parenting, your child’s routine and their sleep pattern at home plays a huge part in how they handle toddler jet lag. Babies and toddlers that still nap regularly are easier to help adjust to a new time zone. I have also found that children who have less requirements around getting to sleep (such as needing total darkness, a particular sleeping environment – heat / noise / special blankets / animated night lights etc – or their own bed), struggle much harder with jet lag. However, having a regular routine and discipline with regards to eating and sleeping at home will help you tackle the toddler jet lag.
What is jet lag and what causes it?
Jet lag is what happens when your circadian rhythm (known as your ‘body clock’) becomes confused, usually from travelling into a completely different time zone to what you are used to. The circadian rhythm tells the brain and body when it is tired, hungry, hot and cold (etc), so when you touch down in another country, your body will still feel like it’s back where you came from.
The brain is pretty good at checking into your new destination, often fuelled by adrenalin, but it doesn’t take long for your body to start slowing down, sending everything out of sync. After years of travel, I have become pretty good at conquering jet lag with a few tips and practices, but baby and toddler jet lag is a bit trickier because they don’t always do what you want them too…
Start planning early to manage baby and toddler jet lag
This is something that I recommend for adults too! It’s likely you’ll know when and where you’ll be travelling to weeks in advance and so there are small things you can do to help with baby and toddler jet lag as well as your own body’s adjustment. Let’s take the USA for example (we often travel from the UK to the USA and this is one of the ways we prepare for jet lag). Florida, on the east coast of the USA, is five hours behind the UK. It doesn’t seem like very much at first, but now imagine your kids getting up five hours earlier than they do already…
Obviously, it can be tricky to do if your children have school, pre-school and clubs, but it’s a good jet lag tip to start adjusting to the time zone while you are still at home. This means making everything a bit later than it usually is. If your toddler eats dinner at 5pm, try them a little bit later each day, leading up to the trip: 5:15pm, 5:30pm, 6pm, 6:30pm etc. This should (in theory) push their bedtime later too. Continue this in the morning with breakfast, lunch and daytime naps. Even putting them to bed an hour later in the lead up to the trip will reduce the time difference to four hours for them – every minute counts!
With babies, it can often be easy to adjust them to the new time. When we were helping our babies to sleep through the night early in their lives, we had a set routine that worked well for us. In the evening, we would bring their bedtime forward by 10 minutes each day, simultaneously moving their naps and feeds. Eventually, we met in the middle – the naps reduced, and then finally stopped completely, and their brains were able to sleep all night. We have always had a strict ‘dinner-bath-bed’ routine with them and found it has always helped them get into the mindset for bedtime. We have travelled around the world with the kids, including to Mauritius, the Caribbean, West Coast USA, Africa and across Europe. When travelling, we still stick as religiously as possible to our dinner-bath-bedtime routine and it has definitely helped them adjust to the toddler jet lag from different time zones. They associate getting out of the bath and into their PJs as the time to wind down.
Choose your flight wisely to help toddlers and babies with jet lag
In my opinion, the time you fly can have a big impact on your travel enjoyment and when tackling toddler jet lag. It’s annoying, as super early flights are often the cheapest, but I try not to be too tempted by price (unless it’s ludicrously more expensive) as flying at the right time can do you all sorts of favours when you travel with kids.
Isobel still naps and so timing our flights around her midday nap has all sorts of benefits. If we can get her to sleep during the flight, of course it ‘shortens’ the time she has to spend cooped up on the plane, which is great for everyone (but mostly her, because sitting down is boring when you are three). When I see kids sound asleep in buggies at the airport gate, waiting to board, I despair! We go out of our way to keep the kids awake until we are on the plane and it’s so worth doing!
At the airport, we try and encourage them to walk (to burn off some energy, usually!) and we don’t let them sit in the pushchair and start getting sleepy, unless our flight is seriously delayed. Even then, we try not to let them sit in the buggy as we definitely don’t want them to sleep at the airport, we want them asleep on the plane – especially if it is a night flight or a flight over nap time. Keeping kids stimulated when you’re tired and fatigued can be a drag, but since we’re playing the long game here to prevent the dreaded toddler jet lag, we know it will be worth it in the end. We play at lot of ‘eye spy’, take them to look through the window at the planes, luggage carts, fuel trucks – anything that excites toddlers! We also keep them well fed on healthyish snacks that might keep them going, like fruit, Soreen cake bars and flap jacks – for obvious reasons, we go easy on the chocolate and sweets.
Go for a night flight when travelling long-haul
Of course, all of the above is even more important when taking a night flight. An overnight flight is the best way to kill time on the plane and get in some all-important sleep to help combat jet lag. Before boarding, we get the kids ready in their PJs and have teddy bears and blankets in our hand luggage ready to go.
On long flights, entertaining them and keeping them stimulated and awake at the airport is a must. Unless we have an exceptionally long wait, we always keep their iPads / tablets packed away until we board the plane. Staring at a screen isn’t as stimulating as the outside world and we also want to save TV time for the long and boring flight ahead!
Take on your new time zone as soon as you board the plane
This is something that people are oddly unwilling to do. I have friends who refuse to change their (analogue) watches and love to lament about what time it is back home. This is a sure-fire way to wreck your sleep for the entire trip! As soon as you board the plane, start treating the time as at your destination. Obviously airline meals are served on a pre-determined schedule, but between the in-flight service, aim to give your kids a packed lunch at the proper meal times for your destination.
For example, boarding a Florida-bound flight at 9am UK-time will be 4am in Orlando. Three hours into the flight will be 7am in Orlando. This is a good time to give kids food and encourage them to eat as much as they can. This will be their breakfast time for the duration of your holiday. Oats are rich in melatonin, which is said to aid sleep, and so I try and include oat-based cereal bars in their plane pack up. (FYI: My kids will eat the airline meal 1hr into the flight too. But we find little and often works really well to tackle toddler jet lag).
For obvious reasons, you can’t change completely to the new time during the flight, but after your toddler has eaten is the time to strike when it comes to napping (or going to sleep if you’re on a night flight and it’s bedtime at your destination). On a long-haul flight, this will give them time to get some shut-eye before the second service comes along prior to landing.
Make sure everyone drinks lots of water – yep, even your toddler!
BORING, but even though everything is exciting and out of the ordinary when you’re off on holiday, planes can make you seriously dehydrated. It’s important to drink lots of water and encourage your toddler to drink lots too. It’s tempting to let them go without to avoid multiple toilet trips or accidents, but it can work against you when it comes to toddler jet lag. Being hydrated helps you sleep better and feel less fatigued and tired. The flight is just the beginning when it comes to jet lag and you’ll need to keep going as long as possible when you land.
Keep them up as long as they can manage by getting get some sun and fresh air.
Flying west from the UK, you’ll likely land at your destination during the morning or afternoon. The key to keeping jet lag to a minimum is to stay up as late as you possibly can before collapsing in a heap on the bed. We find the airport buzz, excitement of being in a new place, a fascinating hotel and yet another feed will keep ours going, but inevitably they start to flag much sooner than the adults do. Heading outside into the fresh air and direct sunlight can help a lot when it comes to toddler jet lag, as it reminds the brain it’s still bright daytime, mentally helping you stay awake. If possible, we try and engage the kids in fun things they love to do (such as hitting the swimming pool or a playground). Even a trip to Walmart or Target will keep them entertained for a good hour!
Back at the hotel, we drag out the bath-book-bed routine as long as possible and if all goes well, we can claw back another hour, meaning they wake up only two hours earlier than usual, instead of the initial five!
Toddler jet lag: don’t be afraid of naps
You know your children better than anyone, so if you think they need to sleep then don’t be afraid to let them take a nap. The ultimate aim is to get them to bed at the proper time at your destination, so if you think after a lot of excitement and a long travel day, they could use a little nap when you arrive, that’s absolutely fine.
My advice would be to put them properly in bed at your hotel with PJs on, curtains closed, calm and quiet. If you want them to sleep, make sure it’s a quality one. I have never found catnapping in the buggy to be beneficial for my children, at home or away. The key thing is not to let them have more than one hour (this goes for the adults too). We are very strict with this ‘danger’ nap, so we set the alarm and all get up and start over once we’ve had an hour’s sleep.* (*I usually set the alarm for 70mins to allow ten mins to get off to sleep). Everyone is always super grumpy and tired when we wake up, but a short nap is crucial for the overall toddler jet lag plan.
It’s very easy for weary parents and over-tired kids to want to sleep for much longer (after all, it is the middle of the night according to your body clock). In my experience, napping for any longer than an hour will mean kids still awake at midnight (or later) and the knock-on effect can last days or even a week. It’s hard, but if you conquer day one you’ve nailed it.
Push them as far as you can with stimulation and activities
Okay, so without wanting to sound like ‘mean mommy’, kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. They can occasionally be pushed out of their comfort zone, which I highly recommend (especially in the case of toddler jet lag, where it could benefit them). The absolute best way to tackle toddler jet lag is push them as far as you can manage with entertainment, food, snacks and – yes, bribes! When we flew to Seattle to begin our Oregon Road trip, we managed to keep Finn up until 7pm USA time. It was the most tired and pale I had ever seen him, but he was still smiling. I was also six months pregnant, so we both passed out the minute we got to the hotel and both woke up at 8am the next morning, local time!
To help baby and toddler jet lag, always eat before bed
So, as an adult, my personal tip for jet lag is to get your feed on. One of the big reasons that you wake up in the middle of the night when changing time zones, is hunger. Your body will wake you from a deep sleep if it thinks you should be up and eating dinner. This is why eating before bed can do wonders when it comes to jet lag and this applies to your toddler and baby too.
Whatever time you get them to bed, it’s wise to try and get them to have a slice of toast, a banana or buttered bread before they go to sleep. This will help with the body’s natural urge to eat at the ‘right’ time and (hopefully) help them sleep for as long as possible when they are supposed to be sleeping. While you’re at it, don’t forget to feed yourself too.
With younger babies, offer them an extra feed before bed, even if it isn’t the time they usually have milk. Just let them have as much as they want to, because any top up will help them sleep for longer during the night. Breast feeding people may need to prep for feeding at this time before coming on the trip, to boost milk supply. You can do this by pumping and storing milk to increase milk flow. Or, bringing pre-pumped frozen milk with you. Frozen milk CAN be carried on the plane, but ONLY in your hold luggage and not in your hand luggage. See my post on flying with a baby for more tips like this.
Encourage them to use the loo…
Without resorting to toilet humour, one of the things that always wakes my kids up when they change time zones is needing to poo. They are used to going to the toilet during UK daylight hours and so the need for a number two can often be one of the big things causing them to wake up, even when we follow our jet lag plan. There isn’t much you can do to avoid this, other than encourage them to use the toilet before bed. If they do wake up needing to go, keep the lights low (ideally, off) and try to avoid getting into conversations that might stimulate them and wake them up.
Keep lights dim when they wake up and limit television and screens
Because life isn’t perfect, when your baby or toddler has jet lag, expect that they might wake up in the night. When this happens, be prepared with a few things that we have found to really help:
Dim lighting – A night light or dim lamp is essential, because you don’t want to put on the big lights and make the brain and body think it *is* daytime after all.
No fun allowed – At first, we’ll just lay with them and hope the boredom will send them back to sleep. Failing that, we get up with them for a short period. We aim not to let the kids watch TV or screens when they wake up in the night. Instead, we’ll play music or stories from their Yoto player and have some books to hand. We also travel with Duplo, which can help occupy them and help them feel tired again without the need for screens.
More food – I usually make a warm milk (or more toast if we have a toaster, failing that dry, plain croissants) before starting the bedtime routine again and eventually coaxing them back to sleep.
However, depending on what time they wake up (travelling from the UK to the USA, if they wake around 5am, we tend to just get up), there are benefits to being up early. Think amazing sunrises, being the first to visit busy tourist attractions and having the beach to yourself for a few hours immediately as the sun comes up. Rather than being annoyed that it didn’t quite go to plan, have breakfast and begin your day. Why not, eh?
How well you smash the toddler jet lag is reliant on such a lot of things, but sticking to some of these tips will help you so much! Let me know how you got on @passportstampsuk
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