Before you have kids, jet lag is definitely an annoyance — it’s never fun to be wide awake at 3 a.m. when you just want to get a good night’s rest and wake up fresh for new adventures. But traveling with kids through different time zones is a whole new ball game and can leave you scrambling to try any jet lag tips that you can find. Even if you have all the best products that make traveling with kids easier and even if you survive the plane ride or car ride, cranky kids with disrupted sleep schedules at your destination can put a real damper on any trip.
What exactly is jet lag? Even the dictionary definition is a little bit vague: Merriam Webster defines jet lag as “a condition characterized by various psychological and physiological effects (such as fatigue and irritability), occurs following long flight through several time zones and probably results from disruption of circadian rhythms in the human body.” In both kids and adults, it can manifest in not sleeping when you wish you were, and feeling exhausted when you wish you were feeling awake. While there’s no perfect solution to completely banish jet lag, these jet lag tips can help keep it to a minimum so you can enjoy your trip a lot more.
Jet lag tips for babies
If your baby is under 2 months old, they may not have a very defined sleep schedule yet, or a strong sense of days and nights. While traveling with a little one that small can bring its own challenges, you might not have to worry about jet lag yet. But with an older baby, often when you’ve just gotten them on a decent sleep schedule, it can be hard to figure out the right way to travel without throwing everything out of whack.
Alexis Dubief, sleep consultant and author of the book Precious Little Sleep, notes that if you’re not traveling too many time zones away, you might want to keep a baby on his “home” schedule. “For example if bedtime — home — is 7 p.m. and I go from EST to MST — time change -2 hours — I would put my child to bed at 5 p.m. local time which is 7 p.m. home clock time,” she explains. That might make for a calm evening, but a really early morning, since they’ll likely be waking up at 4 a.m. if they usually wake up at 6. But if you want to avoid the mess of time changes at all, you can try opting out if you’re not far from home and just push through.
If you’re traveling further away, or just want to be on a more typical schedule at your destination, you should plan a shift, and know that it won’t happen all at once. “One study of adults suggests bodies move one hour per day — so it would take three days to shift fully to a three-hour time zone change — but experience suggests babies functionally adjust more rapidly,” Dubief explains. You should expect bedtime to adjust about one to one-and-a-half hours a day. She suggests that parents “keep an eye on total sleep and wake windows and estimate how quickly your baby is shifting to local time. Expect bedtime to move about one to one-and-a-half hours a day.”
If you’re traveling 6+ time zones away, the transition to full local time won’t be fast, but Dubief still has a few tips to help:
- Manage light exposure. If it's the middle of the night (local) and you're trying to help your child's body shift to local time, keep the lights extremely low even if they're awake. No bright light or screens.
- When it's daytime (local) and you're trying to help your child's body shift, bright outdoor sunlight is your friend. Go outside as much as reasonable. If you can't go outside or it's cloudy, keep the inside as bright as feasible.
- Don't let your child sleep longer than they typically would at home (this includes nights and nap)
- If you're trying to shift their clock earlier, use bright light exposure first thing in the morning after they wake up and keep things dark and dim around one to two hours prior to bedtime.
- If you're trying to shift their clock later, keep things dark/dim in the morning and use bright light exposure in the evening.
Jet lag tips for toddlers and kids
Parents who have made trips to far-flung destinations with young kids (and lived to tell the tale) tend to have a very strong recollection of what worked and what didn’t to make their trip a success.
- Have a plan for your arrival. Emily Wortman-Wunder, whose two kids are now adults, recalled that she would “groggily seek out a public park and sit blinking on a bench” while her kids ran around. She tells Romper that she always made it a priority to go right outside to a playground and get her kids fresh air and exercise to help with the transition and night sleep. Alternately, you can plan to crash at your hotel. Katie Garner recalls that when traveling with three kids between 5 to 10 years old who hadn’t slept all night, the ability to check in right away and take a three-hour nap at their hotel was worth “any amount of money in the world.”
- Ask your pediatrician about melatonin. A few parents suggested that melatonin has helped them fast track their little one’s adjustment to local time. While studies suggest that melatonin can reduce the experience of jet lag, you want to talk to your pediatrician about melatonin use for your toddler.
- Embrace the suffering. Several parents suggested that part of surviving the experience is just expecting the adjustment to be hard and preparing for it. Kathryn Butler, whose three children are now ages 5, 3, and 1, has traveled between the United States and Italy with them twice. Her advice? “With kids you just have to ride it out. Even if it means making breakfast at 2:45 a.m.,” she tells Romper.
Jet lag tips for adults
In some ways, adults are just taller kids, and when it comes to beating jet lag, that’s also true. A lot of the same tips that apply to kids apply to adults. Sometimes it can be easier to take care of our kids than ourselves, but whether you’re traveling solo or have the whole family in tow, these tips can help you get the rest you need. Experienced travelers offer a few tips:
- Prepare in advance. “If you're traveling east or returning east, go to bed as early as you can stand it, and wake up as early as you can manage, for a few days before you leave and the adjustment will be much easier,” suggests Anna Maltby, who made regular trips between the east and west coast. If you’re traveling east, you want to go to bed earlier a few nights before you leave, and if you’re traveling west, you want to stay up later.
- Prioritize sleep over sightseeing. “Sleep upon arrival and stay sleeping/resting until around your normal wake-up time. It might feel like a waste of time, but it's not. If you begin a trip completely rested on day two, you'll have the energy to see and do a thousand times more than if you're jetlagged the whole trip,” says Lauren Jonik, who has traveled to Europe several times.
- Take extra good care of yourself. “Since jet lag affects the immune system, I baby myself with probiotics, add electrolytes to my water, drink fresh juice/eat fresh produce as soon as I arrive. We also sleep with hotel curtains open so the natural light will help us wake,” suggests Maggie Downs, who works as a freelance traveler and spent a year backpacking around the world.
- Expose yourself to light soon after waking up in the morning. This can be sunlight, but if it isn’t sunny where you are, even artificial light can help.
- Get some exercise. This is particularly helpful in the afternoon when you might be tempted to hit the sheets instead, which can screw up your night sleep.
With a little preparation and some flexibility, hopefully you and your family can put jet lag behind you and enjoy your trip.
Alexis Dubief, author of Precious Little Sleep