Jet lag in babies and toddlers

How to Fight Jet Lag in Babies and Toddlers

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Facing jet lag with babies and toddlers can seem quite intimidating. But while jet lag is a very real concern, there’s no reason it has to ruin your trip. With the right planning and strategies, you will be out having adventures with your well-rested baby in no time!

One of our first trips abroad with our first son was to Italy. After a long day of travel, we settled into our Airbnb in Cinque Terre. Finally! Sleep! Of course, that’s around the time when our son woke up, ready to party.

My husband saw how frustrated I was and told me to get some rest while he walked around with our baby. I remember laying on the bed with tears of discouragement in my eyes, thinking, ‘Is it going to be this way every night? When will I sleep? This is not worth it. No more travels for us!’

A bit of an overreaction? Sure. I blame the lack of sleep and the stress of traveling with a baby for the first time. But jet lag with young kids can be very stressful if you don’t have any tools to combat it.

Obviously we didn’t give up traveling. And through our various trips, we’ve found some helpful strategies to reduce the negative effects of long-distance travel on our young kids.

If you take the right measures, jet lag can be just a speed bump on the way to a fabulous family vacation!

Child with jet lag sleeping on a bench

Tips for reducing jet lag in babies and toddlers

1. Plan a sleep strategy for travel

Traveling with a time zone change will mean either an extra-long day or a short day, depending on your destination. It can help to plan ahead how you want to handle your child’s sleep schedule.

To do this, it’s useful to have a visual of how your trip lines up with both your current time and the time at your destination. Below is an example of a spreadsheet my husband made to plan a Philippines trip.

Sample schedule to adjust sleep and reduce jet lag in babies and toddlers
A sample itinerary showing an extra-long day- a long, additional nap is planned to tide the child over until bedtime in the Philippines

In order to decide when you want to plan for your child to sleep, you need to decide on your sleep strategy.

You could categorize travel sleep strategies into three basic options:

  1. Plan for easiest travel– Adjust their schedule to have the best travel experience possible. Often this means maximizing sleep on the plane.
    • Good for: Children with short attention spans who are hard to entertain and keep calm on the plane
    • For example: Children ages 11-18 months- In my eyes, this is the hardest age for long flights. If they can take a long nap or get in a big chunk of night sleep on the flight at this age, I’m all for it.
  2. Plan for the smoothest entry– Adjust their schedule so they will be ready to sleep at bedtime at your destination. This can even start several days before you leave by shifting their wake and sleep times.
    • Good for: Children who have longer attention spans, are better able to sit still, and handle lack of sleep more gracefully
    • For example: Children over 2- By this age, they are starting to get a lot more pleasant on flights. They can be distracted by activities or shows, which helps if you’re trying to keep them awake.
  3. Follow your child’s cues– Take things as they come and don’t worry about it. If they sleep, great. If they’re awake, no problem. Figure out the local schedule when you get there.
    • Good for: Parents of the laid-back variety, children with unpredictable schedules, shorter flights
    • Tip: If using this option, you might benefit from scheduled recovery time upon arrival

Sometimes these options align well. For example, sometimes the smoothest entry means letting your kids sleep the whole flight. Boom! Easy entry, easy travel. But sometimes it means keeping them up for the flight when they would normally be sleeping. With young kids, that can be stressful and frustrating.

We’ve used all of these approaches with our kids and they each have pros and cons. Which strategy you use just depends on your child’s age and personality and your preference.

Do you want it to be easier when you travel or when you get there? And know that no matter what you choose, things don’t always go according to plan…but it all tends to work out in the end.

2. As you adjust to the new schedule, keep naps short

When you arrive at your destination, schedule naps, bedtime, and meals according to the new time as much as possible (with a little bit of leeway if you haven’t already been working towards this on the flight). This is one of the best things you can do to help everyone adjust and get on a good schedule sooner.

It can be tempting to let your young children nap as long as they want to after a long trip. The problem with this is that it increases the amount of time it takes them to adjust to the new time zone. And it makes it more likely that your child will wake up in the middle of the night. No fun for anyone.

Make sure that young kids get a good nap, especially those first few days, but try to keep it to just a couple of hours. And set an alarm! There’s a good chance you’ll fall asleep too and next thing you know it could be six hours later… Which may have happened to me a few times…and I always end up regretting it!

3. Don’t over plan the first day

When you arrive at your destination, don’t have too much scheduled for the first day. Everyone will be tired and will benefit from having a chance to recover from the travel.

If you have a lot of intensive activities planned you might be disappointed if tired and grumpy kids (and adults) don’t appreciate them as much as you’d hoped. And taking a little time to recoup in the beginning can make the rest of the trip go a lot more smoothly.

However, that does NOT mean that you should stay in your hotel room and sleep all day. Make sure to get out of your room, eat meals at the right time, and get some sunlight. More on that below.

4. Get out of the hotel and into the sunshine!

Two children looking out a window at a sunny sea.  Sunshine helps fight jet lag in babies and toddlers.

Studies have shown that sunlight is one of the most significant factors in regulating our body’s internal clock. Spending some time in the sun will help your body adjust to your new daylight hours, whereas staying indoors can prolong the effects of jet lag.

So take your kids outside! Especially in the first few days after you arrive.

I’ve found that one of the best things for helping my kids overcome jet lag is to get them out and about having experiences in their new environment. This is a great time to explore or have a flexible activity planned.

On our last trip to the Philippines, we got an all-day pass to DreamPlay Manila, only a few minutes walk from our hotel. We had only been there for an hour or so in the morning when the kids started getting tired. So we went to get some lunch and take a (short) afternoon nap.

After the nap, we were able to go back and spend the rest of the afternoon at DreamPlay. Because it was a re-entry pass, we were able to take cues from our children and adjust accordingly. If it had been a single-entry ticket we might have felt frustrated if our children were done after only an hour.

Child playing on a plane at DreamPlay Philippines
Playing in the Madagascar plane at DreamPlay on our first day in Manila

Plan to get out of the hotel, but aim for activities that are low-stress and flexible. And something your children will really enjoy!

5. Make nighttime feel like nighttime

Usually if we follow all of the tips above, our children do pretty well sleeping through the night from the very beginning. That being said, your child may wake up in the middle of the night those first few days.

If this happens, keep the lights low and let them know that it is still bedtime. They might be hungry, so be prepared to offer them a light snack. If they are wide awake, you might need to let them play quietly for a little while (have some quiet activities ready just in case). But then try to get them back to sleep within a couple of hours.

The key is to help their body realize that it is still nighttime. This will speed up the adjustment process and reduce the chance that they will wake up in the middle of the night the next night and the one after that…

And if they are up in the night, try not to let them sleep too late or nap too long the next day. Once again, that will only perpetuate the problem.

6. Bring something familiar from home

Toddler and his stuffed bear sitting by an airport window

Besides the biological problems associated with jet lag, being in an unfamiliar environment can also make it harder to sleep. Combat this by bringing something from home that will make your child more comfortable.

This could be a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or book. (After lugging an enormous stuffed Olaf all over Southeast Asia, I would suggest aiming for a small stuffed animal…) Some people swear by bringing the used sheet from your child’s crib or bed (the familiar smell and feel make them feel more at home).

Also, maintaining elements of their normal bedtime routine will help them settle in for the night. A warm bath, a familiar story, evening prayers…whatever they are used to. And black-out curtains and white noise are extremely useful for helping young children fall asleep and stay asleep on a trip.

7. Use the baby carrier

One of my favorite strategies for fighting jet lag with a baby or young toddler is putting them in the baby carrier if they refuse to go back to sleep. I find that often when in a new time zone, my babies will wake up in the early early morning and act like they are wide awake and ready to start the day. Yeah, not happening.

So I pop them in the Ergobaby and put the sleep hood up (sometimes with the nursing cover over too depending on how much ambient light there is). Then I walk around, bouncing them gently until they fall back asleep.

This can take an hour or more, but to me that’s better than trying to entertain a baby at 4 in the morning. And trying to keep them quiet so they don’t wake up everyone in the hotel room (usually the baby is pretty content in the carrier as long as I’m moving or bouncing them).

I bring my Kindle and read a book while I walk around and then get a little more rest when they go back to sleep. For more on the benefits of babywearing while traveling, see this post.

*Note that this strategy only works if you’ve worked towards getting them on the new schedule. If you put them to bed at 4 p.m. and they wake up at 4 a.m., then they have had a full night’s sleep and are very unlikely to go back to sleep. However, if they went to bed at 7 or 8 there’s a good chance they can sleep a little longer.

8. Look into using melatonin

I have to preface this by saying that I personally have never used melatonin for myself or my children. However, I chose to add this to my list because I have heard a lot about the benefits of melatonin in fighting jet lag.

Melatonin helps to regulate circadian rhythms by acting a darkness signal to your brain. Small doses of the hormone have been shown to reduce the symptoms of jet lag in adults and children. If you feel this option might be right for you, do some research and talk to your pediatrician.

9. Work as a team

It can be exhausting trying to help your children adjust while you’re fighting jet lag yourself. If you’re traveling with your spouse or another travel companion, try to share the burden.

My husband and I often do shifts if our kids are having a particularly rough night. He’ll stay up with a restless baby while I get some rest and then I’ll get up with our other son if he wakes up later in the night.

Or one of us will take our older son for an outing while the other takes a nap with the baby in the afternoon. Do whatever works for you, just make sure no one person is taking on too much.

Jet lag feels much more manageable when you’re not handling it alone. Discuss your strategy together before you leave so that everyone knows what to expect.

10. Maintain perspective

Don’t be like me on our trip to Italy. If you’re up at night with a jet-lagged baby, don’t let yourself get too discouraged. Recognize that they will sleep again! And you will too!

Besides that first night of not sleeping well, our son did great on that trip to Italy. So if your baby or toddler is having a hard time, know that it’s a temporary problem that will get better.

Having an awesome time in Italy post-jet-lag-meltdown

When traveling abroad with babies and toddlers (especially if you have more than one child), you’ll usually experience some elements of jet lag.

I find that it usually takes about two to three days for my children to be fully adjusted to the new time zone. But the effects of jet lag don’t have to be huge. In fact, if we do it right, we tend to find that it doesn’t significantly impact our trip at all.

By taking the right measures, you really can greatly reduce the negative impact of jet lag on yourself and your kiddos. And that is a huge step towards truly enjoying that much-anticipated family trip!

What strategies have you tried to combat the effects of jet lag?

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