Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Kids & jet lag: what it's like and 8 tips on how to deal with it

As I'm writing this, I'm still in the throes of some residual jet lag from our recent vacation in the Canary Islands. I woke up at about 4.30 am and couldn't go back to sleep, and by the time 8 pm rolled around, I was a lot sleepier than usual at that time of night.

Evening in Gran Canaria, right outside our hotel.

The deal with jet lag
The time difference my family is dealing with in this case is 8 hours (since Gran Canaria is 8 hours ahead of Vancouver), which I figure is enough to mess us up for about a week, though we're definitely over the worst of it already. Some experts say it takes one day for every hour of time difference to adjust, but it really varies. I usually estimate about one week to deal with the jet lag when traveling from Vancouver to and from Europe.

Traveling with my kids to Sweden, which is my family's most common destination, means a time difference of 9 hours. Not particularly fun even when you're used to it, but it's not so bad if you're on holidays with no work or school you have to be in shape for.

Especially the first couple of days can be a real mess. The first morning back in Canada after our trip, my daughter woke up at 3.30 am. Not great obviously, but there's not much to be done about it: she was completely awake and unable to sleep.

Two more observations about jet lag: 

-Jet lag is worse when you travel east, than when you travel west
In our case this means that it's harder for the kids to adjust when we go to Europe than when we come back. I've heard people who disagree with this east-west assessment, but it fits with my experience. 

-Jet lag isn't just about being tired
The main thing about jet lag is that it makes you want to sleep and wake up at the "wrong" times since your body hasn't had time to adjust to a new time zone. However, it also makes you hungry at the wrong times. I'm noticing this right now with my kids: they eat like wolves in the morning because their bodies are set to "dinner time" rather than "breakfast".

There's not much you can do about this except be aware of the reasons for it and try to feed your child and extra breakfast (my children both ate about two breakfasts the first couple of mornings back).

Another thing jet lag can affect is bathroom issues. Jet lag can make your child (and you) more likely to wake up at night, needing to go. This can especially affect kids who have problems staying dry at night or who are recently toilet trained, so it's good to be aware of it.

8 tips on how to deal with jet lag
There are lots of theories and tips on how to deal with jet lag, including melatonin, fasting (!), and light therapy. Here are my own tips on how to deal with jet lag, especially when you're traveling with children:

1. Make sure you eat before going to bed
This might sound a little strange, but one of the things that wakes me (and my kids) up so early when we change time zones, is hunger. If your body thinks it's dinner time or lunch time in the middle of the night, it will wake you up and make it difficult to go back to sleep.

In my experience, eating something before you go to bed (even if you don't feel that hungry) makes it a lot easier to sleep longer.

2. Try to stay awake until it's bedtime
If there's a big time difference, it can be almost impossible for you and your kids to go to bed at the right time in your new time zone, especially the first couple of nights. Try to keep your kids occupied enough that they do stay awake. At some point they will hit the wall (and so will you), and then it might just be best to go to bed.

3. Stick to routines
Try to approximate the bedtime routines from home as much as possible. Bringing comfort items along on your trip like stuffed animals and blankets helps. Giving the kids a bath if they're used to that, reading a bedtime story, singing the lullaby they're used to... it all helps them relax.

Of course, the one break from routine may be that you yourself fall asleep before they do, or while reading them their bedtime story.

4. Keep the bedroom as dark as possible
This also can help both with sleeping longer and falling back to sleep if you or your child wakes up in the middle of the night. With kids especially, it can be hard to convince them that it's night time when their bodies are telling them it's morning. Turning off lights, drawing the blinds and curtains does help.

The biggest challenge I've faced with this is when we go to Sweden in the summer time: the sun barely sets there that time of year, making it look like "morning" pretty much all night long. Blackout curtains are a definite help in that situation!

5. Try to get your kids to go back to sleep if they wake up too early
Adjusting to the new time zone is easier if you try to get your body into the new "rhythm" as soon as possible. If you can convince your child to just lay down for a bit, and maybe get them to sleep or doze for just an extra hour, it can definitely help reset their internal clocks.

6. If sleep is not an option, just roll with it
With kids (and adults too sometimes), the fight to stay in bed until it's "really" morning can often be a losing battle. When my daughter got up at 3.30 am on our first day back home, I got up with her, fed her the breakfast she was craving (I've rarely seen her so hungry, so no wonder she had trouble sleeping!), and let her play and watch some TV while I puttered around doing laundry and unpacking.

Did I wish she'd slept longer? Sure, but it was our first day back, it was a weekend, and there really was no way she would go to sleep right then. Better to roll with it.

7. Be careful with naps
Naps can very easily become way too long when children are jetlagged. This happens to adults too. You're feeling a little sleepy in the afternoon, you lay down "just for a moment" and end up sleeping for hours because your body is out of synch. This is problematic because it makes it harder to fall asleep at the "right" time at night.

After my daughter got up at 3.30 am on our first day back, she did ok until the afternoon when she, not surprisingly, fell asleep. I let her sleep for about an hour, mainly because I knew if she did not have any nap, it would be impossible for her to stay awake until her usual bedtime (or close to it). But after that hour I did wake her up and would not let her go back to sleep. It worked pretty well, though she was extremely tired that night of course.

8. Go outside!
I find that staying active during the day, and especially going outside if it's a nice sunny day, can really help reset your out-of-whack internal clock. For kids, going for a walk, playing in a playground, going to the beach, or just generally doing something that keeps them active does help stave off that tired, droopy feeling that often comes with jet lag.


  1. Thanks, this was helpful. My kids have been awake from 11.00 pm until 4.00am for four nights now after a trip to the UK from Australia. I'm hoping this will correct itself soon! I have matchsticks holding my eyes open!

    1. Oh yikes! It can be really challenging. I usually count the first week after a big trip as "lost", because it can take the kids a while to get back in order. Hope they get back to something more normal soon!

  2. I totally agree that travelling East is worse with a family. You can always wake a child, but you can't force anyone to sleep! And it's hard to manage kids in the middle of the night. Been there.

    1. You've got it! Those nighttime wakeups can be bad, especially when kids won't accept that it's not actually daytime just because they're not tired... I know some people try things like melatonin, but I'm kind of worried about using that on the kids.

  3. Thanks for this - we've just returned from a 2 week trip to the US from the UK - compounded by the fact we had a couple of days in Nashville, then the west coast, then west Texas...yeah. My 16 month old struggled the whole time & now we've had a hellish first night back home. I don't think anyone has slept since we left & she now has a bad cough & cold to compound issues. If I'm honest I think I've just sat & cried too many times in the last few days!

    I'm trying to stay positive but finding it hard to keep her (& myself!) motivated to stay awake as I'm not sure if its sickness or jetlag or both messing her around! I don't want to say "I'm NEVER doing this again" (my husband is Australian so it's going to be impossible to not travel) but at the moment I want to tell everyone they have to come to us or wait until she is

    I love travelling but with a toddler it's a whole other level of crazy :-)

    Thanks again (mostly for letting this tired mummy ramble!)

    1. Diane, that's a rough go! Traveling around like that definitely makes it a lot harder for little ones to settle into a time zone and routine for bedtime. Also, I'd have to say that that age between 1 and 2 is, in my experience, one of the toughest to travel with: they just want to move around a lot and are harder to distract with movies and activities (at least mine were!). After age 2 it does get easier (again in my experience!).

      And I totally get feeling like you're not up for it again anytime soon! Every time I finish a trip with the kids, I'm exhausted for a good while afterwards. :) And being sick DEFINITELY does not help! You made it there and back though, and now you're experienced! ;) And next time it might be a total breeze: kids love to throw you curve-balls like that! Hope you all feel better soon! --- Maria

  4. We're dealing with an eastward 6 hour jet lag with a 22 month old. I personally prefer this direction because Id rather be kept up late than woken up at 3 am. But both ways have been pretty awful and I certainly am feeling like I never ever want to do it again. (which isnt really an option since half our family is German and the other half American) We've been home for four days and nothing has changed. Today she took no nap, fell asleep around 8:30...and then woke up an hour later ready to go. Who knows how late she will keep us up tonight but In starting to feel like I cant cope any more. Maybe tomorrow Ill try getting us up at "normal" time. Thanks for posting on the subject!

    1. It can be a hard slog for sure. One of my kids handles it well, the other one takes forever to adjust! Thanks for reading and commenting, and I do hope the jetlag magically disappears! :)

  5. Very good article, full of useful tips that we don't always think of like eating before going to bed for example. I'll remember them next time I'll take a flight with my kids!

  6. I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts on my situation.....we will be traveling from the U.S. to UK in a couple weeks. My son is a teenager and is autistic. He's ok w/some changes to routine but is pretty unwavering when it comes to bedtime - he starts letting us know an hour or more before bedtime that it's almost time to get ready for bed! We are very nervous about dealing w/the time change and many friends have suggested melatonin (those w/special needs kids who have had experience w/using it). We plan to discuss it w/his doctor but just wondering if anyone has additional suggestions. Thanks

  7. We've just come home to UK from Florida, we got a evening flight meaning we arrived in UK early hrs Sunday, Sunday night we all slept really heavy. However last night & tonight our 2nd & 3rd nights the children are crying for unknown reasons & its been 3 hrs since they went to bed but not sleeping until 11pm.
    They have school so they can't really sleep in but also don't want them being tired in class.
    Any tips??

  8. Great article. This was very helpful. Me and my wife are having a severe jet lag along with our 11 month old son. We just came back to India from Calgary. It's a 12 and a half hour time difference for us. As you mentioned It was much easier when we reached Calgary. But it's been real tough since we are back. Your tips will certainly help. Thanks.

  9. I was pinning away for such type of blogs, thanks for posting this for us. Hotels


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