Jet Lag and Kids

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On my recent recent trip to Paris with my daughter, I did everything within my power to make sure she arrived as rested as possible.  This included prepping her to sleep on the plane, booking an evening departure, and securing a lie flat seat for her.  That may seem like over-kill, but I wanted to do everything I could to reduce the impact of jet-lag and maximize the time we had on the ground in Paris.  Our trip wasn’t very long to begin with, so I didn’t want to waste a good chunk of it dealing with sleep issues.

We did as much as we could in advance to minimize the impact of the time change as much as possible, but none of it was going to eliminate the reality that we were operating in a land that had a seven hour time difference than our beds and clocks at home.  This meant that when it was bedtime in Paris, it was the middle of the afternoon at home.  When it was time to wake-up in Paris, it was the middle of the night back home.  Here was how jet lag played out for us, and some things that helped minimize the impact.

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Passed out in Paris for late afternoon nap

Arrive as Rested as Possible:

Regardless of whatever time the clock says, having your kids arrive to their destination as rested as possible can only be a good thing.  This means encouraging your kiddos to get as much sleep as possible on the flights.  We did this by talking to our daughter ahead of time about sleeping on the plane, dressing her in something comfortable, and making sure she was as comfortable in her seat as possible.  This was pretty easy since we had a lie-flat seat for her, but we would have let her stretch out on us if we were in economy.  We also made sure she got a full night’s sleep at home the night before our trip began.

Go to Bed at a Normal Time in Your Destination:

Often adrenaline will help your kiddos stay up until a normal bedtime at your destination, and encourage that to happen.  The quicker you can start operating according to the clocks at your destination, the better.  For us in Europe that meant that bedtime there was roughly the time she took a nap at home in the afternoon.  She went to bed quite easily that first night, but then about 3 hours later she was WIDE AWAKE.  Her body had treated the bedtime as naptime back home, and after a few hours she was more than ready to be up and ready for action.  Of course, since it was around midnight or 1AM in Paris this was a very bad idea.

Expect Sleep Disturbances:

When my daughter was wide awake at 1AM it didn’t take much time zone math to figure out why.  While she was having a great deal of difficulty going back to sleep, I kept the lights in the hotel room off, stayed calm, and just kept telling her to try and go back to sleep since it was the middle of the night.  After about an hour I was on the verge of trying something else as I desperately wanted to go back to sleep myself, and ‘waiting it out’ wasn’t working.  Just when I was about to give in and let her use the iPad while I passed back out, she started snoring.  Thank goodness.  The best advice is to keep things dark, calm, and encourage the little ones to go back to sleep, but after an hour I truthfully almost caved.  Thankfully, this only happened on the first night as we got on a relatively normal routine the next day.

Don’t Over-Schedule Mornings:

At least in Europe, I don’t recommend scheduling time sensitive activities in the mornings as you and the little ones may be prone to sleeping in a bit.  The first morning we were asleep until at least 9:30 – maybe 10AM.  My kid would have probably been quite unpleasant if we had an early morning activity to get to, so I just let her sleep in as long as she wanted.  I have to admit that room service breakfast came in real handy for these long and lazy mornings since I couldn’t leave her alone to go and grab something for us to eat.

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Snoozing through the morning at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome

Don’t Ever Fully Adjust If You Don’t Have To:

If you are going overseas for weeks or longer of course it makes sense to eventually get 100% on the local time zone, but if your trip is a week or less then I personally don’t think you need to get your kids totally converted to the new time zone.  We got on ‘Paris time’ enough to make it work, but we slept in and stayed up later every day than we would have according to the clock at home.  I would guess we adjusted to about 4.5 to 5 hours of the time difference, but never converted over to the full 7 hour difference. This meshed will with our pretty loose plans, and made it easier when it was time to go home.

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Sleeping in and jamming the day away in Paris

Go To Bed at the Right Time at Home:

On the way home my kid slept very little on the planes, which made for a long day, but also made for an easy transition back to our time zone at home.   When we finally finished our long travel day and got home, she was (more than) ready to get to bed at her normal local time.  She slept soundly that night and then went back to school as normal the next day.  I was totally prepared to let her sleep in as late as she needed the next day and skip school, but when she was up at her usual 7AM, we just started a normal day and never looked back.

Expect Crankiness at Home:

Even though she was back to her normal schedule as soon as we landed, she wasn’t her normal self for several days.  It took several days for her to truly catch on sleep once we got home – or at least that is my guess based on crankier than normal behavior (especially in the evenings).  We couldn’t get her to fall asleep early or sleep in late, but it was evident that the jet lag did wear on her a bit.  We just used a bit more patience than normal, and fortunately everything returned to normal within a few days.  It was a small price to pay for our big adventure.

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Tired and grumpy!

That was our plan and experience to minimize the impact of jet lag, and overall it worked pretty well.  There were some minor hiccups, but nothing terrible and that a little extra patience and flexibility couldn’t fix.  Jet lag and time zone changes will impact most kids at some point on your big trips to different parts of the world, but they are generally incredibly resilient so I wouldn’t overly stress about potential issues.

What has your experience been with jet lag and your traveling kids?

Comments

  1. Another tip for kids and adults – make sure everyone drinks enough water. Just when you think you’ve had enough, drink another glass. Dehydration is a major factor in jet lag and kids can’t identify the symptoms like adults can.

  2. Sounds like Little C handled the jet lag pretty well. I too have spent a few nights in Europe trying to get a wide-awake little one back to sleep. All your suggestions are spot on and are things we have done with success, especially not fully adjusting to the local time on a short trip. We travelled to Rome once for a long weekend and did exactly that, making the return to our US time zone much easier.
    One more thing to make the eastbound trip easier with a child – make any flight connections in the US, not Europe. I know you don’t always have control of that using miles, but it is so much easier to traipse through an airport in the afternoon than to attempt to connect with a drowsy kid after a long transatlantic flight, when their body clock tells them it is 1am.
    Oh, one more thing – while it is a great idea for all kids to pack and be responsible for their carryon bad for domestic flights, I have found that it doesn’t make sense for a flight where they will be sleeping most of the time. It is just cumbersome. Maybe use a small collapsible bag and for the return flights only.

  3. Good advice, but we add a different method. We try to minimize talking about jet lag. Kids tune in to our concerns more than we know. Obviously we don’t ignore the issue. We just don’t make a big deal out of it. If it’s not an issue with mom and dad then it’s not a big deal to them. Plan activities as you would(including sleep) but don’t harp on the issue to the point of making the kids hyper-aware of jet lag and the effects of it.

  4. My wife and I took our 2 boys to Hong Kong for 8 days this past spring break. As you might imagine, we were somewhat concerned how they would respond to 13 hours of jet lag as we knew from experience that it can be grueling for a few days. Our concerns were mostly unfounded as they dealt with it amazingly well.

    We flew business class both ways so that they could sleep, which helped us all a lot. We all used melatonin supplements to get us adjusted to the time quicker. (I highly recommend melatonin for jet lag.) The first 2-3 days of the trip they would fall asleep around dinner time but sleep mostly all night. We let them sleep in and skip school the first day after we got back home. Otherwise everything was business as usual.

    Don’t be afraid to subject your kids to a long trip which includes jet lag. They handle it as well or better than adults!

  5. Thank you for this – its very helpful! My son is 3 and we love traveling with him but we haven’t yet crossed time zones more than one hour. We leave in 2 weeks for Kauai and I’m trying to figure out how to handle the flight there. We leave at 2pm (PHX) have a stopover at LAX and land in Kauai at 8:30pm which will be 11:30pm for us. I’m debating whether I should try to keep him awake on the flight so he’ll go to sleep when we get to the hotel easier (sometimes this doesn’t work) or try to get him to sleep on the plane so he’ll be easier to manage getting to the hotel, etc). He is pretty easy going in general and super excited for this trip so not sure I’ll have any control over what happens. I’m fully prepared to just go with the flow and see what happens but wondered if anyone had any advice on this situation?? Thanks!

  6. I was waiting for this post for a while since I will be in Paris in August with 3 teenage kids. To make things more complicated, we will be in Beijing before returning to SFO. This makes me wonder three things.

    Do not accommodate any planned activity and leave some flexibility in schedule but then if you do not have prearranged tickets for certain places then you wait more in line and make yourself miserable. So I need to balance that.

    Do not plan anything for early mornings which is contrary to the common belief that this is the best time to beat crowds. Here goes another of my strategy.

    I have never used melatonin but may be this will be the first time I have to

  7. @caveman – I just travelled to Italy with 2 teenagers and it is very different than traveling with little kids. I did plan things fairly early in the morning to get them on schedule as I would do for myself. Just do “lite” sightseeing (ie – no museums) on the first day and they should be fine the next day. I kept telling the girls “you can sleep when we get home” 🙂 Teenagers are actually very flexible if they are having fun!

  8. We have taken our pre-K daughters to Europe a few times. In general, I think you have to be flexible in your itinerary planning with young kids. You just can’t do a kamikaze “Rick Steves” style sightseeing trip and blitz a big city like Paris or London in only a couple of days. Understand that family sightseeing trips are a little different but still rewarding. Take your adult must-see list – then cut it in half and make sure there are a few things specifically for the kids (hint: just like at home, many museums have children’s events during the day which can usually be found on their web site). Don’t plan on doing much the first day – visit something like a palace/castle that has extensive gardens/grounds so they can roam and explore at their leisure to help shake off the jet lag. On one of our trips, we actually had to drive 2 hours to our destination after landing in the morning. This worked out great for the kids because they took a short nap in their car seats. On other trips, they have had similar rest in the stroller/carrier.

  9. We definitely do a lot of these – we really listen to their cues, and if they need to nap we let them nap, never for more than an hour-90 minutes, but at bedtime we make it very clear it is time to sleep all night. They generally stay up late the first night (in Europe) and sleep in the next day, and then we try to spend as much time as possible outside in the sun. Fresh air and sun help so much! And we find a playground and let them run around!

  10. The best thing your can do for yourself and your kiddos is try to get on the new time as quickly as possible. Our bodies make this shift naturally within about 3 days or so and light is the key. Wake yourself and your kiddos up at their wake up time (if they wake at 7 am at home, wake them at 7 at your new location). Get outside as much as possible, especially in the morning and later in the day. I would plan for morning excursions– in most cases, especially traveling with younger kiddos, getting out when they are freshest will lead to fewer meltdowns. Have them take a nap in the afternoon (if they still nap) or have a rest time back at the hotel in the afternoon to recharge before you go out again. @CSnyder, I would let your child sleep when he can on the plane and then put him down early when you get to Kauai. He will probably wake early the first day or two you are there, but get outside for lots of light during the day (and try to keep his room as dark as you can to encourage that deep sleep at night).

  11. My own experience indicates that jet lag is exactly the same in coach as in biz class. The only possible difference is if you’re taking a redeye you MIGHT get a little more sleep in a lie-flat bed and be slightly better able to function on your first day. After that, it’s exactly the same problem.

    My experience is also that kids adjust to time changes better than adults. In fact, the older you get, the harder it is to change. Also, jet lag is worse when travelling eastbound than westbound.

  12. I did the same trip (Paris with my five year old-except in coach 🙁 ) a month before Mommypoints. I tried to keep her busy the day before our early evening flight so she’d sleep on the plane to help get adjusted. What a disaster-full cranky meltdown! I read in another post how they bribe their kids to sleep on the plane. Tried this on last week’s (four hour) flight to NYC-massive success! I’m going with the straight bribe for sleep in the future.

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