20 Ways to Deal with Jet Lag and Kids

Our world is small now. Many of us live away from our families in different countries. This means taking the excited kids on a plane to see the grandparents and maybe enjoy sleeping in. But, thinking about taking the kids on the plane is enough to make any parent sweat. Is my baby going to scream the whole flight? Is the entire plane going to hate us? Will we enjoy our holiday? Are we going to experience jet lag? Will our kids be up all night and want to sleep all day? Why are we doing this to ourselves? Let’s just never leave the house.

I have taken many flights with my twin boys. I’ve also taken many solo flights with my boys since they turned two. I have made many mistakes, and I have also learned many things about travelling with kids. The flying, waiting in lines, the terrible food, and having to work your routine in with the airline schedule can all wreak havoc on you and your little ones. Not only is the flying exhausting, but adjusting to your new time zone can take a few days. It can mean super early 4 am mornings, late nights, and middle of the night wakings.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag is your circadian rhythms being messed up. Your circadian rhythms are your sleep and wake cycles over 24 hours. This is how your body knows to wake up, to feel hungry, be alert, feel tired, and of course, sleep. Your circadian rhythms are influenced by light, food, and social interaction.

When you suddenly start exposing your body to light, food, family, and friends when you usually are sleeping, your body is a bit confused. Different hormones are released with light, dark, food, and being around people. This is why during jet lag, we feel tired during the day and wide awake at night. Your body has a lot of adjusting to do. At least as adults, we understand that our body needs a few days to figure out its new schedule. Our children, on the other hand, are up just up at 4 am, ready to start the day.    

The number of time zones you cross and direction in which you fly affects the severity of your jet lag. When there is only a few hours difference, it is easier and quicker for your body to adjust. However, when you cross many times zones, and your body is totally out of sync, you may need a few days or a week to adjust.

Symptoms of Jet Lag

When you are jet-lagged, you can feel all over the place. The most common symptoms are the following:

  • Feeling fatigued during the day
  • Having trouble getting out of bed
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Upset tummy – constipation and/or diarrhea 
  • Waking very early
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Feeling lethargic 

How Long Does Jet Lag Last?

Jet lag usually lasts a few days to one week. It depends on how well you can adjust to your new time zone. A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip to the USA to visit his sister. It was the worst jet lag I have ever experienced in my life. After a week of barely sleeping, I started to go a bit delusional. I began to really flip out. Thankfully my sister-in-law came to the rescue with a sleeping pill. I was nervous about taking one, but the next morning I woke happily, refreshed, rested, and back to myself for the first time. Being prepared for and understanding jet lag can help your body adjust.   

How Old Are Your Kids?

Newborns generally have no problems with jet lag. This is because their circadian rhythms are still being set. They also still have a lot of day sleep. They usually slip into a new routine pretty quickly. It’s the same for younger babies.

On the other hand, older children whose circadian rhythms are more entrenched will feel similar effects as you. If your children are old enough, explain jet lag to them. Tell them what is happening and how their body needs a few days to adjust to their environment and schedule.

Hope to Deal with Jet Lag and Kids

1. West to East or East to West?

Find out which direction you are flying and, if possible, fly west. This might sound a little strange, but the direction of your flight affects the severity of your jet lag. Knowing the course of your trip can help you prepare your family for the following days of jet lag and get on top of it as quickly as possible. 

Flying eastward seems to affect us worse than flying westward. It was true of my flight to the USA. Travelling east is harder for your body as your body clock has to move forward. Your body finds it easy to delay rather than move forward. You essentially lose time travelling east, which your body finds difficult to adjust to. Gaining time by flying west is easier for your body to adapt to. Knowing this can help you to choose the best flights or prepare you for the severity of your kids’ impending jet lag. 

2. Plan Your Flight Times to Suit Your Family

It seems that there are firmly two camps: those who think it is best to fly at night and those who think it is best to fly during the day. I’m in the daytime camp. I got so mad at my husband today. He booked us on a 9 pm flight to NZ. I am dreading this flight. What if the boys don’t sleep on the plane? What if they sleep for 15 minutes and then wake screaming? This happened on a previous flight, and it was a nightmare. If they don’t sleep, it could be a nightmare. If they do sleep and sleep well, perhaps I will be converted to night flights.

When we’ve taken evening and night flights with the boys previously, they have been a disaster. If you have a night flight, you want your children to sleep. But they don’t always want to sleep with the excitement of being on a plane. Also, while they may fall asleep, an aeroplane does not always provide the most comfortable sleeping position or conditions. It’s easy to find yourself with an overtired, exhausted, and very unhappy toddler on your hands. This is why I prefer day flights. This way, the kids can nap when and where they want, and a shorter sleep is not going to bother them too much. Then when you get to your destination, it won’t be long for them to go to bed at 7 pm, getting straight onto local time.

 3. Take Into Consideration the Time of Your Flight

I also like to take into account take off time. If possible, it’s great to sync take off time with naptime or bedtime if you are going on a night flight. Often, the motion and rumbly noise of taking off make it impossible for your little ones to keep their eyes open no matter how excited they are. A good nap can be the start of a good flight.

I also prefer to land in the afternoon or evening. I find when we arrive in the morning, there is a whole day of everyone feeling tired and grumpy. Arriving in the afternoon means a quick afternoon activity, dinner, and bed as close to normal as possible. Then everyone gets a good night’s sleep and wakes at a reasonable time the next day. Generally… Or landing in the evening means they will often fall asleep in the car from the airport and then transfer to their beds when arriving at the grandparents or hotel. This is my favourite way to arrive.

4. Plan for the Jet Lag

Plan for the first couple of days to be a bit messy. Plan for some early morning or late nights. You can also plan for naps on the go or watching a movie. When you plan for a few quiet days, it keeps you feeling like your holidays are being wasted. Keep things simple and easy. Maybe just chill by the pool for a few days. Or just hang at home with the family, enjoy a stroll in the park in the afternoon. Keep the big day trips for when everyone is feeling rested, restored and comfortably on local time.

5. Move Onto Local Time on the Plane

Change your clocks on the plane and work on local time on the flight. The first day, get your kids ready for bed at their regular bedtime but at local time. This way, you are helping to adjust your circadian rhythms before you even arrive. You can say no to meals at the wrong time and request food when it suits the local time.

6. Get Out Into That Sunlight

When you’re dealing with jet lag, you are dealing with having your circadian rhythms out of sync with the real world. One of the best ways to reset your circadian rhythms is to expose yourself to lots of lovely sunlight. Even though you might feel like being inside in a cocoon of darkness and sleeping, it might just be better to head outside for a walk and some fresh air. Let your body know that it is daytime and enjoy that sunshine.  

7. Eat-In  

There is no doubt that for the first few days and nights, everyone will be a little extra grumpy. Make meals easy by eating at the hotel, getting room service, or being close to your accommodation. There is nothing like toddlers tantruming at a restaurant, throwing food and utensils simply because they are just exhausted. Get a pizza and switch on the TV, it’s the holidays after all.

8. Assisted Naps

You might just need to help your little ones get a good nap during the day. A great way to encourage them to sleep when they may not feel like it is with assisted naps. Assisted naps are just that, they are naps that you thoroughly help with. Whether that means rocking in arms, sleeping in the pram, sleeping in the car or baby carrier. These are also great ways to have naps on the go and still get out for some holiday fun.

9. Don’t Resort to Dependent Sleep Associations

If your baby isn’t rocked and fed to sleep, don’t start now. They might need some extra cuddles, but try not to start up any sleep associations that will be hard to stop when you get home. 

10. Just Go With the Flow

Take a few days to chill out. Go with the night wake-ups, the early mornings, and late nights. Naps might be a bit messy. Work to local time as much as possible, but also allow your children to make up any sleep debt they might have accrued with travelling. After a few days, things will be a little calmer.

11. Do You Need to Change Times?

If your holiday is only a few hours difference and only for a few days, try not to change your time. It might mean an early breakfast or late nights in your destination, but that might be fun for the kids too. This is the time to enjoy some activities that you usually might not be able to. Like heading out to dinner with the whole family and watching a show afterwards. Or getting down to the beach and watching the sunrise while you eat breakfast. Take advantage of your extra hours you normally wouldn’t have. 

12. Don’t Take That Afternoon Nap

I know some people swear by the afternoon nap when you arrive. However, I don’t think there is anything worse. This will make it really hard for your kids and you to go to bed at the local time. A long afternoon nap can mean a super grumpy child in the evening and then bedtime at midnight. Skip the nap and have an early bedtime.

13. Eat at Local Times

A great way to help your circadian rhythms come to terms with their new time is to eat at local times. You might not be hungry for breakfast when you are normally asleep. But food is one of the three things that influence your circadian rhythms and lets your body know that it is time to be awake and active. 

14. Consider a Stopover

If you have a really long flight, a stopover might just help everyone deal with the huge change in time zones. You can enjoy a 4-day hotel chill at some great stops. Singapore is a favourite mid-way destination and offers amazing short holidays stays. This means you will be halfway adjusted by the time you reach your destination.  

15. Start to Adjust Bedtime Before You Go

I’m not sure about this one in all honesty. Whenever I have tried to implement it, I feel that it will just be more hassle than it is worth. Perhaps if the time difference is only two to three hours, you could start the transition before you go on holidays. This is so you don’t have to waste any precious holiday time adjusting a few hours. I thought about giving this a go before we went to New Zealand, which is five hours in front of us. It would mean moving bedtime earlier. But there is no way I’m going to my kids into bed at 4 pm. Even if adjusted by 15 minutes every day, it will be a nightmare. Not for me.

16. Plane Sleep Accessories

Sleep on the plane is paramount in preventing meltdowns. It also helps with jet lag as your not dealing with chronic overtiredness as well. This means bringing your kid’s favourite teddies on board for them to cuddle and snuggle.

Have a look at the awesome sleep accessories you can get for long haul flights too. Jet Kids are fantastic. So far we haven’t had any trips longer than 6 hours and haven’t needed them. They are a carry on case with wheels that your child can sit on as you pull them along. They can fit all their toys and bits and pieces inside. Then once you are on the plane, they fit in between seats. The top lifts off and converts to fill the leg space, creating a mini-bed. I have only heard parents rave about these. My niece has one, and it is brilliant for the long flights they go on. I want them for the boys.

17. Water, Formula, and Snacks

Parents know the key to avoiding many tantrums is quality snacks and treats. These are good for the plane trip and also good for when you arrive at your destination. If you are going on holiday, having snacks already with you prevents you from finding yourself with tired, hungry, cranky babies and toddlers. Keep the kids well hydrated and well-fed. This helps them sleep as well and avoid worse jet lag than average.

18. Make the Most of It

You might have a few early mornings. Make the most of it. Head out to a park, pick up some Maccas along the way and enjoy. Make sure you get a good bedtime, and in the next few days, try to push the morning out by 15 or 20 minutes every morning.

19. Try out the Timeshifter – the Jet Lag App 

I’m going to give this a go on our flight to New Zealand next month. I find a 5-hour time difference really hard to manage—getting up when it is usually 1 am and then being tired very late in the evening. It is a tough few days. The Timeshifter app helps you to adjust your circadian rhythms before you leave and on the plane so that you don’t experience any jet lag.

I don’t think it’s advisable for children as the app has me waking up at 4 am on the day of our flight. Not a great idea for kids, but doable for me. I’m thinking it could be helpful so that I’m not tired and exhausted when we arrive, allowing me to be more patient and understanding with the boys. It tells you when to expose yourself to light, dark, when to have caffeine and when not to. The app helps you to shift your wake up and bedtime before you go.

20. Wake Them Up

The biggest myth of all time—Never Wake a Sleeping Baby. There are times that you should wake your baby or toddler, especially to help avoid jet lag. They just might not be able to keep their eyes open any longer. Let them have a nap, but don’t let them have a 6-hour snooze in the middle of the day. They might feel happy and ready to go when they wake up, but it will probably be 10 pm, and then your kids will be up all night. Give them an hour and work on a normal bedtime at local time. If they are struggling to get up in the morning, let them have a little lie-in, but not till noon. Get up and get outside, let the sunshine and breakfast tell you and your babies it is daytime.

When You Get Home

Living in Bali, we take a lot of flights with our boys. The only thing I am very firm on is heading straight back to our normal routine when we get home. Things will have deviated on holidays—late nights, skipped naps, sharing beds, and super early mornings. But when we are back home, it is bedtime as usual. We are not on holidays anymore. I find that the boys always adjust back to our regular routine quickly with no problems. This is part of what makes the holidays so fun, throwing your regular routine to the wind and enjoying the chaos. Saying yes more, saying no less. 

Plan for your kids to have jet lag, to be extra tired, to be extra grumpy, and work this into your holiday as best you can.

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