Jet lag occurs when your internal clock is at odds with local time, which happens when crossing into new time zones. For a while my family was changing time zones every few months – there is a 2-hour time difference between Papua New Guinea and Malaysia. No biggie. I just had B skip a nap or two and he’s down at a normal bedtime within a few days.
Going back and forth between the grandparents’ houses in the States and our home in South East Asia, however, makes us battle a whopping 17-hour time difference. So we’re not just slightly off schedule – we’re waaay off. And trust me, dealing with jet lag as a family makes for some tense moments.
Here are some things to know and do to make jet lag easier on your kids (and you!)
- Decide if you want to get on local time. A good rule is if the time difference is less than 3-hours, don’t bother trying to adjust (unless you will be there for more than a week.) It just isn’t worth it the disruption in routine.
- Realize that the direction of travel can make a difference and plan for it:
Heading west (ie: New York to Seattle) is generally easier since you are gaining time and can keep them up until it’s time for bed. For example, they will want to go to bed at 5 pm in Seattle, as this is 8 pm in NYC, but keep them up until 7 pm or so, and gradually move it later and later over the next few nights.
When heading east (ie: Seattle to New York) getting your kids down at normal time may be a challenge as it’s 3 hours earlier at home. Instead of trying to force a local bedtime the first night or two, let them stay up until they are tired enough to sleep, but really focus on waking them at an appropriate time the next morning.
- Take things very easy the first few days in a new time zone. Plan on sleep being somewhat unpredictable and your child’s behavior to be less than angelic. It’s better to wait on that costly tour or museum trip than have it turn into a tantrum disaster thanks to overtired kids (or adults.)
- If you are traveling for an event, a wedding for example, try to get there a few days early to allow time to adjust. This is certain to make the event – and trip altogether – more enjoyable.
- Spend a lot of time in the natural daylight. Exposure to light helps our bodies reset their internal clocks; so make an effort to play outside, particularly during the first few days in a new place. Exposure to dark at the corresponding time helps as well, so try to keep bedrooms dark, even for naps.
- Try to eat major meals at the correct local time. Even if they aren’t super hungry, getting them into the rhythm helps the transition happen faster – remember to offer snacks in between if they need it.
- Some sleep experts recommend shifting toward your upcoming time zone before you leave your current one. On her blog The Sleep Lady, Kim West, recommends you:
“Make Small Adjustments If you have time, you can use the same techniques that I recommend for Daylight Savings. If you are traveling to a time zone where you’ll be putting your children to bed later than “normal,” take a week to slowly shift your entire routine later in 10 or 15-minute increments. That means bedtime, naptime, and mealtimes.
If you are traveling to a time zone where you children will be going to bed earlier than “normal,” then you want to take a week to slowly shift your routine 10 to 15 minutes earlier over the course of a week. Doing this ahead of your travel dates ensures that your children will already be acclimated to the new time zone when you arrive, making sleep a bit easier for everyone.”
- If an early wake up does happen, and there’s a good chance it will, keep things quiet and dark for as long as possible and gently remind them that it’s still nighttime.
- Remember, adults have a harder time with jet lag than kids. Youth = resilience. This has proven very true for us (THANKFULLY!!)
- Also remember that it takes time on both ends; don’t expect things to go right back to normal once you’re home, but know that sleep will probably get back on track within the week.