Sarah Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep.
She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.
Helping Kids Get Over Jet Lag
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for jet lag. The fact is you’ll just have to slowly trudge through it, adjusting your family’s sleep time by about an hour each night. However, there are some tricks that can take the edge off and help kids get adjusted with minimal fuss.
Why Jet Lag Wrecks Kids’ Sleep
Jet lag occurs when you travel rapidly across time zones. It causes a misalignment between the body’s circadian rhythms and what you’re experiencing in the environment, such as morning sunshine when your body expects it to still be dark.
When adults or children experience jet lag, it can cause fatigue, daytime sleepiness, poor mood, impaired performance, and insomnia. That means not only are your kids tired and cranky, you’re probably tired and cranky, too — and not in your best shape to get through tough moments with your kids. And of course, it can be especially difficult to deal with kids experiencing jet lag when you’re traveling and out of your familiar home environment.
How You Can Avoid Jet Lag
Some families decide jet lag just isn’t worth it. There are two options if you make that decision: you can avoid traveling out of your time zone or you can avoid adjusting your family’s sleep schedule to local time.
If you avoid traveling out of your time zone, you’ll be pretty limited in your destinations. You won’t be traveling very far and may miss out on exciting destinations a time zone (or a few) away.
If you decide not to adjust your family’s sleep schedule while traveling, you’ll simply keep your children on the same sleep/wake/eat schedule as if you were still at home. This can simplify dealing with jet lag, especially if you’re spending less than a week at your destination.
However, sticking to your home sleep schedule while traveling is not always possible. For instance, when you’re traveling multiple time zones and your internal clock is more than an hour or two off of local time, you may be sending your kids to bed around the time everyone else is eating lunch. Or you may wake up so late that you miss out on half of a local attraction’s admission hours. And of course, you may pick up on time cues (sunshine in particular) that will cause jet lag as you adjust to local time whether you’re trying to do so or not.
How to Help Kids Overcome Jet Lag
The gentlest way to help kids to get over jet lag is to gradually adjust their bedtime each day. Every day, push their bedtime one to two hours closer to local time until you’re aligned with the sleep schedule for the local time zone. Of course, there are some tricks that can make the transition easier.
Adjust sleep times at home before vacation: Before you leave for your destination, start pushing bedtimes in the direction of the bedtime you’ll need when you get to the new time zone. Move their bedtime 15 to 20 minutes each night for a week or two prior to your trip so that they’ll be used to getting to sleep at the same time as your destination.
Plan on losing a day: Adjust your expectations when you’re traveling over time zones with children. If you’re traveling on an adults-only trip, you might be able to get away with toughing it out until you recover from jet lag. But with kids, jet lag means you may be facing meltdowns and serious fatigue if you try to push through it. Don’t count on doing much, if anything, your first day or two at your destination while your family gets adjusted.
Give kids activities and exercise: While you may keep things low key on the first day, you should still get out and be active. While flying, you should let kids stretch their legs on the plane. Walk in the airport if you get a chance as well.
Watch naps carefully: Naps can and should be used to help children adjust to local time, especially if kids are obviously tired. However, it’s important that you don’t let them sleep too long if it’s not yet nighttime at your local destination. Don’t let small children sleep longer than their usual nap time. Older kids shouldn’t sleep more than 20 minutes or so. A nap should be refreshing, but not a full night’s sleep. Sleep too long, and they’ll have a hard time getting to bed at night.
Keep kids awake until bedtime: If you’re traveling to a destination where the local time is later than your time zone at home, plan on occupying children until it’s time to go to sleep. Plan activities that will keep them awake and engaged for the extra hours so that they don’t accidentally fall asleep before they should. If they go to bed too early for the local time at your destination, you may be facing some early wake times.
Pay attention to light exposure: Daylight is one of the strongest sleep cues, telling your body when it’s daytime (and time to be awake). If your child is already struggling with jet lag, don’t make it worse with poorly timed light exposure. Be careful with lights at the hotel, keeping the room dark at night and light in the daytime. Keep in mind that even a brief exposure to bright light, for example, a hotel bathroom, can make it difficult to get back to sleep. Pack a dim nightlight to use instead. In the morning, open the hotel windows so that lots of sunshine can come in. Do your best to get your family outside and in the sun in the early morning so you’ll be more alert according to the local time.
Maintain good sleep hygiene: Make sure that your family’s sleep quality is the best it can be by practicing good sleep hygiene. Avoid heavy meals and caffeine before bed. Do not allow screen time within an hour or two of bedtime. Keep the room cool, quiet, and dark, and be sure that children are sleeping in a mattress that’s appropriate for their needs.
While jet lag can be tough on anyone, children are typically resilient and bounce back from jet lag easily. Although crankiness and unusual sleep/wake times can be draining for parents, kids often get through jet lag quicker and with less trouble than adults. Be prepared, practice good sleep hygiene, and give your family time to rest as you work through jet lag at your destination.