Three different parents have asked me just this week how to handle jet lag in their baby or toddler.
It seems after a year and a half stuck at home, we are all suddenly eager to get out of our homes and in some cases, our countries.
I am there with you. We are headed east in a few days (only one hour time difference) but then to Europe later this summer.
Europe was never even on my radar for these childhood years -- jet lag is hard enough on adults -- and yet, when a unique opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t pass it by.
So here are my tips for you, and the things I will try with my own children.
1. Don’t even bother trying to transition them gradually, unless the time difference is two hours or less.
Instead, just focus on making sure your child is well-rested, well-fed, and well-exercised prior to the trip.
2. If the time difference is only 1-2 hours, by all means start moving bedtime, meals, and naps about 10 minutes later each day until you reach the desired, adjusted schedule.
3. Consider avoiding socializing and childcare for a week or two prior to travel, if you can manage it, unless your child is able to wear a mask or you can ensure to only socialize outside.
(This is more to avoid a COVID diagnosis that could cancel your trip, rather than a true health risk, though congestion and clogged ears can be miserable for a young child on a plane.)
4. On the day of travel… all bets are off. Do whatever you have to do to survive. Bring alllllll the snacks. Offer unlimited screen time if your child enjoys it. Bring lots of little wrapped gifts -- the Dollar Store is a great place to pick these up. Bandaids, cling films, post-it notes, tiny containers of play-doh -- wrap it all up. Bring a new gift out every 15-20 minutes, or as needed. Record yourselves on the plane on your phone and play it back.
Survival is key, here. Good nutrition and award-winning parenting are not.
5. If you can afford it, a separate seat for your under-two child is a great idea, but you probably already knew that. If your child naps well in the car seat in the car, lug the car seat onto the plane so the child has a familiar place to nap. Safety is a nice perk but wasn’t my primary reason for bringing it on board!
If you are flying across an ocean and your child is small enough, a bulkhead bassinet is amazing.
6. Try to initiate a nap on the plane about the same time as you would start a nap at home, if logistics permit. Try to keep your child awake before boarding the plane unless doing so would result in massive overtiredness.
7. When you arrive in your new location, try to initiate bedtime as early as you can, as your child will surely be overtired, no matter which direction you have traveled.
8. The next day, try to acclimate your child to the new time zone… without waking them unduly early. This will probably mean some compromising on schedule -- just do your best.
9. Expect there will be a few ugly days of overtired behavior and wonky schedules. Keep your own -- and your family’s/friends’ -- expectations low. Warn them ahead of time because people who aren't parenting a young child -- even if they have done so in the past -- don't always remember how hard it is to travel with a little one, never mind across time zones.
Expect your child to be a monster some of the time, and be pleasantly surprised if this doesn’t turn out to be the case.
Also plan that meals will be extra challenging. Bring some familiar foods so your child has something to eat in case things are just too different while she is exhausted.
Do not attempt restaurant meals or anything else unduly challenging with a toddler. You will both end up frustrated.
Playground meet-ups are a safer bet.
10. Plan for plenty of unstructured time outside. Exposure to daylight will help to reset your child's body clock, as does ample opportunities for exercise.
11. Check with your pediatrician to see if melatonin is safe to use. It can be a miracle for resetting bedtime either when you arrive or when your return home, depending on which direction you are flying, but not all health care professionals feel it is safe.
If your healthcare provider approves, I recommend the Tired Teddies brand because it's a lower dose of melatonin than any other I've found, just 0.3 mg versus 1 mg or more. And oftentimes, just a half a tablet suffices for my six-year-old. Try a half and see if it works for your child.
Likewise, check with your pediatrician if you are considering using Benadryl to initiate a nap or a bedtime -- some children get ramped up instead of sleepy from it. Try it at home before you try it during travel, just in case things go terribly wrong.
And along with the flight recommendations, if your child suffers from motion sickness (whether car, plane, or boat) -- as my nine-year-old does -- check out Dramamine chewables. They have been life changing for us. Just make sure to give the medication 45 minutes prior to travel.
12. Go with the flow. If your child is up at 3 am bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you can keep the lights off and try to be boring but at some point, you may have to face the inevitable and get up too. Or offer screen time in these special circumstances to save yourself -- you will go back to the old rules once you get home.
13. When you get back home, you may have to ease gently back into the old schedule but be sure to immediately go back to the old sleep rules -- if you didn’t bed share before, end it immediately. If you only feeding once at night before the trip, go back to that.
A friend talks about the “half-life of vacation” -- if you were gone 10 days, expect 5 days to return to baseline. But the more time zones you crossed, and the more exceptions you made to sleep rules, the longer it will take to get back to normal. Don’t panic. Just stay consistent. Things will eventually go back to normal.
14. And finally, someone asked me “ShouId I take my baby to see family in Europe?” This was a question I asked myself, and my “baby” isn’t a baby!
There’s no one right answer to this question, of course. That said, consider that we have all been locked down for a very long time, and most of us have desperately missed seeing our loved ones. Many of you have babies and toddlers that have never met close family members in person. And we don't know what the future holds, especially in terms of the virus but also, in general in life. I’m the first to say that sleep is important… but so is living fully. Life is short. It’s okay to make exceptions to the rules sometimes. Just get back to them as quick as you can.
If you are struggling to get your child's sleep on track, you aren't alone. Set up a free chat and find out how to get your family the sleep you deserve. Good sleep is everything.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.