Helping Children Cope with Jet Lag: A Guide for Nannies

aeroplane flying with newborn
Blog contributed by the baby expert and founder of Newborn Care Solutions, Tonya Sakowicz

Time zone changes are a reality of travel and even for adults, can be outright brutal. However, at least we understand what is going on and can do our best to power through it. For children, however, especially really young children, understanding what is going on and powering through are a whole different ball game. Let’s take a look at some ways to help this process go smoother for everyone.

The first thing the adults around the children can do is make sure they are headed into this trip well-rested and that throughout the travel and adjustment, they do what they can to prioritize their own sleep; if this means arriving a couple days in advance of your sight-seeing or tours, flying in business or first class instead of coach, taking a day or two off work before and after a trip or whatever else you might might need to do, when you, the responsible adult, are more well-rested, you are then better able to help the small person in your life with their potential jet-lag.

Second. Decide if you are going to stay in your home time zone or adapt to the new time zone. In large part this decision should be based on two things: how long you will be in the new time zone and how much of a time zone difference it will be. Generally the longer you are gone and/or the farther you are traveling outside of your home time zone, the more you should work to adapt to the new environment and if the trip is super short and close to home, then sticking with your home time zone may be a smarter option.

Let’s assume you are staying within a 3 hour time zone difference for 5 days. In most cases, unless there is a can’t miss event like a wedding, it is easier to just stay within your home time zone. So instead of a 7pm bedtime, you just adjust to 10pm in the new zone and get up a little later in the morning. Your child will still get tired at the time they would at home and you won’t have to switch much up. And if you need to shift 30 minutes one direction or the other to accommodate something like a dinner reservation, most children can handle that small adaptation with little to no issue.

However, if you have decided a family trip to the Maldives is in your near future and since it is potentially 20+ hours of travel time and 8-12 hours time difference, you have opted to stay 2 weeks, it would be super impractical to stay up all night there and sleep all day. And it defeats the purpose of your trip. It is a big transition. But there are some things you can do prior to your trip and upon arrival to help the time zone adaptation go smoother for you and your child. Let’s explore them.

- Starting about a week to ten days prior to departure, begin to move yourself closer to the time zone of your destination by adjusting your (and your child’s) bedtime and waking schedule by 15-30 minutes every 2-3 days to get you 1-3 time zones closer to your destination scheduling. Even such a small move of 1-2 hours can make the adjustment upon arrival easier.

- When you board the plane, adjust your watch or phone clock to the timezone of your destination. Then do your best to sleep on the plane during the “night” of your destination. Use soft wrap headphones with soothing sleep sounds, wear comfortable clothing, pull down the window shades, wear an eye mask, etc… (some people even suggest taking a unisom or similar to aid with sleep but of course, if you are responsible for a child you cannot do that) but do whatever you can to create an environment that is conducive to sleep for you and your child, even if everyone around you is awake. If it is within your budget, splurging on business or first class can be huge in helping this to happen as most long-haul flights offer lie flat seats to allow for better rest . And set an alarm to wake you up in “the morning” of your destination time zone. Some seasoned travelers recommend staying awake the entire flight so you arrive at your destination exhausted and then force yourself to stay up until bedtime in that new time zone. However, this is hard enough for adults to do and I have not yet met a child who could manage that, so keep that in mind if this is a method you are considering.

- When you arrive at your destination, do your best to regulate the day just like you want it to go for the rest of the trip. So put your child down at nap time and wake them up when their nap should be over–if that nap is approximately 90 minutes at home, then wake them after 90 minutes. And same for bedtime and morning wake up for the first few days. The more you keep them on the same type of schedule as they are used to, but push it into the new time zone, the faster they will adapt. However, be a bit flexible and if you need to push it an hour or so in either direction and adjust by 30 minutes or so every couple days, that will work for most children.
Bring some familiar things from home: a favorite blanket or toy (don’t lose it though!) and favorite pajamas or bedtime books that help things feel similar to their home sleep environment can make a big difference vs.every single thing being different. Children are often creatures of habit and the more at home they feel, the faster they adapt.

- Get children as much fresh air, sunshine and activity as possible during the daytime hours; the more physically tired they are from activities and being outdoors, the faster they will adapt to the new time zone.
Ground them. What?? No, not like what we had growing up for disobedience. Instead, this is a form of connection with the earth itself that helps our bodies adapt faster to time zones (Chevalier et al., 2012). So get them outside and in connection with the ground. Bare feet on the sand and in the grass anywhere it is safe. Babies stripped down to their diapers and placed on a thin blanket. You can even purchase ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing’ shoes that allow for the transfer of the earth’s magnetism to the body and it can help with faster time zone adaptation. For smaller kids, leather shoes like Robeez can be a great option! Grounding is one of my most successful go-to’s for time zone adaptation.

- Make sure that their nutrition and hydration needs are well-met. Often a new environment means changes in diet and this can impact digestion. Uncomfortable digestion can impact good sleep. So while treats on a trip are great and a fun part of it, keeping an eye on balance and hydration can help a lot.

- Practice these habits for yourself also; if you are not adapting to the time zone and getting your rest, it will be harder for you to support your little one.

And finally, prior to your return, begin to slowly implement the practices you did before leaving to help your body be ready for its return to your home time zone and remember to allow a day or two upon return, if possible, before getting back into your full regular routine.

Jet lag is real and has the reputation it does for a reason, but with intentionality and a little planning, you can do plenty to help offset the effects of it to a great deal and make your trip and that of your little one much more enjoyable.

Happy Travels!

This blog has been kindly written by Tonya Sakowicz, founder of Newborn Care Solutions.

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