How to Survive Jet Lag With Your Baby or Toddler
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If your baby or toddler is finally sleeping through the night, the last thing you want to do is disrupt that hard-earned sleep pattern with jet lag. But whether you need to travel to see family or found an excellent Companion Voucher redemption to the Maldives, a few days of baby jet lag on each end is worth the trip — especially if you come prepared.
As someone who has taken a baby and toddler around the world, I will let you in on a few of my baby jet lag secrets to help you survive and maybe even embrace baby jet lag.
Preparation Is Key
There are a surprising number of things you can do ahead of time to prepare for your baby’s first few days of jet lag. As part of your travel planning process, try bringing items from home on the trip, take note of the flight you book and consider carefully where you stay the first few days.
Day Flight or Night Flight
We choose overnight flights for our family because we all sleep well on planes, but some families swear by flying during the day to arrive at night and then get a full night’s sleep at their destination. Consider your flight times based on which you’d prefer — a long flight entertaining awake children or disrupted sleep when you arrive. Check out the TPG UK guide to flying long-haul with kids here.
Stay in a Closer Time Zone or Plan a Stopover
If the thought of adjusting up to 11 time zones is just too much for you, don’t dismiss that you can travel to most of Europe and Africa and only change one or two time zones while still getting a big holiday in. Many families favour the jet lag buster of adding a stopover on long flights to Oceania. A few days in Dubai or Singapore can help you adjust en route and increase your family’s country count. Likewise, staying in Los Angeles en route to Hawaii can break things up.
Choose Your Accommodation Carefully
As your baby or toddler will be waking up at odd hours for the first few days, you may want to ensure you’re in a comfortable and private space with access to food. When I travel alone with my boys, it’s often to see friends. I now make sure we are close friends if I stay with them the first few days because I could have two tiny screaming children waking up their household at 4am. We like to have our own space and a private pool or at least a bathtub for the first few days.
Prepare Your ‘Family Jet Lag Party’
We have a ‘jet lag party’ routine, and it’s now part of the fun of travelling as a family. Once my boys wake up we all get into bathrobes (or towels), take a bath or do a late night swim then eat snacks and play puzzles in bed together until it’s time to crash approximately two hours later. Our best jet lag party yet was at the Four Seasons Seychelles in the property’s stunning tub (a real splurge, and bookable with Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts).
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Another article I wrote on the Seychelles came out this week, transporting me back to @fsseychelles and the best bathtub in the world. . We “write to experience life twice” and this was trip worth experiencing over and over. . . What destination has lasted a long time with you?
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Prepare Your Early Morning Activity Options
A benefit for travelling with your early-waking baby is that you beat most of the tourists to attractions. When I flew with my boys to San Francisco last summer, they woke up at 4am the first day, increasing by about one hour each day. The upside — we were the first people in the park, took the earliest boat tour and saw a lot before that first naptime. So while a sunrise tour of Doi Suthep outside Chiang Mai may not usually suit you, it can mean you have an incredible experience made more accessible by jet lag.
Prepare a ‘Jet Lag Survival Bag’
I bring a ‘jet lag survival bag’ for wherever we are staying with blackout blinds, hair clips to close any gaps in curtains, a travel white noise machine (apps are useful too), snacks and milk for the middle-of-the-night wake-ups, and a special quiet toy or game. We don’t use screens in the night because it wakes our kids up, but I’ve been known to give one to my pre-schooler at 6am if my toddler is still asleep.
Prepare for Nap Stations
Like the jet lag survival bag, I bring what I may need to create a nap place anywhere. Depending on our holiday destination, we carry a sun tent and infant bed like our Sleepyhead or our Babyzen Yoyo.
Prepare for Your Return
Know what you’re going to do with the kids — and yourself — for the first few days after you arrive back home, as jet lag strikes both ways. When travelling back to the UK on an overnight flight, we often go straight from the airport to our boys’ nursery so that they can fall right back into their routine (and I can fall right into bed). If we land at night, we plan to put the kids to bed at a reasonable hour, and we’re straight back into the routine the next day — even if it means waking them up. The one time I break my rule is that I never, ever wake a sleeping baby. Also, consider whether you want to return a day or two early to spend time adjusting rather than throwing your family right back into daily life.
Once You Get There
Babies experience jet lag much like adults. While you can get bogged down in the exact science of jet lag, there are a few tools available for babies when changing time zones that can speed the process up for your little one’s circadian rhythm. The weapons against baby jet lag are naps, activity, food, and light.
Naps Headed East to West (UK to North or South America, Middle East/Asia to the UK)
Heading west is often considered the smoother transition of the two directions and is sometimes a day flight, meaning you land and it’s evening but feels like the middle of the night.
Rosey Davidson, a paediatric sleep consultant and founder of Just Chill Baby Sleep, says that naps can help a baby adjust faster than their parents.
“A late nap can help babies recover when flying east to west, essentially making their day a little longer,” Rosey told TPG UK.
Once you’ve arrived in your destination headed west, let your baby take a short nap, then have food and enter the bedtime routine.
Naps Headed West to East (UK to Middle East/Asia; North or South America to the UK)
These are often overnight flights to and from the UK, so I let my baby sleep during the early part of the day and then focus on trying to keep my baby awake long enough to prevent a middle-of-the-night wake up.
Davidson says not to plan on using naps in the same way. “West to east can be a little trickier — go with the flow and get lots of natural light”.
We inevitably have one night with a solid 3am-5am fully awake baby session headed in this direction, now renamed the family jet lag party.
Getting fresh air and light can help adjust the baby to the new day after you’ve survived your first evening. Also, you’re likely to wake up very early for the first few days. Likewise, your baby is going to want to fall asleep earlier than usual so using natural light and air can help keep him or her alert until a reasonable time for bed. I consider this to be 5pm and try to push it later each night.
You can use activity to keep babies and toddlers awake during the day. For babies, you can visit swings, playgrounds and their usual play routine. For toddlers and older, it’s going to mean a higher level of stimulation like amusement parks, zoos and water parks. I try to find places with a pool or beach nearby or snow activities in the winter.
I’ve used food as my No. 1 tool for baby jet lag, particularly when I was breastfeeding. When I needed my son to sleep, I would feed him to sleep. While we all know that feeding until a baby is asleep is not recommended by sleep consultants, Robinson assured me that “milk feeds take baby’s lead”.
As your baby or toddler’s clock is off, you may need to offer food more often than usual or at odd hours, so pack snacks at all times. My sons drink milk before bed so I can still use that as a trigger for sleep. Remember to pack favourite cups if your toddler drinks from a particular cup for milk (I’ve made that mistake to my detriment).
Good news — babies often adjust within a few days to jet lag. However, some babies and toddlers are just thrown a bit by travel and want to sleep with you or generally don’t sleep well away from home. It does not mean that your child has regressed.
Your baby will go back to his or her sleep routine at home. Take advantage of the extra cuddles or the sunrises you wouldn’t usually see as it’s all part of the adventure of travelling with kids. I promise you that it is worth it.
Featured photo by Emily Delamater.