Traveling with kids can be tiring for the whole family. One major culprit is crossing time zones; it can wreak havoc not only on sleep routines, but general behavior as well. As I mentioned in 11 Sleep Tips for Traveling with Children, you have two options: if you are only crossing one or two time zones for a couple of days, consider remaining on your home time zone to make the transitions easier for everyone. But if you are crossing multiple time zones for a longer period, the key to beating jet lag for children, as well as adults, is to shift to the new time zone as soon as possible–maybe even before you get there!
Here are my top tips to help your family get back on track fast and with as few meltdowns as possible!
If you like to plan ahead, you can start the transition to the new time zone a few days before you leave. These tips will ensure your child is at or close to the new time zone prior to leaving which can make travel and sleep easier.
Here’s how it works: Start about 4-7 days before your departure (depending on how many times zones you are traveling), and shift nap times, mealtimes, and bedtime in 15 minute increments either earlier or later depending on what direction you are going.
For example, if you are traveling West crossing two time zones, bedtime will be 2 hours later than usual. To prepare in advance, begin to shift meal times, nap times, and bedtime later by 15 minutes per day for 7 days. When you arrive at your destination, you will already be at or close to the new time zone.
If you are traveling East by two time zones, bedtime will be two hours earlier than usual. That means that prior to to departure, you will shift meal and sleep times earlier by 15 minutes per day for 7 days.
Advance planning isn’t for everyone, nor does everyone have the time to do it. Don’t worry, your child will adjust to the new time zone with the following tips.
If you are Westward bound:
Light exposure: Exposure to light at key times can help your child avoid jet lag and make a faster shift to the new time zone. When traveling west, seek afternoon light and avoid bright light early morning in your new setting. Make make sure your child’s room is as dark as possible so those early morning rays don’t wake him. If black out curtains aren’t available, black garbage bags can do the trick! You can even find an app that recommends light exposure at different times of day to help with the adjustment.
Bedtimes: When crossing 2-3 time zones, say a trip from one coast to another, attempt to keep your child awake until his normal bedtime hour occurs. The more time zones crossed, the harder this will be. Aim for 30-45 minutes later each night and expect your child will take a few nights to adjust. If you travel from New York to California and your child usually falls asleep at 7:00 p.m, he will be tired at 4:00 p.m. Try to keep him awake until at least 5:00 P.M. on your first night, using late afternoon light exposure to help out; the next night your goal should be closer to 6:00 p.m.. By the third night or fourth night, he should fall asleep at close to his normal bedtime in the new time zone.
Morning wake times: When traveling West, expect earlier wake times: try to allow children to stay in their bed until a “reasonable” hour, but be flexible. You will most likely be waking earlier too! In a few days, wake times should resume to their normal time as long as you don’t respond to the too early calls the first few days after you arrive.
Nap times: Try to stick to a nap schedule as much as possible. When going West, your child will probably be tuckered out earlier than usual during the day, but still try to keep her usual nap time. If you travel from New York to California and she usually takes an afternoon nap at 1:00 p.m., then she will be tired as early as 10:00 a.m. the first day or so. Do everything possible to keep her going until as close to 1:00 p.m.as possible, without allowing her to become too overtired. If you need to put her down around 10:30-11:30 a.m. the first day, go ahead, but then push her another 30-45 minutes later the next day. Within three days she should be sleeping at her usual time. Also, don’t allow her to nap too long, which is tempting after a particularly long trip. You may have to wake him from a nap no later than 3:30-4:00pm to ensure a reasonable bedtime.
If you are heading East:
Light exposure: When traveling east, seek morning light and avoid bright light in the afternoon, to help advance your child’s biological clock.
Bedtimes: Eastward travel is always a bit more challenging for adults as well as children. Your child may not be tired at her usual bedtime at first, though long days of travel often wear them out! Try to get her in bed close to her usual bedtime. To get her to bed earlier than usual, rely on a soothing bedtime routine, a dark room, and some white noise to help you set the stage. Again, it may take a few days of preparation to shift the bedtime earlier in 30-45 minute increments to reach the “new” bedtime. If you travel from California to New York and your child usually falls asleep at 7:00 p.m., then she may not be tired until close to 10:00 p.m., New York time, on the first night. Use your bedtime cues (darkness, white noise, routines) to help her fall asleep around 9:30p.m. the first night and then move it 30-45 minutes earlier the next night. By the third or fourth night, she should fall asleep at her usual bedtime.
Wake times: When traveling East, avoid the temptation to allow your child to sleep in! Wake your child at the usual wake time so her body can adjust to the new time; also, allow for lots of light and activity in the mornings to help reset her biological clock.
Nap times: Again, aim for naps at your child’s usual time. Using the California to New York example, expect that your child won’t be tired at his usual 1:00 p.m. nap time because it will only be 10:00 a.m. according to his internal clock. But again, use a combination of a lot of morning light and activity, followed by a dark room, and a consistent bedtime routine to get her to fall asleep close to that time. If you want to put her down a bit later the first day, try to move the time as close to 1:00 pm as possible in 30-45 minute increments over a few days.
Author: Dr. Rebecca Kempton, M.D.
After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from Dartmouth and an M.D. from Cornell Medical School, Dr. Rebecca Kempton worked for several years as a medical director for healthcare technology and pharmaceutical companies before becoming certified as a pediatric sleep specialist and starting her own business, Baby Sleep Pro. Using a variety of behavioral techniques, she customizes sleep solutions based on individual family goals and children’s temperaments and coaches families to a better night’s sleep. Dr. Kempton works with clients both nationally and globally by phone, Skype, and email and with home visits. She lives in Chicago, with her husband and three children, ages 8 and under. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.babysleeppro.com and follow her on facebook.com/babysleeppro and twitter @babysleeppro