Sigh, jet lag. Before you had children, jet lag meant grogginess, a sleepless night or two and extra coffee. Jet lag after kids….can be downright torture. There’s nothing worse than feeling the weight of jet lag exhaustion while your baby bounces off the walls at 3 am.
So if you’re nervous about an upcoming international trip with your baby, or you’ve just returned home from one, I sympathize. I’ve done three transatlantic trips with my daughter, all before the age of 3. Two of them were without my husband. And I lived to tell the tale! If you’re desperate to know how to survive jet lag with your baby or toddler, look no further.
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The Best Way To Handle Baby / Toddler Jet Lag
The goal with overcoming jet lag is to reset your baby’s body clock to sleep, wake and eat at new times- with minimal fuss. The best way to do this is to use light and exercise, and also pay attention to sleep and meal times.
Many people advise allowing one day for your baby to adjust for each hour time difference you travelled. If your trip is less than four hours time difference, that’s a great way to help your baby adjust.
But, if your trip includes a big time change, say 8 hours, and your trip is only 12 days, that’s not very practical. Instead, my advice has always been:
Allow 2-3 days for your baby to adjust, then get baby on the new schedule.
If your baby is younger than 6 months, consider yourself lucky! Young babies naturally sleep so often during the day that they adjust more easily. For the sake of ease, I’ll say “baby” but this applies to toddlers and preschoolers as well. (Adjust food, naps, and toy recommendations as appropriate.)
Here’s your 3-Day Guide to Surviving Baby / Toddler Jet Lag
Day 1: Your goal is simply to survive
If you land in the morning:
- On the flight over, allow your baby to sleep as much as he can. Whether it’s in the airline bassinet, in his car seat, on top of you- whatever works! Bring along a lightweight dark blanket (or use the airplane blanket) and make a canopy above your sleeping baby to block out any light.
- Once you arrive at your destination, let your baby nap when he’s tired. But try your hardest to not let him nap much longer than he would normally at home. So if he typically naps 3 hours/day at home, limit his naps to 3.5-4 hours today. The reasoning is simple: If he sleeps all day, he’ll be up all night, making it even harder to reset his body clock. It’s better to give him an early bedtime, like 6 pm.
- Make sure baby eats enough today. Offer snacks every hour or two, including water and milk. He’s going to feel groggy and he may have an upset stomach, so bring along his favorite snacks to entice him to eat. This keeps his energy levels up and encourages him to sleep longer tonight (rather than waking from hunger.)
- Don’t spend all day in the hotel room because you’re too tired to go out. Get out and explore, even if it’s just the local neighborhood. Natural light will help reset everyone’s body clocks and give you energy.
If you land in the evening:
- On the flight over, try to keep baby awake for the last few hours of the flight.
- Offer snacks and liquids often on the plane to keep baby hydrated.
- Once you arrive at your destination, do the same routine you would at home to prepare baby for bed. Typically this includes dinner, bath, and bedtime routine. Bring along anything that baby associates with sleeping like a stuffed animal, sleep sack, bedtime books, etc…
Related: Learn how to create a Peaceful Nightly Ritual (a bedtime routine) in my Exhausted Mom’s Starter Kit
The First Night
Your baby is going to wake up during the night. Maybe a lot. Perhaps he’ll want to play and be awake for hours. Prepare yourself mentally. Your goal tonight is to keep the lights off and encourage quiet, non-stimulating play.
If baby seems hungry, offer a snack like yogurt, cheese, nut butters (as appropriate depending on age.) Anything with protein and fat to keep him full. No candy or simple sugars which could give him a surge of energy.
Try your hardest to get him back to sleep. But if it’s clear that he can’t sleep, keep the lights dimmed and read books together or let him play with “quiet toys” appropriate for his age. Soft blocks or rattles (for young babies) and coloring books and Play Doh (for toddlers) work well.
I know how hard it is when you’re exhausted, but try to avoid giving your toddler the iPad. The light it emits sends stimulating impulses to the brain, making it difficult to sleep. If you’re desperate for an electronic babysitter, it’s better to turn on the TV at a low volume. Try to limit TV to 30 minutes, though, then encourage the quiet toys again. If you have an older toddler or preschooler you may end up offering bribes like “I promise you can have an ice cream after breakfast tomorrow, but you have to close your eyes and go to sleep now.” Not that I’ve ever done this…
Day 2: Start a gentle routine
- If last night wasn’t terrible, wake your baby up for the day at a decent hour (like 8-9 am) If you were up most of the night, it’s ok to sleep in, but I recommend you start your day by 11 am latest. Otherwise, you’ll just be extending the problem…
- Get outside! The best way to help everyone adjust to the new time zone is bright, natural light and exercise. Find a playground or children’s museum to help baby burn off energy and have lots of play time.
- Work toward having your meals based on the new time zone. If baby won’t eat a full meal at the right time, that’s ok. Offer snacks and hydrating drinks every 1-2 hours. Feeding baby often helps his body adjust to the new “daytime.”
- Allow your baby to nap today when he’s tired. But, just like yesterday, don’t let him nap longer than he would normally at home. It’s better to limit napping and give him an early bedtime.
- Bring along the stroller or baby carrier for naps. If the whole family is napping at the hotel, set your alarm! The last thing you want is an accidental 4 hour nap, throwing off everyone’s nighttime sleep.
- Give your baby a decent bedtime tonight. If he was up early, put him to bed early while you enjoy take-out in the hotel room. Your bedtime tonight will help set the pattern for the rest of your trip, so make sure it’s an appropriate time (7-9 pm is reasonable.)
Your baby will probably wake tonight. Offer a small snack if he’s hungry and do your best to encourage him to fall back asleep. You may need to pull out the “quiet toys” again.
Day 3: Tighten up your schedule
No matter how last night went, you want to wake your baby at a reasonable hour. 8-9 am is perfect. When teaching babies to sleep well (in general) I always recommend a consistent morning wake-up time. This helps naps, meals and bedtime fall into a predictable pattern. This isn’t because I’m allergic to fun. Quite the opposite! This helps your baby adjust to sleeping at night and being awake during the day- which gives everyone more energy for sightseeing fun!
Recommended Vacation Schedule:
- Wake baby by 9 am latest.
- Meals at normal times (with hydrating snacks in between.)
- Lots of time outside exploring and playing.
- Naps at normal times or when baby seems tired. Limit napping to no more than baby is allowed at home.
- Decent bedtime, 7-9 pm is ideal.
Baby should sleep pretty well tonight. Keep his room dark and if he wakes, do everything in your power to get him back to sleep. Tonight’s goal is no TV or iPad.
Day 4 and on: Stick to the loose routine
By day 4, everyone should be feeling pretty good and well-adjusted. As long as you stick to the loose routine of Day 3, you should be good to go!