Surviving Jet Lag in Babies & Toddlers

So you want to travel to some distant land, with your baby or toddler, and you wonder—What’s the deal with jet lag in babies and toddlers?  Or maybe you’ve been on a long-haul flight with your baby or toddler and the jet lag aftermath did not go well?

Well, I’m living proof that jet lag in babies and toddlers doesn’t have to be that painful.  My son and I traveled on five transatlantic flights before he turned two, and I lived to tell about it.  Managing jet lag in babies is all about a little planning, managing expectations, and A LOT of flexibility!   It is inevitable and unavoidable, but it is not a reason not to travel.  It’s a necessary evil for the privilege of going to faraway lands, so let’s dive into how to tackle it!

What Are the Causes of Jet Lag

Understanding what jet lag is, helps to craft a plan on how to combats its effects.  Jet lag is a temporary sleep problem afflicting people who travel across multiple time zones.  Crossing multiple time zones, rapidly, disrupts circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep/wake cycles (which can be, let’s face it, already tenuous in small children).

How Long Does It Take For A Baby to Recover From Jet Lag?

The rule of thumb is that it will take your body one day to adjust for every hour of time change.  So in theory, a 6 hour time change takes your body ~ 6 days to work itself out.

In my experience jet lag in babies and toddlers only last ~2-3 days.  And the bulk of the battle is fought during the first two nights.  I find that the initial sleep disruption is more pronounced in my son (than for me); however, in the long run, he ‘recovers’ from it more quickly.

Symptoms of Jet Lag in Babies & Toddlers

Knowing what to expect from jet lag, in your baby and toddler, will help to manage your expectations of the first few days.  Common symptoms include:

  • disturbed sleep
  • insomnia
  • daytime fatigue/lethargy
  • difficulty staying focused
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • mood disruption
  • headaches, and
  • irritability

Typically, for babies and toddlers, the two most pronounced and disruptive symptoms are disturbed sleep patterns and insomnia.

In my experience jet lag is worse when flying eastward (for example, from the US to Europe).  Flying east you are ‘losing’ time; while flying west you ‘gain’ time.  I find that it takes ½ as long to recover from jet lag when flying westward (ex/ from Europe to the US).  When we fly east, the main problems for my son are trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and mid-night wakings. When we fly west, the main issue is early risings.

So, What Can You Do To Combat Jet Lag in Babies & Toddlers?

Tips for Minimizing Jet Lag in Babies & Toddlers:

1. Be Well Rested When You Depart

Get yourself and your baby the sleep you need the week before departure.  Make sure that your baby or toddler is getting all of its naps, and that s/he is getting to bed on time.  This is not the week to skip three naps or go to a few dinner parties and push back bedtime.  This is one of the few things that is within your control, so get that sleep!

2. Try To Get As Much Sleep On the Plane As Possible

Getting sleep on the plane may seem obvious, but I’m serious.  I book my flight times based on which will work better for my kid’s sleep schedule. 

baby sleeping at airport prior to flight-minimizing jet lag in babies
Baby Sleeping at Airport
Prior to Boarding

For example, Chicago-Dublin, on Aerlingus, there are typically two options, a 4 pm, and an 8:30 pm flight.  I tried the 4 pm flight once, and it didn’t go over well.  My son cried the entire time; I never booked the 4 pm trip again.

My rationale in trying the 4 pm was that the 8:30 pm was past my son’s bedtime and that by the time we got him to sleep on the plane he’d be overtired.  But, as it turned out, the 4 pm flight was way too early.  

Chicago to Dublin is a 6.5-hour flight.  My son goes to bed around 7:30 pm. so even if I would have gotten him to sleep at ~8:00, on the 4 pm flight, he would only have had 2.5-1.5 hours of sleep  (not counting the last hour when they turn the lights on and serve breakfast).

With the 8:30 pm flight, once we board he has eaten already and if I can get him to sleep around 9:30 pm, he’ll get ~4.5-5.5 hrs. of sleep (not counting the last hour when they turn the lights on and serve breakfast).

Maybe I overthink things. Many times you don’t have a choice of flight times, and even if you do your kiddo may not cooperate. All this to say, if you have the option, consider departure times. If you don’t then that’s ok too; work with what you’ve got.

Remember, This Flight Isn’t About You

While you are on the flight remember: this flight isn’t about you, it’s about getting that baby to sleep.  When I used to fly internationally, solo, I looked forward to that beer or glass of wine, a good book, a few movies, and a little R&R on the plane. I enjoy flying and I used to enjoy the 8 hours of solitude.

That’s not the situation anymore. I know you’ll be tired, but I promise you that if you can get your baby or toddler to snooze on the plane things will go smoother over the next couple of days.  Get up and walk with the baby, bounce the baby, breastfeed or bottle feed that baby, do whatever you need to do to get that baby to sleep!

A tip for getting your baby or toddler to sleep on the plane is to bring a muslin blanket to cover the baby’s head. Covering the baby makes it a little darker for your kiddo.  I prefer muslin to the airplane blanket as I find that the airplane blankets can get a bit hot.

3. Get the Bassinet Row Or Consider Bringing Your Car Seat On Board

Getting the bassinet seat or bringing your car seat on board is to facilitate #2.  I am a big proponent of the bassinet row.  If your child is flying as a lap child (under 2) and your flight is trans-Atlantic, then your plane probably has bassinet seats.  Check out my post on flying internationally with a baby, to read more about the bassinet row. The bassinet row is a row where they can attach a bassinet to the wall for your baby to sleep.  Even if your child doesn’t sleep in it, you can use the bassinet to spread out a bit.

Baby in bassinet on Aerlingus trans-Atlantic flight-surviving jet lag in babies

If you have purchased a seat and your toddler is still relatively little (~1-4), I’d consider bringing the car seat onboard.  I’ve been on one trans-Atlantic flight while my son was over 2, and we brought the car seat.  My son is used to sleeping in his car seat in the car, and he sleeps well; so I figured that it might work well on the plane too.

I also know my son, and I don’t think he is ready to sleep in the big plane seat.  I think he might slump over and be uncomfortable (or want to sleep on me). So I made a calculated decision.   At some point, I’ll try no car seat.  Only you know how your child will sleep best.  So evaluate your options and make the call.

4. Stay Hydrated

Dehydration may not cause jet lag, but it can exacerbate the symptoms of jet lag. Humidity levels are low on planes that’s why they are so dry. This can lead to dehydration.  They recommend avoiding alcohol on a plane for this reason; however, I have never followed this advice.  Just stay hydrated!

5. Manage Your ‘Schedule’ by Wake Times & Naptimes

When you arrive at your destination, you have to be flexible.  My rule of thumb is to maintain our ‘schedule’ and routine by maintaining naptimes according to wake times.  For me, this is the key to managing jet lag in babies and toddlers.

Let’s say your baby is on two naps.  You arrive in London at 9 am (baby got 4 hrs. of sleep on the plane).  Then let’s say you drive 1 hour to your B&B and baby falls asleep; let’s say you let him sleep for 3 hours total. Its hard to know, but when the baby wakes up at noon, he will probably consider that ‘extra’ three hours of sleep as ‘night’ sleep.   When he wakes up his internal clock will still be looking for two naps that day.

If he wakes up at 12 pm and he has 4 hrs between naps, then his first nap will be at 4 pm (let’s say for 2 hours), and he wakes up at 6 pm.  At 10 pm, when you put him down for ‘bedtime,’ he will likely think that this is his second nap and wake up ~ 12 am.  I use this formula to gauge what is likely to happen that first night, and I am ready when my kiddo wakes up at midnight.

My advice is to focus on wake times, and the nap schedule and the rest will iron itself out. 

When your child wakes up at 12 am and thinks its party time try to put him back to sleep.  But if s/he won’t sleep don’t force it. You know you can’t make a baby or toddler sleep. Keep things quiet, read a book, grab a snack if your child is hungry, and try again in an hour or so.

Then, no matter what time everyone went to bed I’d wake everyone up around 10 am for the day and run the ‘wake time + nap time’ schedule again.

6. Get Your Eating Schedule On Track

Along with getting your naps on a ‘schedule’ try to get your eating on schedule too. Eating according to your typical schedule will help with the body’s daily rhythm.  Your child is accustomed to eating at certain times, in relation to other activities, (snack before nap, dinner before bath, etc…) so try to keep those consistent so s/he knows what to expect.

7. Get Lots Of Light Exposure

This one is pretty obvious.  Get outside as much as you can.  The more light you are exposed to the faster your body will get with the program.  Don’t stay cooped up in museums (or your hotel) all day, the first few days.

8. Allow 2 Days/2 Nights to Adjust

This is where the actual battle scars come from.  After 2 nights you’ll have a good idea as to how your child is responding to things, and you can force things a little (if you’d like).  The first two nights are going to go how they are going to go.  Just relax, enjoy the ride and know that by day 3 the hard part is over.

Another thing to add, in the vein of being flexible, is to be flexible with your daily time schedule.  At home, our son usually wakes up at ~7:00am and goes to sleep around 7:30pm.   In Ireland it is typically more like 9pm-9am; I am just not bothered to ‘force’ the extra two hours.  So be flexible, if everyone ends up on 10pm-10am, and that works for you, then go with it.

9. Keep the Activities Light for the First Two Days

Everyone is going to be tired and disoriented.  Try to engage in easy, unstructured activities, parks, and playgrounds the first few days. If you HAVE to be somewhere or do something, then try to arrive two days before the event. For example, if you are traveling to Italy for a wedding- don’t arrive the day before.  It’s not going to end well if tomorrow your 18-month-old is the ring bearer in your brother’s wedding.

The most important thing to remember about jet lag is that you cannot fight it.  So don’t try to. Accept it, embrace it, accommodate it, and roll with it.  That works if you keep things loose for the first few days.

10. Manage YOUR Expectations

Managing your expectations may be the second most important advice that I can give (after #5). You will not be disappointed if you do not have unreasonable expectations. Know your limitations and figure out your child’s.  Jet lag in babies is not a painful experience if you do not fight it.  Leave all of your ‘rules’ at home.  Just relax, enjoy the uninterrupted time with your family (even if it’s at 3 am), and have faith that this too shall pass.

Differences That I’ve Noticed in Jet Lag in Babies vs. Toddlers

  • When my son was tiny, the jet lag wasn’t as bad because he slept so much. He didn’t care where in the world he was because night and day didn’t really mean anything to him.
  • I found that ~18 months was the most difficult because his circadian rhythms/nap cycle were still so hard-wired and you cannot reason with an 18-month-old (try to talk them into going back to sleep).
  • Once he hit ~2.5, I was able to ‘reason’ with him a little and when he woke up at 12 am I was able to ask him to go back to sleep, and he did (or at least he tried).

It’s About the Journey

I know its cliche, but traveling really is about the journey, and unfortunately, jet lag is part of the journey. But, I promise you that managing jet lag in babies and toddlers IS bearable, possible, and if nothing else you’ll live to tell about it.

I hope that this article has given you some ideas of ways to minimize the effects of jet lag in your baby or toddler. And as always, I hope that I have encouraged you to get out there and travel with your kiddo!!

If you do end up on a trans-Atlantic flight I’d love to hear your war stories and what worked for you!! Also, if you have any tips for handling jet lag in small children, drop them in the comments below!

*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional.  If you have any cardiac, circulatory, or other chronic medical conditions you should contact your medical professional before embarking on a long-haul flight.  All opinions expressed are my own and based on my research and experiences. 

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4 thoughts on “Surviving Jet Lag in Babies & Toddlers

  1. Great tips. It’s also important to help your little ones sleep well at your destination accommodation. This helps them more quickly shift to a local-time schedule. Check with your host or hotel to see if they provide full-size cribs, just like at home. If not, rent one. BabyQuip delivers cribs to families in more than 300 travel destinations. Bring the sheet off of your crib at home, the one your baby slept on the day before travel. This way the crib will feel and smell familiar. Think about other bedtime routines from home (bath, book, infant swing, etc.). Bring or rent the gear you need to follow those same routines when you travel.

    The more quickly your baby or toddler is sleeping through the night when traveling, the more time everyone has to rest, recharge and have fun!

    Trish McDermott
    BabyQuip
    http://www.babyquip.com

  2. Great tips Catherine! I have a 21 month old grandson and he’s been to South America and Africa so far. Definitely traveled better as an infant to South America than as a toddler to Africa! I’m going to pass along your article to my son!

    1. Thanks Cindi, I’m glad that you found this useful! It’s so cool that your grandson has been to South America and Africa. What awesome experiences and memories for a little kid to have!

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