Jet lag in babies and toddlers

My friends laugh when I tell them I am ‘immune’ to jet lag. But it’s true. Or should I say, it WAS true. I moved to San Francisco about six years ago and since then I’ve traveled between there and Barcelona (nine-hour time difference!) an average of three times per year. I have a system to fight jet lag which had been working perfectly fine until two years ago. That’s when our daughter was born.

We’ve traveled with our child from San Francisco to Spain five times already (and two more planned for the rest of 2017). Fighting jet lag gets a bit more challenging with a baby or a toddler e.g. the ‘no nap’ rule doesn’t apply. But there are still things you can do to help your baby adjust to the new time zone and to try and avoid sleep regressions when back at home.

What to expect

In our experience, babies and toddlers handle jet lag differently. Meaning it was a bit easier when she was a baby.

As a baby, she would stay awake the first night (two tops) and after that jet lag would be over (she was two months and a half). Recovering from the return flight would take a bit longer, between three and five days. The pattern repeated in the two following trips.

The last two times we’ve traveled with her in the last six months (she’s two now), it’s been a different story. As a toddler, two trips ago it took her a whole week to get over jet lag. Luckily, we were going to spend a month in Spain… so at least weren’t going to have to change her schedule again in a week. During that weak, she would consistently wake up at 1 am and fall back asleep between 2 and 3 hours later. She also had some trouble getting back to normal when we got home. As in we think she had kind of a sleep regression for over a month (although there were other factors that could’ve affected their sleep, so we’re not completely sure about it).

In her last trip (we got to Barcelona 2 nights ago) she’s repeating the same pattern: she’s waking up at 1 am and fall back asleep 3 or 4 hours later. The third night has been way better, just 30-45 min awake. I’m hoping that’s it this time, keeping my fingers crossed. And also, there are a few ‘rules’ that I follow in order to make it easier for my baby (and for us!). Keep reading.

What to do to help babies and toddlers with jet lag

  1. Travel by night. For long flights (I’m talking about +8 hours), I’d suggest to take a flight after 6pm (if possible). Feed them when you get to the plane (or right before, saving the bottle for the take-off), put their pajamas on, and get them to go to sleep. Night planes normally turn off lights after dinner is served, so that always helps. When they get there the next day it’s been a short night, but it’ll also be a short day so it’ll more or less compensate. When you get to your destination, try to keep them awake till a little bit past their normal bed time.

  2. Be patient, it takes some time to adjust to the new time zone. When she was a baby, we’d take turns to play with her on the first couple of nights. She did really need that time awake, and we weren’t going to fight against it. She wouldn’t even cry, just wanted us to play with her. You can’t reason with babies or their jet-lagged bodies, so just embrace it and give them some time.

  3. Go a bit later to bed the first night. To make sure they’re really tired. Her bedtime right now is 8.30pm. The first night she was awake till 10 pm, the rest of the week I’ve been putting her down to sleep around 9pm.

  4. Wake them up early, and compensate with (not too long) naps. Even if they didn’t get a full night of sleep, don’t let them sleep till noon. Just try to compensate with naps, one or two, depending on their age. My daughter takes one nap per day, which can go from 2 to 3 hours, sometimes even a bit longer. I let her take a 2 hour nap the first day after we arrived, now it’s 1.5 hours only.

  5. Go back to a schedule as soon as you can. As soon as you can normally means after a day or so. If you’re on vacation, it may be difficult to get on a schedule. However, this is important for your child to go back to normal. Try to keep nap(s) time at around the same time every day (even if different than at home) and same with feedings. I also try follow the same bed routine even if a bit later.

Helping your child to overcome jet lag requires a bit of discipline but you’ll both enjoy your trip better this way. I hope these suggestions work for you, safe travels!

Featured image by Freepik