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How to Tame Jet Lag With Kids and Save Your Family Vacation

Travel and children's health experts share takeaways for minimizing the effects of time-zone travel

We had high hopes for our eight-day trip to England with our 5-year-old son. We planned to introduce him to extended family — my husband is English — and attend a wedding. We overlooked one thing however: jet lag. Our visit was crushed by four days of fatigue, grumpiness and recovery as my son and I collapsed for midday naps when our internal clocks were telling us “bedtime!”

I agonized over the hours wasted on lost sleep and adjustment on this time-sensitive trip, and wondered: What could we have done differently?

Jet lag has potential to thwart a family vacation. When you're traveling with young children who are already challenged by transitions, even a time change as seemingly minor as two or three hours can set back a trip, while an international journey though time zones can seriously impair it. But with thoughtful planning, you can minimize the effects of jet lag and preserve the investment of the family time together. Travel and children's health experts shared their top suggestions with us for coping with jet lag as a family, from advance preparation to on-the-ground logistics to returning with ease.

1. Consider the age of your child

According to Amy Maidenberg, M.D., board-certified pediatrician at Sage Pediatrics in Oakland, Calif. the age of the child significantly affects the potential for jet lag. Babies who are “newborn to 2 months have not yet established a diurnal cycle, so jet lag will probably not impact them," she says (though, she notes, infants that young are also more at risk for catching an infectious disease while on a trip). 

For kids ages 2 to 5, time-zone changes start to cause regression. “Babies who have already learned to sleep through the night might have more night wakening," says Maidenberg. "Older kids (those who no longer nap) will probably respond similarly to adults physically, but might be less driven than adults to stay awake in attempts to adjust to the schedule.”

Luckily as kids get older, they learn to make adjustments as adults do, which makes jet lag less of an issue, shares Erica Erignac, mother of Clio, age 9, and William, age 13, and a frequent traveler to France (where her husband’s family lives).

2. Prep kids

In advance of the trip, teach kids old enough to understand about time changes and the effects of jet lag, and what they can expect to experience. In the days before a trip, Erignac tries to make it real for her children by saying things like, "Now we are eating lunch, but at this time in France they are getting ready for bed.”

Hillary Roland, N.D. of Walnut Creek Naturopathic in Walnut Creek, Calif., recommends adjusting kids' bedtimes before the trip "by half an hour every couple of days to start to get them closer to the destination clock when you leave." Erignac also makes sure her kids get ample sleep before departure. 

Danna Brumley, who travels for her job as co-owner of the small group travel company Earthbound Expeditions and is mother to Aiyana, 11 and Liam, 15, also emphasizes the importance of keeping kids (and parents!) hydrated. “Drink lots of water before, during and after the flight.”

3. Choose your flight carefully

Decide on a flight that will help you the parent arrive in the best shape to manage your child’s probable time-adjustment challenges.

There's no one perfect choice, though. Danna Brumley, for example, suggests taking an overnight flight: “I’d definitely take one that departs late afternoon or evening, which makes it easier to rest, if not sleep, during the flight. ... If it’s nighttime, you’ll have an easier time convincing them it’s bedtime!”

However, Erignac prefers a daytime flight, as she does not sleep on an overnight flight. “If I am not well rested I will be in no shape to handle my kids’ jet lag! I (also) find having a layover is not a bad thing —  it gives the kids a chance to stretch their legs and possibly run around a bit.”

4. Consider melatonin

If you are hoping kids will sleep on the flight, Hillary Roland, N.D. recommends melatonin, an over-the-counter supplement sometimes used as a sleep aid, as a safe supplement for children.

“Melatonin supplementation is perhaps the best studied of therapeutic interventions for treating jet lag," she says. "The benefit of using melatonin is likely to be greater the more times zones crossed, though it has less benefit for westward flights." Her recommended dose is 0.3 to 0.5 mg depending on the child’s weight, but you should always check with your pediatrician on whether melatonin is a good fit for your child and on the specific dosage.

Roland also recommends the child have his or her own seat, in order to really lay down and rest.

5. Plan for a soft landing

First, upon arrival, remind your children (if they are verbal) about the time change, which will help reduce confusion, even if it does not reduce physical symptoms of jet lag.

Next, be sure to plan a low-key entry for the first few days. Erignac and her kids head to the countryside of France for a week of rest before the round of family visits.

Brumley’s first day on the ground in Europe, while quiet, is usually targeted at adjusting her kids quickly to local time. “We stay awake as late as possible, have dinner early, and then go to bed. Adults can take a nap and wake up in an hour or two later but kids have trouble doing that. I arrange activities that keep kids interested and require moving and walking.”

If you are staying with friends or family, Maidenberg recommends communicating your child’s sleep schedule needs with possible hosts in advance and encouraging them to plan low-key activities. 

Consider eating in. If you're in a hotel, try to book a suite with a kitchen so you can avoid eating out for every meal. 

6. Divide and conquer

Particularly during those initial days, divide duty and accept that not everything can be done together as a family all of the time. Give each other breaks. “Once I had two children, I refused to travel alone with both of them unless I had someone to help me," Brumley says. 

Erignac and her husband have traveled separately, one with each child, to break up the crush of a jet-lag entry. When her daughter was three, Erignac flew to France one week earlier with her older son. When her husband and daughter arrived, she was rested enough to relieve her husband and help manage their exhausted daughter.

The couple sometimes splits duties during a vacation. She takes the kids to the beach while her husband visits a coffee shop. In turn he’ll grocery shop with their son and daughter while Erignac visits a local yarn store.

7. Let go of expectations

Not surprisingly, sometimes your best efforts for managing jet lag go out the window. Get over it by anticipating it as part of the trip, like getting lost or missing a train. It might even make for a funny family story (at least in retrospect) that will be shared on future trips.

Brumley shares an especially memorable experience with her two children then ages 3 and 6: “We went to Paris, where I was working as a guide. We rented an apartment and the kids were running around in the middle of the night, wanting to watch cartoons and turning up the TV volume too loud, laughing, romping! The neighbors were not amused and didn’t hesitate to let us know."  

8. Don’t forget about re-entry

Say everyone does adjust beautifully to the time change. You still have to cope with the return, of course. Brumley recommends building in at least one "recovery day’" when returning — "if you can work it in your schedule." She recommends doing the same routine when coming home: staying awake as long as possible.

Naturopath Hillary Roland, however, notes that recovery from a trip through more than eight times zones is quite different than the three hours difference if coming home to Seattle from New York. “Apparently the brain may confuse dawn with dusk,” she says. To counteract that effect, she says the current expert suggestion is to "actually stay indoors after long eastward flights for a few hours after dawn, and for a few hours before dusk after a long westward flight.”

Jet lag is a strong likelihood when traveling through time zones with a child. For our next trip to England with our son, we’re up for the challenge now that we’re better prepared. Anticipation, communication and flexibility among all players are key to managing the inconvenience of grumpy junior travel companion.

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