Image: Tina Franklin
Infants and young children are much more sensitive to disruptions in their sleep cycle than most adults. Even a difference of one hour can take a baby a week or more to fully adjust to.
Many parents and child care workers are aware of the havoc this can wreak on their usual daily schedule, and are prepared for tired, cranky babies in the days after a daylight savings time clock change. Unfortunately, traveling across time zones has a similar effect.
What is jet lag?
The term “jet lag” simply refers to the symptoms experienced when the body is attempting to quickly adjust to a new schedule. Common symptoms of jet lag in both children and adults include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, irritability and crankiness, and reduced appetite.
Jet lag is common when people travel across three or more time zones. Traveling from west to east is generally considered to be more difficult than going the opposite way, for both children and adults. This is because it’s easier to stay up later to adjust to a new sleep schedule than it is to try to force yourself to sleep when you don’t feel tired.
Baby jet lag can last for up to a week, though it is usually at its worst during the first few days. If you’re traveling for an important event, like a wedding or a funeral, consider arriving a day or two in advance to allow your baby time to adjust to a new schedule.
How to prevent jet lag
The simplest way to prevent jet lag is to spend some time before your trip slowly adjusting your child’s sleep cycle to match the new time zone. Of course, this solution is really only feasible if you’re moving or taking an extended vacation.
Taking a week to shift to a time zone you’ll only be staying in for a couple of days doesn’t make much sense. And if your travels include hopping through several different time zones for short stays, things become even more difficult. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of things you can do to make things easier for both you and your baby.
If your trip is only a few days long, or crosses only one or two time zones, it may be easier to simply allow your baby to maintain the schedule he follows at home. Feeding times, naps, and bedtimes may shift by a couple of hours, but many parents find this preferable to attempting to change things only to return home to have to readjust all over again.
Tips for helping your baby
Try to stay calm and soothing. It’s frustrating when you know that your baby is tired yet you still can’t get him to sleep. But babies pick up on the emotional cues of the adults around them, and if you’re irritated or anxious, your baby is likely to react in a similar way.
Soft music and low lights can help you and your baby stay calm while traveling. Overnight flights will make it more likely that both of you can get some rest. If you can, try to arrive at your destination in the morning, and spend as much of the first day as possible outside. This will help both you and your baby adjust to the natural cues of the new time zone and help your body switch to the new rhythm.
When packing, try to balance between toys your child will find familiar and comforting, and toys that are new or that he hasn’t seen in a while. Having something novel to entertain and distract him will be a huge help during times when he is likely to get whiny or bored, like standing in long security lines.
Traveling with an infant is challenging enough without having your baby screaming and clinging to you because he’s upset and tired. Try to get him comfortable with sitting in a stroller or travel seat for short periods of time before you attempt a long trip. You can pick him up and soothe him while you are sitting on the plane or at the airport gate. If you’re lucky, he may even fall asleep while you’re holding him.
The bottom line
It’s important to remember that although jet lag is frustrating, in the long term your child won’t be harmed by having an unusual sleep cycle for a few days.
You’ll have a much more relaxing trip if you follow your child’s cues instead of trying to force him to fall asleep when he isn’t ready to do so. Plan for several shorter periods of sleep while traveling instead of expecting your baby to sleep through the night, and keep your schedule as flexible as possible when traveling with an infant.