Practical advice to help families deal with and recover from the effects of jet lag
I think it’s a close call between the flight itself and the subsequent jet lag that frightens parents the most about long-distance travel.
I would love to enlighten you here that I have the miracle cure, but frankly, what might work for you and your family simply doesn’t work for others. The best I can do is explain to you how jet lag comes about and some of the remedies that you can put in place to try to minimise the effects.
This post is part of our Flying with Kids series – make sure you pop over and learn everything about flying with your kids before you take off
What exactly is jet lag?
Jet lag is a physiological condition, caused by long flights across multiple time zones; your internal body clock, or your “circadian rhythm” gets thrown out of whack (the technical medical term is desynchronosis). Our bodies are naturally programmed to tell us things like when we should be hungry and when we should sleep; when you have travelled a long distance trans-meridian at speed, you will be out of synchronisation with your destination time and your body is forced into making rapid adjustments to these cycles.
Both adults and children can be equally impacted by the effects of jet lag (the main symptoms being; sleep disturbance, fatigue, inability to concentrate, lack of appetite), however, some people can be more significantly impacted than others such as very young children or nursing mothers who will need to be extra prepared.
The main factors that affect jet lag and how you deal with it will be;
- How long your trip is (flight duration and time at destination)
- Your direction of travel
Flying at seasonal extremes can only exasperate the problem (i.e. the peak of summer or winter) where daylight hours at your destination may differ significantly from your origin.
The effects can last anywhere from 2-5 days, depending on how extreme the change. Some pundits say a day for every time zone but having frequently done the UK to Australia trip I can assure you it doesn’t take 11 days!
Impact of the direction of travel on jet lag
Jet lag only occurs in trans-meridian travel – that is travel East to West or vice versa. North to South travel should not cause jet lag but flying long distance alone can of course cause general fatigue.
Now here the great debate rages, it is generally agreed that travelling West to East is a more difficult adjustment (e.g. UK to Asia). This may well be the case but depends on a number of factors I will go on to outline.
Personally for shorter family holidays, I prefer the West to East flight; if you’re only travelling say two or three time zones, you can pretty much keep the children in their ‘home’ sleep pattern, so they can come out for dinner with you and will sleep in, somewhat, in the morning.
A short trip in the opposite direction (East to West) results in early nights and even earlier morning starts, not my idea of a relaxing break!
Let’s assume though for the remainder of this article that you are taking a longer trip and adjusting to your destination time zone is important, therefore there’s a need for a new daytime and sleep routine to be established.
Coping with jet lag
Now we know it’s something that is going to happen to our bodies regardless, how do we best cope with it? .
These are the four main factors to consider:
light ~ sleep ~ physical activity ~ food
Getting the balance right between these 4 factors is essential. Remember it’s not just your sleep patterns but your eating patterns that are affected, even your toilet patterns!
Our bodies have a natural response to daylight, so the most simple rule for concurring jet lag is to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when its light at your destination – perhaps easier said than done when all you want to do is collapse upon your arrival! Here are some further tips on how to try to adjust your body clocks as quickly as possible:
- Start your journey with a good night sleep the night before
- If possible, make sure children have been involved in physical activity before the flight
- Move your clock immediate to the destination time zone on boarding the plane
- Use light and dark for sleep cues, i.e. if its nighttime at your destination when taking off, try darkening the area immediately, or vice versa if you’re leaving at night and it’s still daylight at your destination, try keeping the lights on and activities going for a while into the flight
- On arrival at your destination, if it’s still daylight, don’t be tempted to take that immediate power nap at the hotel if it can be avoided
- Avoid the long afternoon nap, if a little something is needed to get everyone through, set an alarm for 20 minutes (before you/they go into a deep sleep) then get everyone going again even if it’s just a quick walk around the block to get re-energized ready for the evening it will help
- Equally if you arrive at night and it’s already bedtime, get everyone settled as quickly as possible (I always pack PJ’s at the top of our luggage, or even better get them changed before the plane lands so the bedtime cues are there – it may also pay at this point to feed them before leaving the plane/airport or having a pre-packed dinner with you – Mr. H knows only too well the joys of running through Ho Chi Minh City at 11pm looking for noodles and milk…)
- If possible try not to all share a room, so that one person’s early waking doesn’t impact on everyone
- I take a Gro Clock everywhere with me; years of sleep training with my eldest this works a charm now and she understands that her sun doesn’t always wake up at the same time as the outside sun (not fool-proof but the concept is there!). Slightly older children you should be able to talk to about the ground rules – e.g. they can read in bed if they wake early or not to come into mummy’s bed etc (good in theory I know, I live in hope!)
- Try to eat at local meal times as quickly as possible, even if not hungry, and a good meal right before going to bed so you don’t wake early with hunger pangs
- If everyone’s still sound asleep at your usual breakfast time, it’s well worth waking them early and getting the day started. ( I also bring little cereal containers with me now in case nothing is immediately available of they don’t like breakfast selection they’ll eat something straight away)
- Don’t spend your recovery day cooped up inside, try to get out and about and some natural daylight and physical activity. Most important to do this around the point in the day that is normally bedtime so the body sees it’s not getting dark, I need to be awake. This might be the time when a little sugary snack to get them through the last couple of hours until bedtime may pay off
- If little ones are waking exceptionally early and you’ve given in (do tell them it’s still sleepy time and try to resettle first), keep activity in a quiet, dimly lit room if you can to carry on the perception of night-time
- If a feed is needed at this time, milk or solids, add another breakfast at normal breakfast time to try to get them back on track as quickly as possible and hold out for the next nap as long as possible after that (but before the overtired shrieking commences!)
Other factors to consider in dealing with kiddy jet lag
- Even a toilet-trained child can regress at this point until their body can adjust, consider special “travel nappies” for a day or two if this is a concern
- Flying at night should increase the chances that your child will sleep on the plane, therefore be somewhat rested on arrival, meaning there is only one day to get through at your destination before trying to get to bed at the right time
- Don’t assume all hotels will have blackout curtains! It’s a search criteria I will look for now and make specific enquiries of hotels if I feel it’s that important to the onward travel plans. Consider bringing your own travel blackout curtain (or even black garbage bags!) if you know the situation at your destination. I know I’m not the first person to park the baby in the bathroom to keep it as dark as possible!
- Think also about your onward itinerary, can you stay a day or two at your arrival port before heading on in a car? This can have the impact of throwing things even further out of whack if the kids have blissfully nodded off in the back while you’re driving with matchsticks in your eyes battling through
Medication and jet lag
This is really an if all else fails solution. I could set up a long string of debate on this one but believe me anyone who has searched the term “Phenergan” or “Benadryl” on a parenting websites would have seen the string of abuse a poor parent receives for even suggesting the concept or giving your child medication to cope with either the flight itself or recovering from jet lag – also referred to as “the great sedation debate”.
It is not something I have resorted to myself and frankly hope I will never need to, but I have seen other people’s children wail for hours and hours and hours on end during a flight; I can understand why at desperation point a parent might want to look to this as a solution. Equally, if your child is still bouncing off the walls at 10pm when you haven’t slept for 24 hours there may be a breaking point.
I explain a little more with some handy resources in the Health issues section for you to make your own mind up on whether sedatives might be suitable to your situation.
Now as for the topic of you taking the sedatives…..
Special jet lag advice for nursing mothers
From your baby’s birth, your body clock is constantly trying to keep in sync with your child’s feeding needs and as they grow, learning to feed more frequently during the day then less at night. Then you go and completely through your body clock upside down, no wonder your boobs are leaking all afternoon and your baby has been waking up screaming every two hours since midnight!
It may take the nursing mother a few extra days to fall into sync after long-distance travel and establish a new feeding routine. If you value your overnight sleep do try in the first few days to cluster feed during the daylight hours so they have less reason to fuss at night. Although it’s good to adjust the time on your watch straight away, I also keep track on my phone of my origin time zone to pre-empt when the baby might be hungry still or just fussing.
During this time the best advice I can give is stay very well hydrated, express some milk if baby is not hungry when you are full to bursting then let someone else take one or two of the night feeds if you can until things settle down a bit. And an abundance of breast pads!
If your trip is only short in duration, I would also consider simply putting up with the change in schedule during your travels as the adjustment will be just as difficult on the way back.
Resettling back at home
Depending on your direction of travel, coming home can be just as bad, if not worse than flying out so do factor this into your travel timings where possible (i.e. don’t expect your children to be able to function properly at nursery/school the days immediately following your return). I do know we frequently have little choice in these things, especially when trying to maximise the valuable days of annual leave we get.
If your child is old enough, try explaining before, during and after the trip that different rules apply to sleep on holidays, when you are home you must go back to normal bed time. Then hold firm. Regression in sleep can frequently occur as I know only all too well with my eldest who has always had sleep difficulties, almost always brought on after we’ve travelled; the key as with ‘mending’ any childhood behavioural issues is to be consistent, which is incredibly difficult when you’re sleep deprived yourself.
Ultimately it might take a couple of flights to work out what works best for your children and how badly they are affected.
It’s not all in your head!
There are some lucky souls out there who do not suffer from jet lag at all (probably the same ***** that sits back in their chair and sleeps for 11 hours straight on a flight). The overall message though is that jet lag is a very real factor of long distance travel and not just ‘all in your head’; it is a naturally occurring phenomenon but its effects can be minimised with good planning – do factor it into your journey and your return.
Still want to learn more?
I love this little app by BA, devised by “Dr Sleep” – Dr Chris Idzikowski gives a guide to when to seek light and darkness to adjust your body clock
FURTHER READING: 15 practical ways to conquer jet lag
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