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When I decided to take a trip to Portugal with my 10-week-old recently, I was prepared for all the horror stories of traveling with a baby. He was inevitably going to scream the whole flight, my husband and I would have to limit our sightseeing and I’d have to breast-feed in some strange places. Amazingly, none of that happened (albeit there was a feeding session in a castle, but that was pretty cool). The hardest part of vacationing with a newborn? The jet lag!

Yes, I knew sleeping would be off for both me and my little one. But I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of the six-hour time change. Luckily, he adjusted pretty quickly to Portugal time, thanks to an overnight flight. Coming home was a different story though. There were days of sleepless nights, and I feared I ruined his sleep schedule forever.

I did what every tired mom does in a state of sleepy panic: I researched how to handle jet lag with a baby. To my surprise, there wasn’t a comprehensive guide on how to handle that pesky time change, especially with a newborn. So, to help other parents  wanting to hit the road with their tots, I chatted with certified infant and child sleep consultant Lauren Wolf to get her expert advice.

Here is the complete guide to preparing for and surviving jet lag with a baby.

One- or Two-Hour Time Difference

Quick trips are great to take with babies. But trying to figure out how an hour or two time difference will affect the little one can be tricky. What should you do? “If the trip is really short, you could choose to keep your child on their regular time zone,” says Wolf. “Especially if you’re only traveling one or two time zones.”

For example, if your child usually sleeps from 9pm to 9am, and you travel from New York to Colorado (two time zones), you could have them sleep from 7pm to 7am while on the trip, and therefore you can go right back to normal upon your return home. 

Three-Hour Time Difference Westbound

Pre-baby, traveling from one coast to the other was a breeze. You didn’t mind staying up a bit later or getting up a bit earlier, and the red-eye flight didn’t totally mess you up. With a baby, it’s a different story.

According to Wolf, you should expect one day of adjustment needed for every time zone crossed. So, let’s say you’re heading from New York to California, expect children to need three days to adjust to the new time zone, more or less. What can you do ahead of time to make the transition a bit smoother?

“If you want to prepare before the trip, you can start shifting your child’s naps and bedtime later a few days before your departure,” she says. “When you arrive on the West Coast, for example, your child will want to go to sleep three hours earlier than usual. If normal bedtime is 7pm, your child will be ready for bed at 4pm Pacific time. It’s best to try and keep them up as long as you can the first night. Even if you can hold them off an hour the first night, this could help them adjust more quickly.”

Three-Hour Time Difference Eastbound

If you’re traveling eastbound, like California to New York, your child will most likely want to go to sleep three hours later. If your child usually goes to bed at 7pm, he or she most likely will be ready for bed around 10pm.  This makes the strategy a bit different. What should you do?

“It’s challenging to force your child to fall asleep when they aren’t tired. My advice for traveling east is to try and put your baby to bed say 30 minutes earlier than normal (meaning 9:30pm instead of 10pm local time),” says Wolf. “And then wake them at their normal wake-up time the next morning. This should help reset them for the following day.”

Four- to Eight-Hour Time Difference

Eyeing that European trip? Be ready for a few potentially rough days. “For international travel/crossing multiple time zones, you can expect it to take at least a week for children to adjust,” warns Wolf. Her advice to help minimize the pain?

“Plan the busy parts of your trip toward the back end if you can because the first few days will be the roughest,” she says. “Also, while away and when you return, it’s important to limit naps to regular length. Often, children will make up for the loss of nighttime sleep/jet lag with long naps. This can delay the process of getting them on the new time zone.”

Mommy Points
Mommy Points’ baby sleeping peacefully in Europe after a long day.

Personally, I would plan to have a few days off when returning from vacation as well. Having a long weekend helped my husband, and I survive the first few rough nights back home. Try to arrive home on a Friday if you need to be back at work on Monday to give everyone time to adjust.

A 10- to-12 Hour Time Difference

I’ve been on plenty of planes to Asia filled with babies. So, a long-haul trip with your tot is not out of the question. Again, just be prepared for some time warps.

There’s actually not a huge difference in what you need to do for an eight-hour trip versus a 12-hour journey, according to Wolf. Just try your best to get on the new time zone as quickly as possible and be conscious of light exposure. How? There are a few ways.

“By shifting mealtime right away, our body’s sleep clock often follows suit,” says Wolf. “Don’t worry about what time zone you are on while on the plane either. Just try and eat and sleep normally and when you touch down at your location, then start to shift gears.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

She adds, “Also, as soon as you arrive, try to move to the local time zone quickly. Get outside as much as possible to expose your child to sunlight. This helps to reset their circadian rhythms. When it’s time for naps or bedtime, ensure the room is dark (think cave-like) to help set the stage for sleep.”

Photo by RyanJLane/Getty Images

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