The definitive guide to surviving jet lag with your baby

Oct 10, 2019

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When I decided to take a trip to Portugal with my 10-week-old, I knew all the horror stories of traveling with a baby. If I believed all the horror stories, he was inevitably going to scream through the whole flight, my husband and I would have to limit our sightseeing and I’d have to breastfeed in some strange places and get some strange reactions. Amazingly, none of that happened, though there was a feeding session in a castle, but that was actually pretty cool. The hardest part of vacationing overseas with a newborn? The jet lag.

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Yes, I knew sleeping would be off for me and my little one. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the brutal six-hour time change, and of course in some parts of the world that number could have been worse. Luckily, he actually adjusted quickly to Portugal time relatively well, after an overnight flight. Coming home was a different story though. There were multiple sleepless nights, and I feared I had 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 truly comprehensive guide on how to handle that pesky time change, especially with a newborn. So, to help other parents, who want 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:

1- or 2-hour time difference

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

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

3-hour time difference westbound

Pre-baby, traveling from one coast to the other was likely mostly 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 for days on end. With a baby, it’s a different story.

According to Wolf, you should expect to need one day of adjustment 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 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 7 p.m., your child will be ready for bed at 4 p.m. 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,” says Wolf.

3-hour time difference eastbound

If you’re traveling eastbound, 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 7 p.m., he or she most likely will be ready for bed around 10 p.m. 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 9:30 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. 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,” she adds.

4- to 8-hour time difference

Eyeing that European trip or a trip out to Hawaii? 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,” she adds.

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

Personally, I would plan to have a few low-key days when returning from vacation Having a long weekend helped my husband and me 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 a little time to adjust.

A 10- to 12-hour time difference

I’ve been on plenty of planes to Asia with many babies aboard, so a long-haul trip with your tot is not out of the question. But again, be prepared for some real 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. Try your best to get on the new time zone as quickly as possible by being 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,” she says.

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 during the day 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,” Wolf advises.

Jet lag isn’t easy to deal with, but with an actionable plan and some managed expectations, it doesn’t have to to be a barrier to exploring the world with your kids

Need more tips for traveling with a baby? TPG’s got you covered:

Photo by RyanJLane/Getty Images

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