Two years ago this month, my husband and I flew with our then-8-month-old to California to spend the holidays with his grandparents. I had focused my fears on the flight, which went surprisingly well—thanks, iPad!—and didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be for my son to adjust to the time difference. Every blasted morning—until, naturally, the last day of our trip—he started bouncing around in his crib between 3:30 and 4 a.m., ready for action. So we would drag ourselves down to the living room, suck down 10 cups of coffee, and wait three hours for everyone else to wake up. A very Merry Christmas indeed.
This year, we’re going back. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the same thing happen again. So I decided to find out if there’s a better way to handle, or even prevent, travel-related kid sleep woes. It turns out there is, and although sleep experts disagree on one issue, most of the advice I got was clear and straightforward and totally not what I did two years ago.
First things first: You should do things differently if you’re traveling west-to-east versus east-to-west. Normally, a west-to-east time shift is harder to adjust to, because you’re not tired at your expected bedtime. (For kids and adults alike, it’s far easier to force yourself to stay up when tired, as occurs going east-to-west, than it is to force yourself to sleep when you’re not, as happens traveling west-to-east.) But west-to-east trips that are less than a week long can actually be quite easy with kids, because, if the trip only spans a few time zones, you can just keep them on their old schedule. “If I live in L.A. and go to New York for five days, I can keep my child on L.A. time,” says Jennifer Waldburger, co-author of the best-selling book The Sleepeasy Solution. “If they normally go to bed at 7 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m., they’re now going to bed at 10 p.m.—meaning I can go out to dinner with them and do other things in the evenings—and then they will sleep in until 9 a.m. That’s a beautiful, wonderful thing.” (Side note: Yes, even the author of a book titled The Sleepeasy Solution has 6 a.m. wakeups on most days. Other side note: If you have little kids who don’t, say, do well in cool restaurants, keep reading.)
If you’re going west-to-east for more than one week or if the thought of entertaining your child until 10 p.m. in New York makes you want to throw up, you are not going to want to keep your kid on West Coast time. To make the transition to the new time zone happen faster, there are a few things you can do. First, move his social cues over to the new time zone immediately. If you normally eat lunch at noon in San Francisco, eat lunch at noon in Boston. If your kid naps at 1 p.m. in L.A., try to nap him at 1 p.m. in New York. Keep bedtime as close to the same time too.
If you’ve gone west-to-east, how can you coax your kid to sleep when he’s not ready? First, make his new bedroom as dark as possible—if you don’t have blackout blinds, tape up some garbage bags—and follow the same pre-bedtime routine you have at home, as the ritual provides important cues that say, psst, it’s time to get drowsy. It can also help to skip afternoon naps. For instance, if you arrive in New York at 3 p.m. (noon in L.A.), skipping your toddler’s usual noon nap might mean your kid is actually ready to snooze at 7 p.m. New York time. “If not napping isn’t an option, then try to give them a short nap—20 to 30 minutes—because in that amount of time, they don’t fall into deep sleep,” says Haviva Veler, director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Finally, in the morning, don’t let your kid sleep in, because doing so will keep her brain and body in the old time zone. (Of course, ignore all this advice if you do want to keep your kid to stay on the old time zone.)
What if, instead, you’re traveling east-to-west across a few time zones? “That’s a whole lot messier,” Waldburger says, because “inevitably, your child is going to wake early that first morning.” (Tell me about it.) To make things easier, when you arrive, keep your child up late. If Anna usually goes to bed at 7 p.m. in New York, try to put her down close to 7 p.m. in L.A. You might not make it all the way without downing an entire bottle of scotch in the process, but stretch it as far as you reasonably can. “Entertain him, distract him—keep him up later than usual with the hope that being more tired, he will not get up at 4 a.m. but sleep in until 5 or 6,” says Marc Weissbluth, founder of the Sleep Disorders Center at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. To complicate matters, however, Weissbluth points out that if you keep him up too late, he could end up overtired and too wired to sleep, so the key is to “find a sweet spot where you do keep him up later but not too late.” (I said most of the advice was clear and straightforward.)