Jet Lag and Kids Are Not a Good Mix. Here’s How to Avoid the Dreaded 4 a.m. Wake-Up.

Advice for parents
Dec. 12 2013 11:49 PM

Don’t Wake Up, Little Susie

How to handle your kids’ jet lag when you’re on “vacation.”

kid on a plane.
Not going to sleep any time soon.

Photo by Vladimir Surkov/iStock

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.)

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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.)

And when she does wake up at 4 a.m.—because let’s face it, she will, as I’ve found that no matter when I put my son to bed, he wakes up at the same time—go over to her with the lights still out and explain that it’s still nighttime and she needs to go back to sleep. It may help, Waldburger says, to bring along one of those sleep-training clocks that signals whether it’s time to get up or not; it can be better for bad news to come from an electronic device than from a parent. Look, honey, the situation is out of my hands. (I placed my Amazon order this morning.)

If that fails, and your kid refuses to entertain herself with the backpack full of crap you’ve packed for just this situation, well, you may have to get up. But keep her playing in a semi-dark room until a reasonable wake-up time, because low light helps to train her brain that it’s still nighttime and that dammit, she should still be snoozing—hopefully, she will then sleep in later tomorrow. (So, note to self: This year, don’t turn on every single living room light at 4 a.m.)

Indeed, when it comes to retraining your kid’s internal clock, light is your best friend, because it is an essential cue for regulating circadian rhythm. When it’s nighttime in your new time zone, keep the lights low inside. When it’s daytime in your new locale, expose her to bright light—ideally, natural outdoor light. One study found that when you’re traveling east-to-west, the best time to expose yourself and your kids to light is between the hours of 2 and 3 p.m., because this tells the brain it’s still light out at a time when, in the old time zone, it would be getting dark. If you’re traveling west-to-east, on the other hand, you should expose you and your kids to natural light between the hours of 6 and 8 a.m. In general, make your kid’s indoor light environment emulate what’s outside as much as possible, and get outside as much as you can, too.

So let’s say you’ve gone east-to-west and your kid has woken up at 4 a.m. You know she’s going to be ready for her first nap way earlier than she otherwise would be. What do you do? Not what I did, which was to put my son in bed as soon as I saw him yawn. (Hey, I wanted a nap too.) Instead, try to keep her awake longer, Waldburger says. If your kid normally wakes up at 6 a.m. and takes a 9 a.m. nap, then when she wakes up at 4 a.m., try to stretch her nap toward 9 a.m. anyway—even though, yes, she’s going to be a holy terror starting at 7. And let her (and you) have a good nap, Weissbluth says—the cutting-naps-short advice applies mostly to west-to-east trips when you run the risk that a nap could cut to close to the new bedtime.

What if you’re crossing far more than three time zones? Wardburger suggests flying at night, because kids sleep better on night flights, helping to start the vacation off on a more well-rested note. Again, try to manipulate naps so that your kid isn’t taking a nap close to her expected new bedtime; expose her to natural light cues and switch over all of her meals to the new time as quickly as possible.

There’s one other controversial idea that’s worth bringing up, and that is the notion that you should start shifting your child’s schedule over to the new time zone a few days before you travel. In theory, this approach makes sense—if you can push your kid’s bedtime ahead or back by an hour before you go, it’ll take less time for her to acclimate to the new time zone. But Weissbluth warns that while this approach might work for adults, with kids it can backfire. “I don’t think any parent can really do it,” he says, because you need switch over all of their social cues, too. You need to move lunch an hour earlier, nap an hour earlier, dinner an hour earlier. If your kids are at home all day with you, this feat might be possible, but if they are in school or daycare, you are probably out of luck. Ultimately, Weissbluth says, many parents who try to move their kids over to a new time zone in advance end up traveling with tired kids, which can make sleep issues worse on vacation—not better.

The bottom line is this: Unless you have gone east with kids you want to hang out with until late night, switch everything over to the new time once you arrive—mealtimes, naptimes, bedtimes. Expose your kids (and yourself!) to natural light when it’s light out and darkness when it’s dark out. And don’t be afraid to break a few rules. You usually sing one song before bed but she’s asking for two? Sing two. Traveling is tough on everybody, but it’s far harder on a young kid, as she’s been torn, often unwillingly, from her familiar surroundings to go somewhere that smells and looks weird, gets dark and light at strange times and is full of people she doesn’t really know. Remind yourself of this the fifth time your beautiful child wakes up in the middle of the night screaming: She’s probably more scared than you are exhausted.

Update, Dec. 18, 2013: This post has been updated to clarify that parents traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast should try stretching the nap as close to 9 a.m. as possible, but that making it to 9 is unlikely. 

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer based in Cold Spring, New York, and is DoubleX’s parenting advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter.

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