Surviving Jetlag with a Baby


Jetlag is already pretty awful when you have only yours to deal with, especially when you have to be in your office only a few hours after your airplane has landed and its 1 a.m in your previous timezone. But dealing with jetlag when you are already an exhausted parent and your little one wants to stay up ALL NIGHT LONG… every night… it’s a nightmare (supposing you can dream without sleeping)

The good news is that most babies up to 3 even 4 months old don’t really suffer from jet lag as they spend their time as a succession of awaken time and nap time anyway. And if you have a baby who “does not sleep through the night” (whatever that means!) you won’t really see a difference when they have a jet lag.

When your baby starts to be aware of daytime vs. night time then you are in trouble. I took 28 flights in the first 18 months of my daughter’s life and amongst them 10 were long distance flights with up to 7 hours of time difference. Here is the thing: I HAVE SURVIVED. Do you want to know my strategies?

1/ You will need a plan. Before booking your flight you will need to plan a little bit.

Think about the following:

How old is your baby and how much she/he enjoys sleeping?
How many hours you need to sleep in order to be in your (minimal) operational mode? How do you deal with sleep deprivation?
How many days you usually need to recover after a trip with jet lag, before you had a baby? What worked best for you previously (in terms of sleeping strategies, sleeping schedule, traveling during daytime or night time)?
Does your baby already have a sleep routine and what are her/his best hours of sleep?
Will you mostly be alone with your baby in the new timezone or will you stay with family and you will have people who can help you?
Do you think it’s would be easier for you to deal with a whole long day after a night flight trying to keep your baby awake or you prefer to travel during the day and deal with a baby who doesn’t understand it’s nighttime in the new timezone?
With the answers of these questions in mind you will need to make arrangements and decide (if you have a choice) which kind of flight you want to book (a daytime or nighttime flight) and what hours would probably work best for you and your family.

2/ Nighttime or daytime flight?

This is THE number one question parents ask and unfortunately there is no right answer for everyone. I tried both. At different stages of a baby’s life, you can have different schedules that work well. When my daughter was only a few months we preferred traveling during the night (we were living in China at that time so I mean night in our timezone, in China) so that we could get some sleep while she was sleeping. When she became more active (a crawling baby) and she had a (euh, sort of) schedule we tried to match her bedtime with the time when we would be getting on board, so that we could do a shorter version of her bedtime ritual (I wrote about it here) in the airplane and then put her to sleep. We have also survived long distance flights during daytime. It requires a bit more energy and creativity to entertain a curious and audacious baby on board but when you arrive to your destination it’s bedtime and everybody is tired so everybody goes to bed. And that’s a good start for your “jet lag management” 😉

3/ During the flight, don’t worry about the routine

You don’t need to think already about schedules and jet lag during your flight. Just do whatever it works, your priority is surviving 😉 You have no control on the time the meals are served and when the lights are off. There might be crying babies around and that might wake up your own baby who was supposed to sleep a 7 hours stretch. It is hard to keep all your routines and rituals on board. But there is one ritual I found very helpful: the bedtime ritual. We always did a short version of our bedtime ritual before we took off on a nighttime flight, even if it was just putting pajamas on and reading a story. Keeping some rituals is important when traveling (even if it’s just very small things like reading their favorite story before going to bed) because it gives children a sense of security and control over an a changing environment.

4/ What to do when you arrive at your destination

Now depending when you arrive, how fit you are and how much help you have around, you start dealing with jet lag. It will probably interfere with your baby’s sleep routine (if she/he has one) for a couple of days and many parents report that this flights occur “just when she/he started to sleep better” . So don’t worry, we have been there too.

– As soon as you arrive, start your routine in your new timezone. You just forget about the old timezone. If you arrive at 9 a.m. and 9 o’clock in the morning is usually breakfast time for your little one, you have breakfast (even if it’s time to go to bed in your old timezone)

– Go into the sunlight with your child as soon as you arrive if it’s daytime. Or the next day if you arrive during the night. The sunlight helps our body clock to set up faster to the new timezone.

– Try to put your child down for the naps at her/his usual hours but in the new time zone and have the meals on the regular schedule. For example when we were in Vienna, we had breakfast at 9 a.m. Vienna’s time, then I put my daughter for a nap at 10 a.m., had lunch at 12 o’clock and so on. I didn’t even think about what time was in Beijing anymore.

– You might need to wake up your sleeping child if she is up for a night sleep in the middle of the day when you actually put her/him down for a nap. « Never wake up a sleeping baby », they say. I agree with that and I don’t like to wake up my daughter either. And I know how hard is to wake up your little one, when you are longing yourself for an extra-nap, exhausted you are after a sleepless night. Nevertheless it’s much easier to try to get into the new timezone in the first days than continuously be in a different timezone for a long time.

– Try to keep your little one busy during the day, between the naps so that she/he can sleep better at night

– If you have someone without jet lag around (family, fiends or babysitters), they can help you and take turns and look after your child when you need to take a nap and be a bit more rested to handle the sleepless nights.

– And when your little one wakes up in the middle of the night thinking it’s time to play, try to keep her/ him in a dark room and rock or nurse her/him to put her/him back to sleep.

5/ And if you can’t do all of this…

… don’t worry, it’s going to be ok anyway.

When we followed my « dealing jet-lag strategy », we usually recovered from jet lag in one week. There is a 6-7 hours time difference between Asia and Europe so it took us about one day for each hour of time difference.

But when we moved from Europe to South Korea I was too exhausted to do all that. And I was alone with my baby in Seoul while my husband was working in Beijing during the week. My daughter and I woke up at noon. I tried to put her to bed at her usual time 7.30 p.m and she woke up at midnight fresh and full of energy thinking that was just a long nap. She was hungry at 1 o’clock in the morning and so was I. And you know what? Instead of beating myself up, I did the best I could given the circumstances. I just cooked her some pasta with tomato sauce and we had diner/lunch/breakfast or whatever meal that was at 1 a.m. We had fun eating our pastas and when she was tired we went back to bed. To my own surprise it took us also a week to recover from jet lag. And I have some good memories and funny stories to tell her when she will be bigger about how we had pastas and tomato sauce at 1 a.m. on the wooden floor of a tiny flat in Seoul when she was only 10 months old.

Children are extremely adaptable, this I know for sure. They adapt to the new timezone sometimes quicker than we do 😉 What we need is patience and trust.

I would love to know what worked for you and your family when dealing with jet lag.

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