One of the big reasons why many families put off embarking on long-haul flights with kids, aside from the costs and length of the plane journey, is those two horrible little words; jet lag. The fear of the unknown. Will your kids be suffering the effects for days or will they take it in their stride? Jet lag with kids can often be a big fear factor when it comes to family holidays abroad but in this post myself and some of my fellow travel bloggers are going to share with you our top tips on how to survive jet lag with kids in the hope you’ll finally book that ultimate family holiday.
I had travelled to the States for work many years ago and coped surprisingly well after taking my colleagues advice. She suggested adjusting my watch to local time as soon as took off on the plane and staying awake as long as I could before hitting the sack. Within a day or two I had adjusted, and just as well, as four days later I was landing back in the UK.
However, I had worried what it would be like with our son once we started travelling outside of Europe. Our first encounter of jet lag was during our family trip to New York. We had flown to Dublin for a night to see family before jetting off to New York for 4 days with Aer Lingus. Our then two-year-old didn’t sleep on the plane and conked out in the taxi on our way to our AirBnB in Astoria. We managed to get him awake before heading into the city to try and adjust to local time.
But by 7pm he couldn’t last much longer and was out cold. At 3am he woke but thankfully I managed to get him to nod back off for another two hours before I gave up and found some cartoons on the TV to watch with him. The next evening and morning were the same and then he was fine, before we headed back to the UK, disrupting his pattern once again. And it took a few days for him to readjust to UK time after New York.
A year later, we crossed even more time zones as we flew from London to Portland, Oregon. An 11-hour flight and 9-hour time difference meant we were all wiped out. However, after we landed and cleared customs, we faced a two-and-a-half-hour car journey to the first stop of our USA road trip. Our son was asleep before we pulled out of the airport and didn’t wake until we got to our hotel. A quick dinner and we were all in bed. But good old jet lag had us awake around 4am local time and we hit the road, ready for a 13-hour drive to Yellowstone National Park.
We found the advantages to jet lag were getting up early, hitting the road early, and also seeing some of the most popular sights of Yellowstone before everyone else got out of bed. And to be quite honest, there were no real disadvantages for us when travelling west. We went to bed as early as we allowed ourselves and enjoyed getting up early to beat the crowds. Coming back east wasn’t as painful after Yellowstone as we all managed some sleep during our overnight flight and then ensured we were out and about during the day before getting to bed early.
However, I am not looking forward to next year’s long-haul flights. We’re going to South East Asia and travelling for 25 hours to get to our first destination. We have 3 connections, one of which is in the middle of the night, and two connections with a few hours waiting time as well. We’ve decided to break up our return flight with a stop in Dubai but I can see our first day or two in Thailand being a write off.
With all of this in mind, I thought I would put together a list of top tips for surviving jet lag with kids, not only to remind me of the measures we need to take next year, but also in the hope you might get some tips and ideas if you’re facing a long-haul flight with kids.
13 Top Tips for Surviving Jet Lag With Kids
Jet Lag with Kids – Before and During the Flight
1 Consider your flight times
This means thinking about your arrival time before you book your flights. Do you want to arrive during the day? Would you prefer to arrive at what would be bedtime? Do you want to travel through the night and hope the kids sleep? These are all questions to ask yourself before pressing that “Book” button.
For us, we prefer day flights going west and overnight flights going east. It’s what we are used to from travelling to the States for work before our son came along, and it so far has worked ok for us. But you know your kids better than anyone else and if you know they’ll never sleep on a plane, perhaps day flights are the way to go for your family.
If you book the last flight of the day, or as close to bedtime as possible when travelling west to east, you at least have more hope of the kids sleeping at what would be their normal bedtime, than a day flight. Not only this but arriving in the morning means you can try and readjust your body clocks while the brightness of the day is around you.
Nikki from Yorkshire Wonders says
When we go to Florida, we come back on the overnight flight and I encourage them to sleep as much as possible, so they feel they have had a ‘night-time’. To be honest, they are far more resilient to it than I am!
2 What seats should you choose on the plan
Where you sit on the plane will have a big impact on whether you will be able to get some sleep or not. One big no-no for us are seats near the galley and toilets. The crew will be making noise during meal and drinks service, and if you are seated near the toilets, there could potentially be constant traffic to and from that area. So, when flying on long-haul flights, and if you want to try and reduce jet lags with kids, be wise about where you seat your family.
Also, be careful about booking what are bulkhead seats. We thought we’d be clever and book these for our flights to and from Portland. However, we chose wrongly. Because the tray table was part of the arm-rest, we couldn’t lift the arm rests up to make our son more comfortable to help him sleep. And on an 11-hour flight, you will need to be able to lift those arm rests. So, think carefully before you book these seats. That said, bulkhead seats might be invaluable for you if you are flying with a baby and want to avail of the bassinet.
Window seats are probably the best choice when flying with kids as you’ll be less disturbed if someone needs to use the bathroom. We’ve chosen the 3 seats beside the window on our forthcoming flights to and from both Dubai and Bangkok (the plane has a 3-4-3 formation) to ensure we can try and get some sleep and not be disturbed as much. And no more bulkhead seats for us, we learned the hard way.
If you can afford it, upgrade your seats. There are no better seats for long-haul flights than business or first-class seats, or the new Skycouch, offered by the likes of Air New Zealand and Air China. And if you do upgrade to the likes of business class, ignore the glares. You are just entitled to sit there as anyone else. Who said kids shouldn’t fly in business or first class.
3 Make the journey as comfortable as possible
When we travel long-haul we always ensure we are dressed comfortably. Going west or for day flights, we ensure our son is in jogging bottoms and that us adults are comfortable as well. If we are traveling through the night, we dress our son in his pyjamas as soon as we’re in the air and us adults wear jogging bottoms and comfortable t-shirts/hoodies, all with the aim of catching some shuteye.
Our son was strutting his stuff in his pyjamas in Heathrow after our return flight from Portland last year. So, make sure you’re all dressed comfortably. It might also be a good idea to bring a small blanket with you from home. A little home comfort might help young kids to nod off during long-haul flights. Plus, it can be used to keep the chill off them as airplane cabins can get chilly at times.
A cuddly toy is also advisable, although make sure you don’t forget it when you disembark the plane!
4 Adjust your watch to local time when you get on the plane
This can help you to adjust to the time at your destination, as can older children. My work colleague gave me this tip and it does help. Just make sure you ignore any screens on your in-flight entertainment showing the time of your departure city as it can confuse you. Obviously, this won’t help younger kids who can’t read clocks, but it can help to adjust them if you do certain things at times they would normally happen at home. If you have a routine, use it but at local time to help them adjust.
If you can, to help younger children, you could set your clocks an hour or two ahead in the days before your flight. This means getting everyone up earlier than normal, including you, and getting to bed earlier as well. It might not be possible for every family to do this but it can help.
Mandi from Big Family Little Adventures says
We used to adjust our sleep schedule a couple of days before the flight to reduce the effects of jet lag and changing sleeping habits to mimic the day/night cycle of the desired time zone, but that was before we had 7 kids and now the furthest away we’ve been is France!!
Meanwhile, Suzy from Our Bucket List Lives tries to start the adjustment before they leave the UK for Florida and says
We kept our son up until 1am UK time which was new bedtime time in Florida. Mostly not out of choose and he woke up really early! Aside from a few tears he was ok.
5 Turn off your devices and limit in-flight entertainment
It is important, especially for overnight or extremely long flights, to avoid or limit screen time. When flying to America during the day we allowed our son as much screen time as he wanted to keep him awake. However, we did not give him his tablet, or allow him to watch an in-flight movie, on our return trip from Portland. We had learned, again the hard way, on our flight from New York that given the choice he’d persevere with screens for the entire flight, only to fall asleep during our descent into the UK.
Yes, this might mean you need to forgo a movie until your kids fall asleep, but believe me, you’ll thank me for it later. Once they’ve had a few hours sleep, you can allow them screen time if you feel it’s right. And remember, the light from screens such as phone and tablets can actually stimulate both you and your kids, so this goes for everyone in the family.
Jet Lag With Kids – During and After the Flight
6 Eat the right meals at the right time, but for local time
Eating meals at the right local time can also help to adjust your kids (and your) body clocks. This might or might not be possible when flying. I have heard of people eating a light dinner before boarding an overnight flight and avoiding the in-flight meal, so their kids can go to sleep straight away. You know your family best, so if you choose to do this for overnight flights, I’d love to hear if it works or not.
For me, this is more important in the first 24 hours at a new destination. Eat breakfast in the morning, lunch at midday and dinner in the evening and fill any gaps with snacks, sticking to non-sugary snacks for kids. Fresh fruit is a winner and bananas before bedtime can help stave off hunger. Snacks are also very important when flying with kids. No-one wants to fly with hangry kids, so ensure you pack enough snacks for the flight for everyone, and then a few more. Better to have them with you, than not!
Marta from Learning Escapes says
Not a tip about sleep but one for kids who may get a stomach upset when jet legged: fresh fruit! My daughter’s biggest problem with jet lag is always her stomach: she feels sick for the first few hours on arrival in a different time zone and it is awful for her but also makes tiredness worse. We discovered that giving her fruit (apples work for her) really helped and her first request when we get anywhere is to go to Starbucks for their apple, grapes and cheese box. The sleep always takes time to settle but fresh air and an extra effort with healthy eating does the trick for us.
7 Keep hydrated
There is nothing more important, when flying with kids and trying to reduce jet lag with children, than keeping hydrated. Dehydration can be a major cause of jet lag. And, the air in cabins can be very drying, so ensure everyone has a bottle of water to drink. Just be aware it will mean trips to the toilet though.
And whatever you do, avoid the alcohol and tea/coffee. I always bring decaf teabags with me for long-haul flights to ensure I am not kept awake by caffeine. I also avoid all things sugary as this too can keep me awake and hinder me falling to sleep easily.
8 Use whatever means to sleep in the cabin
This means donning those fashionable eye masks, ear plugs and using a cover over your kid’s seats to make it as dark and quiet as possible for them. This is so important for overnight flights to ensure everyone gets a few hours sleep. If needs be, take it in turns with your partner to entertain the kids if you adults need some sleep. Personally, I could fall asleep on a washing line and am generally asleep on planes before we’ve left the tarmac. But my husband, not so much. So, do try and share the sleep shifts if the kids are not playing ball.
When you arrive at your destination, and if you are staying in a hotel/AirBnB, it might be helpful to close the curtains and allow everyone to get an hour sleep to recharge the batteries. This is more useful if flying from east to west.
9 Cat nap if necessary
As mentioned in the previous point, if you are all exhausted, then having a short nap of no more than one or two hours might be beneficial to everyone. But do not allow yourself more than two hours or you run the risk of not being able to fall asleep at a reasonable time at bedtime. Set that alarm and ensure everyone is up and at it to help beat jet lag and readjust that body clock.
10 Get outside in the fresh air
Sunlight and oxygen are so important for helping our bodies to readjust and to aid with beating jet lag. So, after you’ve all gotten a short nap, if necessary, and freshened up, get out for a walk in the daylight, at the very least. But don’t overdo it with the sightseeing.
Plan alight itinerary for your first day and prepare to adjust it accordingly. After we landed in New York and dropped our bags off, we headed into Manhattan to Times Square with our son. We didn’t spend too much time there and getting on and off the subway was enough to entertain him until we returned to our AirBnB for a light dinner before early bed.
Getting some exercise during your arrival day can also help tire the kids out, which can be helpful if you’ve come from the west and the kids still think they’re 6-9 hours ahead of local time. Just be careful not to overdo it though.
Nicky from Go Live Young says
Getting out and about in the daylight. You are less likely to feel tired if you get out and about in the sunshine and keep moving (difficult sometimes i know!). Try to stay busy as you will adjust to the new time zone much quicker. And drink lots of water to combat dehydration from flying!
Emma from Wanderlust and Wet Wipes says
Getting out and about – you’re literally less likely to feel tired because daylight helps to change your natural circadian rhythm. So, we are out in daylight as much as possible and we make sure (as far as we can) that night times are kept dark for the same reason. When the kids nap it is much easier to manipulate their sleep patterns into the new time zone! My other tip is to stick to your routines – we have a set bedtime routine of bath, books and brush (teeth) then bed and have done since the kids were new-borns. We sometimes even travel with their bath gel so that the scent triggers the part of their brain that knows it is bed time.
I never thought of making sure to have the same bath gel with us. This is a tip I’ll be incorporating into our long-haul travel plans in the future.
11 Be flexible on your first day or two
Be prepared to feel the effects of jet lag with kids, as it might not be completely avoidable. Some easy, light sightseeing might be enough for everyone, along with some walking as a form of exercise. That said, jet lag can work to your advantage. As we found out on both of our trips to America. During our first one to New York, we were on Manhattan Island before the rush hour most days and even went up the Empire State Building with no queuing at all thanks to early morning rises.
During our second trip, we were on the road to Yellowstone National Park, from our overnight stop at Richland, before 6am stopping for breakfast about an hour into our journey. We also got into the park most days before 8am, ensuring we saw the most popular sights such as the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Lower Falls before most people had eaten their breakfast.
So, the point is to be prepared. If the kids wake early, either try to get them back to sleep, or get up and start your day early. Snacks will help if kids wake during the night complaining of being hungry. Allow short naps during the first day and ensure you are back and settled at your hotel or accommodation by 7pm on your first night or two to help them get back into a normal routine for the time zone.
Zoe from Juggling On Roller Skates says
We plan to be wiped out for the first day at least. Don’t expect to do too much and take the pressure off so the whole family can recover.
12 Stick to your bedtime routine
Speaking of normal routines, when trying to survive jet lag with kids, it’s important to stick to your typical bedtime routine. If it involves a bath, story and then lights out, ensure you follow the same routine at your new destination. While it might take the kids longer to fall asleep (particularly coming from west to east), at least they will know what is expected and that it’s bedtime. It might take a few days for them to settle into the new time zone, but rest assured they will. It never took our son more than 3 days to acclimatise to new time zones.
Lou from We Travel in Threes says
We tend to sleep when he sleeps both during the flight and after. Helps with the 4am wakeup calls. At least for the first day or so. Then back to normal routine and normal bedtime.
While Tracey from Pack the PJs says
My kids have never had a bedtime routine (I know, shoot me!) – they sleep when they are tired; when we travel they’ll sleep on the flight if they are tired, and we make sure the following day is a lazy PJs day. From then on, we try to encourage them to sleep an extra hour each night, because tiredness tends to hit them after 3-4 days (that extra hour top-up stops this happening). I, on the other hand, lives like a zombie for a fortnight.
And Angela from The Life of Spicers is also a big advocate of returning to your normal bedtime when you return home, saying
Ensure you return to a normal bedtime from the first day you get home without a day time nap if possible.
13 Use sleeping aids if necessary
When we went to New York we managed to get a kid sleeping aid with a small dose of melatonin in it. This helped to get him to sleep at night, but it didn’t last. However, we found it more useful on our next trip to America and our son adjusted within three days to a 9-hour difference of a time zone. We, too, have used adult dosage melatonin to help readjust our body clocks, but we make sure not to use it for more than two or three days. Melatonin products also helped us get some sleep on our last return flight from America to the UK. You can also use lavender, a natural essential oil. There are pillow sprays and temple rubs containing lavender that can help to send you and your kids off to sleep.
By keeping these tips in mind, you are sure to be better prepared to survive, or even beat, jet lag with kids. It might not be completely avoidable but there are measures you can take to limit it’s effects on both your children and you. And to help you prepare for that long-haul flight, remember to check out my top tips for flying with babies and toddlers to help make it a smooth journey. Also, check out out my post about our top travelling with a baby essentials. And finally, if you’d like some tips for ensuring you have a stress-free flight with kids, check out this guest post by Olivia W Jones.
And if anyone has a magic cure that isn’t among this list, please do let me know!
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