I wrote a guest blog post for my good friend Jody Che. The article was specifically focused on the jet lag in kids associated with traveling to and from Asia, but the basic information on dealing with large time zone changes while traveling is in there! Here’s the excerpt:
Lots of my clients are international travelers, and Asia is high on their must-see list. They may be going to visit family or just to see that incredible part of the world with their kiddos. I am often asked about how to prepare a child sleep-wise for a trip to Asia …And then I often console and counsel that same frustrated and exhausted parent when they finally come back to the US. Here are some tips on dealing with your child’s jet lag when traveling to and from Asia.
Understandably, parents are extremely worried about how their little one is going to deal with the massive time zone change of 12-16 hours. Thankfully parents, you need not fear! This leg of the trip tends to be the easiest on kids. Not only do they arrive exhausted from their flight (and the associated lack of sleep), but this type of trip usually means a lot of extended family visits and excursions to tire them out.
1. Arrival in Asia – Day One: Try to keep your child awake as much as humanly possible until 6 or 7 pm local time
The hope is that your kiddo will go to sleep easily since they’re tired from the flight, and from not being allowed to nap too much that day. Also, it will feel like the middle of the night for them, so while they may go to sleep easily, they’ll almost certainly wake up 4-6 hours later feeling ready to start the day.
On night one, I’d suggest getting up with your baby, and hanging out with them for a few hours – you’ll feel like getting up too since your body will think it’s the morning – and then as soon as you see a yawn, put them back down and hope they sleep through for a few more hours bringing you to local morning time.
2. Day Two: Do not allow your child to nap more than 2 hours total if they’re down to one nap, or more than 3 hours total if they’re still taking multiple naps
Your kiddo will want to sleep more than anything else during the day, but do not let them. Again, once they hit 7 pm local time they will be ready for sleep and they’ll likely sleep a bit longer that night, maybe not through to 7 am local time, but more like 3 or 4 am. When they wake, get them up for a while, but try to keep them in as little light as possible, then put them down again when they show sleepy signs.
3. Make sure you wake them up no later than 7 or 8 am local time to start their day
Try to get them to stay awake as much as possible between the hours of 6/7 am and 6/7 pm so that their brain will want to sleep between the hours of 6/7 pm and 6/7 am.
4. Lots of sun exposure
The sun is responsible for regulating not only your Circadian rhythm (which causes a person to sleep long periods at night and be awake long periods during the day), but also your melatonin output. The more direct the sun exposure, especially early in the day, the faster your baby will get back on the correct time zone!
All these points above will help your child adjust to local time within a few days tops!
Here’s where the real party begins. And when I say party, I mean all night “Party at my crib at 2 am,” where “crib” is a physical crib and not an early 2000’s MTV reality show.
What you may find is that once you get back to the States your little one tries to wake up to start the day in the middle of the night (between 12 am and 3 am). To them, 3 am may feel more like dinner time in Asia, so their tummies might be waking them up. So what to do?
1. On the first night home, I recommend that you simply allow your child to get up and start the day at whatever time they wish, even if it’s 3 am.
2. During the day, limit daytime sleep, and try to start their naps to as close to their scheduled times as possible.
If your baby normally naps at 9 am and 1 am, then do everything you can to not put them down for a nap before 9 am, even if they woke up to start the day at 4:30 am. If your toddler normally naps at 1 pm, then try to put them down as close to 1 pm as possible.
Keep in mind that this can still be a somewhat gradual process. On day 1 or 2, perhaps the closest you can get to putting them down at their scheduled nap times is within 2 hours of when they’re supposed to start.
Remember, daytime nap limits apply – 3 hours for nappers who nap more than once a day and 2 hours for nappers who nap only once each day. Enforce these nap time limits. Your little one will want to sleep more during the day – do not allow them to do so.
3. Push bedtime to occur no earlier than about 6 or 6:30 pm regardless of how naps went that day.
You don’t want to allow your child to enter nighttime sleep until as close to a typical bedtime as possible. If you allow them to go to bed earlier, say around 5 pm, you are going to cause them to wake and want to start their day about 12 hours later. Since we want them to wake at 6 am or after to start their day, bedtime needs to happen no earlier than 12 hours before your desired morning wake up time.
A Final Note: To Parents Who Have Sleep Trained Before This Trip…
If you’re a mama (or papa) that has done some sleep training in the past, and/or your kiddo is accustomed to hanging out on their own a bit in the morning before you go to them, then I’d also suggest starting each day an hour later than the previous day. If your baby wakes to start their day at 3 am the first night you are back, make sure that the next night you don’t set foot in their room until 4 am, even if they’re awake at 3 am. The next morning, go in at 5 am but not earlier, and on and on until you’ve hit your desired wake time.
Regardless of whether you are the one to determine the start of the day, or the baby is, by putting them down for bedtime around 6 or 7 pm local time and making sure their naps don’t start until their scheduled times (and don’t last more than the limits outlined above), baby should be back to their normal schedule in no time at all.
If you want to learn more about getting your baby on an age-appropriate sleeping schedule, and how to deal with sleep regressions (especially after travel!) – sign up for my newsletter!