“Only time can cure jet lag. Allow a day for each hour of time difference and add another day.”
Standard jet lag advice. I have no idea who said it or when I heard it. And while it may be true (sorry, I’m not going to tell you how to get over an 8 hour change in a day), there’s no 2 ways about it. We’ve done our fair share of time zone jumping and I’ve picked up a fair few extra ways to cure jet lag along the way.
I should probably add a disclaimer here. I’m not a medical professional nor am I a sleep consultant. These are just tips and tricks we have picked up along the way (including using a sleep consultant ourselves).
Table of Contents
Before you leave
Believe it or not, preparation can make all the difference. Start your journey badly and the jet lag will be even harder to kick when you get to the other end.
1. Start adjusting early
Some people I know are militant about this and will start adjusting their clocks well before their travel dates. Mrs Lastminute.com here is not that organised. The other thing for us is that often our travel involves big time differences and it’s impossible to get onto their time zone before you leave. That being said if when we travelled to the UK from Doha (a 2 or 3 hour time difference depending on the time of year), I would relax about bedtimes which are normally quite early.
That being said…
2. Plan your journey
Booking your flight at the right time can be the difference between success and failure. I know you don’t always have a choice in the matter but if you can time your flight right it can really help.
What’s the “right” timing? Well, that’s the million dollar question and I’m afraid there’s no easy answer. Depending on your child, how well they sleep / cope with being in one seat for hours on end, the destination, the flight time and the time zone change will all factor in to your decision (not to mention the ticket price!). You know your family best so consider all these things before you buy your flights.
3. Pack for the journey
Knowing what you need for the flight is crucial. We used to travel with all manner of things in our hand luggage on the off-chance that we would need them. While we’re far from the utopia of travelling light, we are much more selective about what we travel with (and without). There are some non-negotiable that always help the trip pass more smoothly:
- If we have a night flight we travel with pyjamas and favourite sleep toys / blankets. I always pack plenty of healthy snacks and take extra water. If we can’t get through security with a full bottle (some will let you through if your Things are little) then we take empty bottles with us and fill them up at a water fountain on the way to the plane. Travelling with a sleep aid like a foot pillow or jetpack is a great way to help little ones sleep better.
- On the other hand, if we have a day flight I pack even more snacks, the extra water and some non screen related activities in case the Things get bored.
- For flights involving layovers you need to think about the timing of the layover. Researching the airport is a great idea – if you know there is somewhere to sleep (night flights) or play (run off some of that energy), you know where to go to as soon as you get off the plane. Make sure you have some soft things to help with sleeping in chairs and other activities to keep busy minds active if they’re too exhausted to run around.
3. Start the journey well rested and hydrated
Exhaustion can completely derail any attempt you have to cure jet lag! Plus, there’s little that’s more stressful about travelling than getting through security lines with an overtired kid who is melting down.
Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.
We’ve all been there and it’s never pretty.
If the Things are tired, they still get their normal bedtime regardless of my planning genius. I try get everyone to drink plenty of water the day before we travel and I make sure we have all eaten well.
On the plane
First off, you need to check out a post by Travel Mad Mum who has more experience flying with toddlers than you can shake a stick at.
So you’ve done all the preparation and you’re feeling good… but still anxious about the sleep.
What if the baby cries the whole way there (it happens)? What if the toddler doesn’t sleep for the entire 16 hour flight (I’m looking at you Thing 1)? What if the pre-schooler sleeps so much you know they won’t go to bed on time when you land (Thing 2)?
These tips are never going to cure jet lag but they might just help a bit when you get there.
4. Look forward not back
The first thing I do when I get on a plane is change my watch. (Ok, ok, I get the Things settled first. But THEN I change my watch lol). I stop thinking about what time it is where we are leaving because that’s irrelevant.
Look forward not back.
Maybe that’s a metaphor for deeper things but I’ll cover that another day!
5. Controlled sleep
Nappers. If your Things still nap then believe me: Naps are your friend. They’re a great way to manipulate a Thing’s sleep patterns, particularly on day flights.
Now my Things are not nappers any more and they’re not good plane sleepers. But since they don’t nap, if it’s a day flight and they don’t sleep then that’s fine.
Day flights are great because you can usually manipulate the situation to your advantage. If you’re going East you can all go out for dinner when you arrive because they won’t be tired yet. Going West and you keep them up as long as you can (beware of overtired kids!) and then let them sleep.
Night flights are another matter.
On an overnight flight from Miami to Doha we all slept for different times. Thing 1 slept for just 3 hours! I must admit I was worried that exhaustion would work against us when we arrived. But he went to bed after we got home and slept for 13 hours. He got up without any other symptoms of jet lag and that was the end of it for him.
Mr Wanderlust and I slept for about 6 hours each and jet lag was much harder for us. Exhaustion during the day doesn’t seem to change the inexplicable alertness that attacks me just as I’m getting into bed.
Thing 2 slept like a champion for the whole flight. I was worried that too much sleep would mean she wouldn’t sleep on arrival and I was right. She went to sleep but woke for 5 hours in the middle of the night. She’s been exhausted for a week. 5 hours people. It was awful. Here’s the thing – I tried to wake her on that plane, I really did. In fact I tried waking her up every 15 minutes for 2 hours!
Sometimes it just is what it is.
6. Consider comfort
Being comfortable isn’t a cure for jet lag. But if you’re not comfortable, the flight won’t be as restful as you need it to be and you’ll arrive feeling even worse than you should.
Think about what could make the trip more comfortable for you and your family?
Do you need a bassinet for the baby or do the kids need neck pillows? Do you need to buy one of the many products on the market for keeping the kids feet up? Maybe you think you’ll need a nursing pillow.
Or maybe it’s something as simple as wearing super comfortable clothes or bringing pyjamas with you.
7. Stay hydrated
You know how we started the trip well hydrated?
Well, that needs to continue on the flight. You get dehydrated much more quickly at altitude (I’ve tried it lol) and a body without water is not a happy body. It will find it harder to sleep, harder to rest properly. You may wake up thirsty thus interrupting your circadian rhythms.
I know it’s hard – you’re out of your usual routine and I’ve yet to meet an airline that hands out enough drinks (of any description). Take a water bottle with you (there are some great travel ones you can get that don’t take up too much room). Fill it before you board and drink regularly. Make sure your Things do the same.
It really helps – trust me on this one.
8. Limit caffeine and alcohol
I mean this is number 1 for pretty much any cure for jet lag guide you’ll find. I’ll admit this is the trick I am the least good about following. I like a glass of wine with dinner and you just can’t beat a good cup of tea with your breakfast.
But when every single piece of advice out there says you need to do it, it’s pretty safe to say it’s good advice.
Do what I say, Wanderlusters, not as I do.
When you get there
9. Write off the first day
My Things were routine babies. Or maybe I was (am) a routine mummy. Anyway, it works for us but you can get easily thrown off course with a long trip and or a big dose of jet lag.
When the Things were little, I used to give ourselves a free pass for the first day. If they needed to sleep in or have an extra nap we just went with it. Sometimes you just need to give yourselves a break.
Day 2 was a different story: back to the routine (as much as was ever possible) and full on waking sleeping kids if necessary. But Day 1 was ours. I just found getting past over tiredness was worth the day off and made getting back on track that bit easier when we did.
Now they’re bigger and we have things like school to get up for we are a bit more careful. We try to make sure they don’t sleep too late in the mornings and that they’re in bed at a decent hour. They might not be asleep but they’re in bed, resting and sending those all important messages to their brains than nighttime has come.
10. Limit daytime sleep
Day 1 notwithstanding, I limit naps times until we are back on track. Making sure that there was a clear window of awake time before the end of the last nap time and bedtime was crucial for us when the Things were little and remains so now. I didn’t mind putting them down a bit early if they needed it but that was about it. Super long naps (unless they’re ill or really exhausted) only help to keep their circadian rhythms out of synch for longer.
The same goes for grown ups. Napping during the day is sometimes inevitable but almost never helps me in the long run.
11. Lots of daytime fresh air and daylight
Speaking of circadian rhythms, there’s nothing like fresh air and natural light to help your body clock readjust. Get outside as much as you can. Head to playgrounds or parks or go for a walk. Not only does it help reset the circadian rhythm, it stops everyone falling asleep on the sofa and messing everything up.
12. Daytime activity (but not before bed)
While you’re outside make sure you are moving. Getting the blood moving and enjoying some gentle exercise is an awesome way to physically tire your body so you’re tired enough when it comes to bedtime to actually go to sleep.
Your Things are the same – getting them moving is another great way to send messages to their little bodies that it is day time and time to play!
13. Engage your brain
Boredom is a great way to instill lethargy and prolong jet lag for everyone n the family!
Make a plan for when you land. Trust me, researching things to do in a new city when you’re jet lagged is no fun. Find something interactive to do like a museum, a zoo, an aquarium or a nature reserve for example. Or set up an easy scavenger hunt for them to do.
When your brain is working you have less time to think about how tired you are. Plus it’s another thing to make your body tired at the end of the day. When it’s supposed to be.
14. Limit screen time
My Things LOVE a screen. But I’m the first to admit that it turns them into monsters, particularly if they watch too much. Add some exhaustion or time zone related tiredness and I know I’m on to a losing streak.
Not only that but research has repeatedly shown that the blue light emitted from screens is bad for your sleep patterns. It messes with your circadian clock and stops you both falling asleep and staying sleep.
Step away from the screens, my friends. You’ll thank me for it later.
15. Eat right
Your sleep pattern isn’t the only thing that gets impacted by jet lag. I don’t know about you but I can force myself to eat much when I’m not hungry, only to find my stomach growling an hour later because it is dinner time in the place I’ve just come from.
Eating healthily is a good way to get the right things into your body but also eating the right things at the right times can send messages to you brain to tell it what time it really is. As soon as we land anywhere we make sure we go straight to the new country’s timetable and eat all our meals at the right times.
Eating light is another good way to get on track. Little and often is a great mantra. Evenly spaced meals with some carefully planned snacks (don’t graze, it won’t help!) should keep hunger at bay while moving you to your new time zone.
If you find you or the Things are up in the night, remember that it could well be hunger that has woken them up. 3 hours into our first night when we were awake all night we went for a snack and it helped enormously. We always make sure we have eaten something before bedtime – even if it’s just a snack – to tray and avoid this happening.
I don’t want to get too TMI on you but let’s just say your appetite isn’t the only thing that stays on it’s old schedule to wake you up at random times and leave it at that.
16. Bedtime routine
We have always had a pretty consistent bedtime routine which has stood us in good stead when we have been travelling. Every night our Things have a decent meal (always including some protein to try and keep them fuller for longer). Then they have a warm bath. When you have Things that are struggling to sleep you might also find adding a little lavender oil or Epsom salts is also helpful. After bath they often have some warm milk and a story before brushing their teeth and heading to bed.
The thing about having a routine is that following it in a strange place and a different time zone will trigger a response in your Thing. It will make their brains recognise the time of day and understand that it is nearly bedtime. Their natural melatonin levels will rise and it will help them sleep.
17. Keep it dark, quiet and calm at night
Speaking of melatonin, contrary to popular belief it’s not a sleep hormone. It’s a biological marker of darkness according to Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford when he was quoted in The Guardian last year.
Regardless of what it is, it is produced in the pineal gland when it is dark. Conversely light inhibits its production.
So when we woke up at 12.30am on our first night in Miami we kept the lights off and the Things in bed. It was pretty tricky – they were sharing a bed and alternately played silly games with each other or annoyed each other to the highest extreme.
They never went back to sleep BUT I do think it had an impact on the overall recovery time.
And when you’re at your wits end
Sometimes just nothing will work. If you really don’t know what to do…
18. Try something completely different
I’d never heard of this before but apparently the hot – cold – relax ritual can work wonders. I don’t know about that but I do think a bit of pampering can never go amis 🙂
Do whatever you need to
Sometimes you just can’t keep a child awake or wake them up. Sometimes you need to let them watch tv just to get them through till bedtime (or when you need to keep sleeping!). And sometimes the one child will have a sleep in on the only day the other didn’t. It all came right after 5 days or so.
Ride it out
You’ve followed all the advice. And it didn’t work. Then you’ve done everything you’re not supposed to do. And that didn’t work either. So you just ride it out and wait for time to take it’s course. Because it will.
Maybe you can’t cure jet lag?
Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe you can’t cure jet lag. Which takes me back to the beginning. Maybe “only time can cure jet lag. Allow a day for each hour of time difference and add another day.”