Traveling Internationally with a Toddler, Part Four: Dealing with Toddler Jet-lag

Moriah, enjoying a new toy in the USA

If you are traveling internationally you will most likely encounter some sort of jet lag. And if you’re making that trip with a toddler- life just got a whole lot more exciting!

Here’s the truth: Dealing with a jet-lagged toddler is never easy.  There is no magic solution, no way to fully prepare your little one for what’s to come, and no way, other than canceling your trip, to get out of dealing with your toddler’s jet lag.

But!

There ARE things you can do to help your child make the transition to a new time zone a bit easier, thus minimizing your challenges and maximizing the amount of fun you have on your trip.

Overall you have to do what’s right for your family and your child. Here’s the plan that has worked for us…

A-    Well before you leave- establish a daily schedule for your child, which includes set times for naps, meals and bedtimes. We have found that our daughter thrives on having a schedule.

B-    If you have a large time difference- try to adjust your child to at least part of the time change before you go. (This really only works if you have established a set daily schedule). I’ll add that this isn’t possible for everyone due to work schedules, etc. so if you can’t do this step- don’t stress! But, if you can, it certainly helps.

  •  If you are traveling west: Lucky for you- this is by far easier than going east.  We did this for our daughter when we traveled from Germany to the USA and encountered a 7-hour time change upon arrival. We ended up adjusting her 3 hours before we left so she only had to adjust to a 4-hour time change upon arrival. We did this over a period of 2 weeks: every few days we pushed her bedtime back by an hour. Starting the next day, no matter what time she woke up we shifted her entire daily schedule by an hour as well. No matter what. (ie- even if she was rubbing her eyes and seeming ready to nap, we waited until the new naptime to put her down). It took her a couple days to adjust for each hour of change (the first few days she woke up at her normal time, thus getting an hour less sleep), but eventually she adjusted and started sleeping longer. When she seemed adjusted, we waited a day or two and then pushed the schedule back another hour. By the time we left she was going to bed at 10pm (she had been used to a 7pm bedtime), eating lunch at 2pm and having a nap from 3-5pm. It was a bit silly schedule-wise at the end, but we had the ability to change our schedules to accommodate the shift, and I believe it really helped out overall with the time change.
  •  If you are traveling east: Ok, this can be a bit trickier but it can be done! It just takes a bit longer. We recently shifted our daughter’s schedule one hour earlier to deal with daylight savings time. If your child wakes up around the same time each day, the best way to do this would be to wake them up an hour earlier one day and then shift their entire schedule earlier one hour from that day on.  Wait a few days until they are adjusted and then repeat with the next hour. You can also do what we did for daylight savings time and put your child to bed 15 minutes earlier (and shift the schedule for the next day earlier by 15 minutes), doing this every day for four nights for each hour of time change. While it works really well to adjust them to time differences of only an hour or two, it can get a bit tedious with all the 15 minute intervals, so I don’t suggest using that method for adjusting your child for multiple hours of time difference.

C-    Whether you have pre-adjusted your child or not, once you arrive to your destination- Rip the Band-Aid off and stick to your new daily schedule!

I cannot stress how important this step it! It’s not always easy but it is crucial. I think that when you hear Internet horror stories of children who take weeks and weeks to adjust to a new time zone, it is probably most often because the parents are not doing this.

Here’s the truth about doing this: the first few days will be a bit rough. Your kid will be cranky, and you’ll be exhausted. You’ll feel like a schedule Nazi at times, but just do it. Stick it out and you’ll be glad you did because within a few days, and certainly within a week for even the longest time zone changes, your child will have adjusted (or will be very well on their way to adjusting).

Here are some tips in dealing with these first few days:

  • Certainly if your kid seems hungry outside of meal time- feed them a snack. Even if they don’t eat much at the new meal times, sit them down and offer them a meal at that time.
  • When your child wakes up at the wrong hour in the night (and they will for at least a few nights!)- go to them. Keep the room dark, keep the pj’s on and rock, pat, sing, hum, do whatever you can to encourage them to try to sleep, or at least rest. (A note- that they may need a little snack in the middle of the night for the first night or two until their tummy’s adjust). Do not get them up and have playtime! Yes, you will be tired, but stick it out. When morning comes, wake them up if you need to and make a BIG deal out of it! “Yey! It’s morning rise and shine, let’s sing a morning song!” It may feel silly but it will help reset the little one’s internal clock.
  • Limit naps during the day. As they probably haven’t slept very well those first few nights, they might try to take super long naps- discourage this- wake them up (otherwise they won’t sleep at night!). Our daughter was on a one nap a day schedule when we left and that nap would usually be about 2-2.5 hours. When we traveled we woke her up after 3 hours.
  • Get outside and get moving! Sunshine helps immensely when getting over jet lag.
  • Repeat after me: this too shall pass. 🙂

 

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