How to Overcome Jet Lag with Young Children

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I am standing in a corner of a grand stairwell in the renowned Musee de Louvre in Paris, pushing a screaming toddler for what seems like an eternity. I’m try to avoid the gaze of kind and unkind stares from fellow tourist wondering who the mother of the screaming child is. I am wishing I had wings like the Bird Woman statue in front of me to fly back to the comfort of home.

How to overcome jet lag

Photo By: BigStock/Wavebreak Media Ltd

You would think being seasoned at traveling with children, I would have had more sense then to drag a sleep deprived, jet lagged, and hungry 2-year-old to any museum. But, my eagerness to see the Louvre overtook my better judgment. I now find myself about to have my own meltdown wondering how to overcome jet lag.

The following strategies were road tested the following day on the streets of Paris and resulted in a dramatically more enjoyable day for all. Since children of different ages have different tolerance for lack of sleep, keep in mind that these strategies were road-tested with 2 and 4-year-old. During this trip to Paris, we learned that we should always give ourselves an extra 2-3 days to get over jet lag on top of what we would need to sightsee in a particular city. So, if you think that you need a week to see Paris, plan on being there 10 days in total. 

Start Off the Trip Well Rested

If you are anything like me, the days before you leave on a big trip is like cramming for finals. If you were not already busy enough, you now have to pack everyone’s bags, clean the house, pay the bills, stop the mail….the to-do list seems endless. It is tempting to stay up late and expect to catch up on sleep when you go on vacation. Okay, that was a great strategy before you had children, but the reality for a lot of parents is that vacations with children and particularly young children aren’t exactly restful unless you have grandparents or other help traveling with you. So, the best thing you can do to ensure a positive attitude when trying to overcome jet lag is ensuring that you are well rested. 

Re-Establishing a Sensible Routine

The day you arrive, let the children and yourself sleep as much as you need to catch up from the lack of sleep on the plane ride over. Just go with the flow. Day two, you want to wake the children and yourself up at a decent time (no later than 9am) even if you’ve all been up a good part of the night struggling with jet lag. Muster every ounce of will power to awaken yourself and those dead asleep (finally!) children. Plan on a very easy first morning. This is very difficult when you are so eager to see a new destination you’ve been reading about for weeks. But your restraint and patience will pay off.

Make sure you get back to your hotel for an afternoon nap at a decent hour. Keeping within walking distance from where you are staying will allow you to avoid feeling stressed out about navigating new roads or public transportation. Just soak in the local area. After a nap which can be longer than usual, but not so long that it pushes bedtime too late for the children or yourself, drag those jet lagged bodies out of bed and out into the fresh air for a walk to a park and to pick up groceries.

Make sure that you get home that first night at a normal bedtime hour and put the children to bed. Set your expectations for a difficult second night of sleep. The third day, repeat the routine of the second day but you may venture a little further if the night before wasn’t too rough, but don’t pack the day and make sure to get that nap in. By day three, the children’s new routine should be established and now mom and dad can finally work on getting over their own jet-lag. Once the children are getting some solid night-time sleep, you can start being more loose with their naps and letting them nap in the stroller or child carrier. 

Start Slow With the Activities

overcome jet lag with stroller walk

Photo By BigStock/StanislavUvarov

After researching all the wonderful things there are to do at your destination, it is hard to think about starting out slow. You are pumped with adrenalin despite your lack of sleep on the plane, and so are your children, but while you are used to pushing yourself before you had children, with children in tow, pushing it during the first couple of days can be miserable. When you invest a few days to overcome jet lag, while keeping the most highly anticipated and vigorous activities for later in your trip, it ensures that you all enjoy them fully. When moving from one sight or activity to the next in a day, try not to cover too much geographical distance.

Traveling on public transportation with children with all the extra day gear can be very exhausting for parents and children. If you are planning on walking a fair amount, expect to put even a preschooler in a stroller. It will help you move quicker between sights, but it will also allow your preschooler to save energy for enjoying the sights when you arrive. On the first and second day, do not plan on doing more than one major sight or two small activities during the day. There will be so much energy expanded towards getting your bearings and just absorbing the new environment. 

Staying Flexible

Although I do have a tendency towards being high control, when on vacation with children who are trying to overcome jet lag, I am reminded that staying flexible can go such a long way in helping anyone keep a good attitude. Planning for unpredictability in the first few days when arriving at a destination will help parents to go with the flow. Accept the fact that everyone needs time to adjust and that it can happen at a different pace for each person. But do not assume that flexibility means not setting a routine. It means eliminating activities as needed and readjusting plans in order to accommodate the establishment of a daily schedule.

It helps to plan for the adjustment period and stay in one place for a substantial length of time before moving from one town to the next. The easy pace that you start out the vacation at will give you the freedom to be flexible later. When planning your trip, create a small list of must do/must see sights, followed by a list of nice to see sights. If you get to any on the second list, that’s a bonus but don’t count on it. This allows you to be flexible and make better decisions on the fly when you are running out of time. 

Arm Yourself With Snacks

Hungry children are often grumpy children, even if they can’t tell you that they are hungry or attribute their temper to hunger. When children are trying to overcome jet lag, they also tend to eat at strange times. This is compounded when you are visiting a place where the food isn’t familiar to them. It is hard for a young child to settle down for food in an unfamiliar environment because there is so much to discover and process. It seems that the best place to fill little tummies is in a stroller or car seat when they are sitting relatively still and strapped in. The rhythmic motion also keeps them calm enough to eat “subconsciously”.

Don’t worry yourself with the quality of nutrition in the first few days especially if the foods available aren’t familiar to the child. A few days of less than ideal nutrition will not do a child harm. The key is to offer snacks often and don’t stress out at meal times if they don’t eat. Their body clocks are adjusting and it’s hard to time meal times to when their bodies are hungry until the new routine and schedule are in place. Offer lots of water throughout your day. Sippy cups are helpful for drinking on the go so you don’t have to keep stopping to make sure that little junior doesn’t spill everything on his clothes. 

Encouraging Good Night-Time Sleep Away From Home

How to Overcome Jet Lag with Young Children 2

Photo By:BigStock/famveldman

Hopefully your child is already sleeping well in the evenings at home. But, bringing along a few familiar things that help to provide consistency and comfort can go a long way to encouraging good night-time sleep. I am sure that any sane parent would rather die than not bring along that special lovie. So, that requires no explanation. But there are a few other things you can bring or do to help ensure a good night’s sleep away from home.

Try to get your child used to whatever sleeping environment he or she will be sleeping in ahead of time in the comfort of home. If you are using a portable crib, have the child sleep in it for at least a week before traveling. If your child is used to sleeping alone, but will be sleeping with others while on vacation, get your little one used to it before you leave to minimize the stress while on vacation. If your child is used to a dark room, always, travel with a dark sheet which you can drape over a window where you are staying to get the room as dark as possible.

A favorite travel gear of mine is the Peapod travel tent. It is not only lightweight, but you can place this on any normal bed for a comfortable but safe place for baby to sleep. The best thing is that you can drape your sheet right over this tent to create a dark place for baby sleep in. All other distractions in the room are also blocked out from view by the dark sheet. If you think that noise is going to be an issue for your child who is sharing the same room or a small suite/apartment, get your child used to sleeping with a noisemaker . This can help to mask noise, but also sends a familiar cue to your child that it’s time to sleep once they hear that familiar soothing sound of the noise maker.

Traveling to new countries with children is a wonderful gift to them. Learning to overcome jet lag is part of the package that comes with most International travel. While it isn’t always easy, giving our children the opportunity to discover new lands, different cultures, and learning about varied human history is hugely formative. Bon Voyage.

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About the author

LiLing Pang is Co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo . She is a mom to two boys and a girl and recently traveled through Central America. Together with her husband, Brennan Pang, they hatched the idea of Trekaroo one summer day along the California coast while searching for the best kid-friendly tide pool near La Jolla with their curious 2 and a half year old.