Welcome to installment two of my series on traveling with very young children! Today, I'm going to talk about jetlag and little ones, mostly because this is the one topic my husband was adamant I cover. Why? Because even when travel is unavoidable, the jetlag experience can be mind-numbing, nerve-wracking and misery-inducing when you don't know what to expect, how long it will last, and what to do about it. Having personally survived over two dozen long-haul trips with babies, I have mastered the process (with my kids, at least) and I am here to help you!
What is jetlag and why is it an issue?
Jetlag is the sensation experienced by a person who has traveled by air to find him/herself in a time zone several hours different from the one to which they are accustomed. The lack of synchrony between a person's internal clock and the time in the new place disrupts eating, sleeping, wakefulness, restfulness, body temperature, hormones...and gives the general feeling of just being "off".
When adults travel, they typically force themselves into the new time as quickly as possible. Adults might give themselves one or two days to adjust, but they might not. They try to ignore the signals their bodies give them for hunger, rest, and sleep, and they just plow ahead in time with the locals.
Children cannot do this.
This is very important for a parent (and any other adults around your wee ones) to understand. Children cannot force themselves into a new time. They cannot ignore the signals their bodies are giving them. Nor should they. Biologically, it just doesn't make sense. The human body is not designed for that sort of drastic change, although modern life has made it so commonplace that we often forget that fact.
this is me with my wee daughter the day we arrived in Doha, Qatar, after traveling from the Gulf Coast of the US in one go; that's over 20 hours of travel and a seven or eight hour time difference, depending on daylight savings
Of course, this can be colossally inconvenient, especially to the adult who is trying to force themselves to follow the sun. Child can be wide awake and ready to party at 2am. Child can reject any and all foods at "normal" eating times and then wake up ready for breakfast at 11pm, when adult is ready for bed. It might not necessarily correspond to the clock time at home, though it might be close (after all, the travel itself was very disrupting and that started the problem). However maddening, rest assured: there is a pattern, and this is the take-home gold I'm offering you.
Children adjust to new time zones approximately one hour per day.
Technically, adults do too; we just ignore it. Biologically, all of our bodies adjust one hour per day, no matter our age (technically, I believe it is one hour per westward time zone and one and a half hours per eastward time zone; from experience, I can tell you that it feels easier to travel in the direction the sun travels). I gleaned this golden fact from a fantastic book on baby sleep titled The 90-minute Baby Sleep Program by Dr. Polly Moore (Note: any parents struggling with baby sleep should buy this book as soon as possible). I have personally watched this happen. We have observed our daughter be ready for bed at 4am, then 3am, then 2am, then 1am, then midnight and so on, until she was finally back to her usual bedtime. Dr. Moore's book also gave me the excellent solution for handling this fact and managing your own expectations.
Bodies are ready to rest at the end of a 90-minute cycle of wakefulness.
If your child is up ready to play, swinging from the chandelier at 3am when you are dead tired and your hosts are most definitely sleep-ready, knowing that it will wind down in 90 minutes is very helpful indeed. Not every child is ready to sleep again after one cycle, but that 90 minutes (or 180 minutes or even 270 minutes) is so much more manageable than an indefinite period of wakeful frenzy. While they are awake in the middle of the (new-to-them) night, play with your children. Feed them. Enjoy them. WATCH THE CLOCK. That 90 minutes will pass and you will all be on your way to dreamland again soon.
Feel free to ask any questions or share your own experiences in the comments section!
Next installment: realistic expectations for a holiday abroad with littles