Handling Jet Lag and Young Children

26 December 2012

Being in the midst of the holiday season, we asked Medical Doctor and mother of two young boys, Danielle Esler to tell us her tips for dealing with jet lag in young children. This is her advice.

I first experienced a child's jetlag as a new mother when I journeyed to Italy with my young baby. I won't lie, it was tough and I returned to Australia an exhausted mess. Part of the problem was that I had naively thought I could "go with the flow" when traveling with a very small child, just as I had during my pre-child travels. I have since learnt that organisation is the key to successful travel with small children and after some serious rethinking about how we travel, am again comfortable venturing abroad with my two little boys.  This organisation includes an approach to jet lag that is designed to minimize the negative impact that a infant or child with a disrupted body clock has on the whole family.

 Travelling With Kids

Our internal body clock, which resides in our brain, is disturbed by crossing three or more time zones,.  International travellers would be familiar with the symptoms: sleepiness, night-time wakening, a general feeling of malaise and sometimes nausea. Jetlag can also influence production of breast milk, as a woman's milk production is different at different times of the day and is therefore particularly difficult for babies and nursing mothers

Jetlag is an inevitable aspect of travel to a different time-zone. Our bodies will ultimately reset to a new time-zone however for those undertaking long journeys with a baby or small child jetlag may result in a week of angst. While there is no cure for jetlag, these are the steps I recommend to families to help them cope while their child's (and their own) bodies adjust.

  • Think about whether your need to adjust to the local time at all. We travelled to California Disneyland with our (then) 1 and 3 year old sons. Our trip was relatively short, with six days spent at the park.  Disneyland is open until midnight and spectacular at night.   Instead of adjusting our body clocks to USA time, we deliberately kept to an Australian schedule. This allowed us to experience Disneyland during daylight hours, in the afternoon, but also to experience it at night. The result was an amazing, unique holiday and there was no need to readjust our children back to Australian time when we returned.  Disneyland is obviously a unique situation, there are many locations where adjusting to local time is a must. If the time-zone change is 3 hours or less always consider keeping your children on home time. I routinely do this when travelling out of Queensland in summer to states where daylight savings is in place and it makes these journeys easier.
  • Sleep when your baby or child sleeps. This is one of the most important tips to adhere to in order to cope with a jetlagged child.
  • Jetlag is inevitable if your journey takes you across three or more time-zones. You must therefore expect to have an unsettled baby or child in the first few days, and possibly up to a week at your destination.  If you are traveling for an important event, such as a wedding ensure you arrive early so that you have time to adjust to the local time.
  • Our internal body clock is intrinsically linked to the amount of sunlight we receive so have your children out in bright light (while being careful to avoid sunburn) as much as possible.
  • Plan a journey that incorporates layovers.  By breaking a trip up into more manageable time-zone blocks your child's jetlag will be less severe and so will the disruption to family life.
  • When you arrive at your destination dine at local meal times. Don't be too strict if your baby or child wakes at night and is hungry, you may offer them a snack or drink however plan for big meals to be taken at the appropriate destination time.
  • Many families find that routine brings out the best in their child. By following a version of your normal routine when you are travelling your child will have important bedtime cues to assist them to go to sleep at the appropriate time. For us this means bath-time, story time and bed occurs even if this means a bath in a hotel sink and bed on a pull out couch.
  • Try to soothe your child back to sleep when they wake at night. Patting, singing and rocking may all help with this.
  • The direction of travel influences the body's response. When travelling east try to keep your child up as late as possible so they go to bed closer to the destination travel time. When travelling west, your child may have trouble falling asleep that first night. Work out a plan to entertain them if they have trouble getting to sleep - such as books or a DVD. Ensure that you wake your child up at local time the next day though, even if they have had a late night.
  • I am often asked about using medications such as anti-histamines to help families cope with jet lag.  My advice is to avoid these.There are two reasons for this. The first is that they may have a paradoxical effect in children.  The result can be a hyperactive child when you were hoping for them to be asleep.  In addition, the sedation may reduce a baby or small child's drive to breathe. If you are determined to use them speak to your doctor first and a trial at home before you travel is wise.
  • Share the parental duties. If you are travelling with a partner or other adult family member ensure they are on board to manage overtired little ones. It is an easy trap to just pass an unsettled, overtired bub to the breast-feeding mum.

Danielle publishes her own blog, Bubs on the Move, which focuses on travelling with children.

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