With all the travel that we do as a family, you would think that we’ve got every aspect of family travel down pat. However, despite the many trips we’ve taken with our kids, jet lag in kids is still something we struggle with.
My husband and I love taking our kids on big adventures. We’ve taken our kids to places like Indonesia, Italy, and India. And for all of our international trips, we’ve had to help our kids adjust to the new time zones.
This post was updated on September 5, 2022.
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Handling jet lag in kids
For many families who travel to different time zones, you know all too well that it can often be difficult to get your kids adjusted to the local time zone when you, yourself, are still trying to adjust. Run a Google search for “how to get rid of jet lag in kids” and you’ll get more than a hundred thousand hits.
The myriad of advice for families runs the gamut of depriving your kids of sleep to giving them melatonin (read here about the debate on the safety of melatonin for kids). For me, personally, I prefer to use more natural methods to get my kids to adjust to the time difference. However, I would be lying if I said I had never considered giving my kids “a little something” to help them sleep.
In our family, jet lag hits us the most when we get home. Sometimes it takes weeks (or months!) for our kids to get used to being in our regular time zone. After our very first overseas trip as a family, it took our daughter several months of waking up in the middle of the night before she finally got used to being on Seattle time. It was pretty brutal, to say the least, especially since both my husband and I had to be back at work during that months-long adjustment period.
Looking at jet lag in adults versus jet lag in kids
Our bodies are remarkable machines. We all have internal clocks that help us know intuitively when we should get sleepy and when we should be awake. These biological clocks, related to our circadian rhythms, are influenced by factors like sunlight, meal times, and activities.
When we change time zones, our biological clocks are still temporarily set to the original time zone. This isn’t much of a problem when the time zones are only one or two hours apart. But when the time zone is six, twelve, or fourteen hours, that can make your sleep cycle go all wonky!
Most adults are able to mentally handle jet lag and can overcome the physical tiredness with some mental strategies. But kids are more easily affected by physical changes. And for them, jet lag can be a hard challenge to overcome.
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Our family’s tips for combating jet lag
After countless international trips, helping my kids get through jet lag is always a challenge. But fortunately, I’ve developed a few anti-jet lag strategies over the years that have helped my family get over that challenge.
Of course, every kid is different. What works for my kids may not necessarily work on yours. And who’s to say that my strategies will work on my own kids every single time.
But as a traveling parent, I feel it’s my duty to share my insights with other traveling parents. At the very least, I hope that it may relieve some of the torture you’ll have to undoubtedly face when combating jet lag in kids. If you’re planning for (or coming back from) a long trip, here are my tips to help your kids get over jet lag.
1. Plan for at least one adjustment day
This applies to when you’re going to your vacation destination and when you get back. Kids don’t have the same stamina as adults do to power through their tiredness. Similarly, they haven’t yet mastered the skill of forcing themselves to sleep.
In other words, when your kids are tired, they’ll go to sleep, even if it’s two in the afternoon. And when your kids are not tired, they’ll be awake, even if it’s one in the morning.
For my family, when we travel, we like to plan for at least one adjustment day. This allows our kids to start getting used to being in a new time zone. That way, we don’t feel so stressed about missing out on sight-seeing or activities.
2. Try and arrive in the morning
Arriving in the morning helps in two ways. First, it gives you a whole day to do activities to keep your kids awake until it’s relatively close to bed time. Second, it ensures that you’ll have a chance to spend some time out in the sun (more on that later).
When we returned home from our trip to India back in 2016, we arrived home in Seattle around 8 in the morning. We spent a good chunk of our day eating at our favorite local restaurant, walking around the neighborhood, visiting a local farmer’s market, and hanging out in our backyard. For the most part, the activities helped to distract our kids from feeling too tired.
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3. Keep your kids from sleeping
One of the most painful sounds to hear is the cry of a kid who’s been woken from a nap. But if you’re trying to combat jet lag in kids, this is one of the things you’re just going to have to endure.
If your kids fall asleep in the middle of the day, try and limit their nap time to an hour at the most. They’ll want to sleep longer, since their bodies still think it’s night-time. However, this will mean that they’ll be wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, right when you’re trying to get your own sleep time.
During our adjustment period after India, I was spending the afternoons with both my kids on my lap, crying their lungs out because they were so tired. I felt so bad for them.
However, I knew that if I gave in, they would be wide awake at bedtime. It may be hard to listen to your kids crying from tiredness, but you shouldn’t feel bad for keeping your kids from sleeping. In the long run, it will make it easier for them to adjust to their new time zone.
4. Stay outside as much as possible
Sunlight helps to release serotonin in your body. This in turn positively affects your body’s moods. Sunlight also has an effect on your body’s circadian rhythms. It signals to your body when it is time to sleep and when it is time to be awake. Since traveling between time zones throws your circadian rhythm out of whack, getting as much sunlight as possible is important to getting that circadian rhythm back on track.
For kids, the best way to do this is to spend time outside, playing at local parks or taking hikes in the outdoors. When we come back from overseas trips, as part of our adjustment day, we like to spend it outside. Play catch with your kids. Or throw around a frisbee. If your backyard is big enough, maybe it’s time to invest in a trampoline, just so your kids have motivation to play outside.
5. Be patient when dealing with jet lag in kids
The most important advice I give to parents is to be patient. All kids are different, so a method that works on one kid may not necessarily work on another.
Also, every trip comes with its own special circumstances. So understand that sometimes you may not have time for that adjustment day, or perhaps it’s too cold to be spending all your days outside. Be patient, and know that this will not last forever. Eventually your kids WILL adjust to the proper time zone.
If you’re lucky enough to be doing slow travel, combatting jet lag won’t be too much of an issue. But if your trip is short, give yourself some grace and try not to cram too many activities into your days.
Need more tips on flying with kids? Read my airplane travel posts.
Developing your own strategies for handling jet lag in kids
Helping your kids get over jet lag can be stressful and painful. But don’t let it deter you from traveling!
In my opinion, traveling with your children is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. So go ahead and take that long haul trip. With these tips, you’ll be able to help your kids get over jet lag with ease!
Do you have any of your own tried and true methods for dealing with jet lag in kids? Share them below in the comments!
Need to spend a long layover during your overseas trip? Read this posts for ideas on what to do with your kids during a long layover:
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