If you're traveling across several time zones with a baby, I salute you, intrepid traveler. This is not a task for the weak-willed. This requires courage and determination beyond that of the ordinary adventurer. But before you set out, I want to make sure you’re armed with all the information you need to maintain those sleep skills you’ve been working so hard to develop.
How do we maintain good sleep habits while we’re traveling? If we’re crossing time zones, how do we deal with the inevitable complication of jet lag in our babies?
1. Red-Eye Flight
Some of us like to envision this scenario where we jump on the plane when baby’s already asleep, and they just magically sleep through the entire flight, arriving fresh and rested and ready for the upcoming adventure. Depending upon the length of your flight and time zone adjustment, the odds often work against you. There's a high likelihood that you’re both going to have an awful night and arrive frazzled and seriously overtired.
Catch a daytime flight and hope for a decent nap or two on the way. You’re all going to arrive with a bit of a sleep debt anyways, since motion sleep isn’t nearly as restful as what we’re used to. But with a little bit of pent up sleep debt, it can actually help you get your baby adjusted to the new local time.
2. Travel Prepared
Given the special circumstances surrounding travel, I think this is one of those rare times when it’s OK to give in to their demands. If they want to watch seven straight hours of cartoons, this would be the time. Be sure to pack your carry-on with an absolute conucopia of toys, snacks, books and battery chargers. Whatever they ask for, hand it over.
The only real exception here is not to feed baby a bunch of sugary snacks because it’s just going to result in a big old crash when the sugar rush fades and sleep will be that much harder to achieve. Offer her plenty of fruits and vegetables, and make sure you keep her hydrated. It’s probably going to mean a bunch of potty breaks, but trust me, it’s worth it. Beyond sleep, jet lag symptoms includes constipation and diarrhea, so maintaining proper hydration is crucial.
3. Is it worth altering the schedule?
If you’re traveling for less than five days, it’s probably not worth making adjustments to baby’s bedtime regardless of the time difference. Experts say that jet lag lasts, on average, for about a day for every hour of time change, so if you’re taking a four day trip and you’re looking at a six-hour time change, it’s hardly worth getting baby fully adjusted to the difference just to turn around and have to do it all over again once you get home.
If, however, you’re going to be gone for longer than five days, then you’ll want to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible. Luckily, our bodies have an inherent ability to adapt to new time zones based on the light/dark cycle, so you’ll have nature working on your side. So on night one, jump straight into the new time zone. It might not be a seamless transition, but we’ll work on that.
4. Stick to your bedtime routine
Bedtime routines are about more than just getting into comfortable clothes and brushing our teeth. A predictable bedtime routine sends signals to the brain that sleep is just over the horizon, so the brain start preparing for it by firing up the melatonin production, relaxing the muscles, and slowing down mental activity. So whatever your baby’s bedtime routine is at home, stick as closely to it as you can.
An important preparatory step to take is, black out any external light sources two hours before baby’s bedtime. If that means putting garbage bags over the windows, then you bust out the moves with masking tape, because esthetics don’t matter to a sleepy baby. A completely dark room is one of the best tools you’ve got for helping them get to sleep and stay asleep.
5. Sunlight’s on your side
As much as we don’t want any sunlight getting in the room while baby’s trying to sleep, we want tons of it when they’re awake. Getting a significant amount of sunlight during the day charges up our melatonin production and helps get the circadian rhythm adjusted quickly to the new time zone, so getting outdoors during the day will work wonders in helping baby sleep well at night.
6. Add an extra nap
Even in the best case scenario, baby’s still going to be needing a little more sleep once you arrive to your destination. So an extra nap between 45 minutes to an 1.5 hours, can really help counteract the overtiredness that comes after a long flight.
Remember to leave enough space between waking up from her last nap and bedtime so that there’s time for fatigue to build up in the interim. Let’s say you’ve got an 8 month-old and your usual bedtime is 8:00. You’ll want to get her up from her last nap of the day by no later than 5:00 so she’s sleepy enough to go down for the night once bedtime comes around.
7. Keep things familiar
Remember to pack baby’s favorite PJs, lovie, blanket, pillow, and so on. Once baby’s asleep, it will help them to stay that way if their surroundings are similar to the ones they’re used to. And if you don’t usually share a bed with your little one, don’t start now. Do not bed share while you’re traveling unless you want to bed share when you get home as well. Babies get attached to this scenario in the blink of an eye, and once they’ve gotten attached, they will fiercely pushback about sleeping in their own bed.
8. Remember who you’re dealing with
Nobody thrives when they’re sleep deprived, and kids are no different. We’re all going to be a little grumpy and short-tempered once that plane lands. It’s up to you to keep everything on an even keel, even if your baby starts melting down. She is, after all, a baby, and she’s likely pretty tired.
As I mentioned earlier, it takes about a day to adjust for evey hour of time difference, so it’s going to require patience and consistency on your part to get them over the hump as soon as possible. Keeping your cool will help baby adjust quicker, and the sooner you’re all accustomed to the new time zone, the sooner you can all get on with enjoying your trip