Jet lag is one of those inevitable disadvantages to traveling. There is often no way around it. If you want to see parts of the world that are several time zones away, you will have to suffer from the physical effects of adjusting to the time change. Unfortunately, baby jet lag and toddler jet lag can be even more difficult than it is for adults.
Their little bodies don’t understand the time change, and it is harder to get babies to sleep when they become overtired. In fact, dealing with jet lag in a baby or toddler can take about 3-4 days before they are fully adjusted to the new time zone. But don’t let that discourage you from traveling during your child’s early years. While baby jet lag is no joke, there are a few things you can do to make the time change easier on your little one.
This guide includes baby jet lag tips and expert advice to deal with jet lag in babies and toddlers when traveling internationally.
Our personal experience dealing with baby jet lag and toddler jet lag
We began traveling internationally as a family when our daughter was just a few months old. And we have been traveling with her multiple times each year ever since. In her early years of life, we visited more than 20 countries. So, we have dealt with jet lag in babies and toddlers many times.
We will be the first family to admit, baby jet lag is torture! Primarily because, as parents, you are also dealing with jet lag. You’re exhausted, you’re cranky, and your internal body clock is also malfunctioning. However, unlike when you are traveling solo or traveling with just your spouse, when your kids are with you on a trip, you are also their caretaker. Even if you want to sleep, if your jet lagged baby can’t sleep neither can you.
Our first international trip with our baby to Costa Rica, we struggled to get her to sleep at all during the first night. She cried and was unable to settle herself. Our baby was not a great sleeper anyway, so throw in jet lag and it was brutal! After I had been awake with her all night, my husband finally took her outside to walk along the beach at 4:30 am so I could finally rest.
Since then, we have learned a few things about how to deal with jet lag in babies and toddlers. Every trip afterward got a little easier.
Tips for overcoming baby jet lag and toddler jet lag
If flying with babies or flying with toddlers, you’ll want to do everything you can during the flight to help ease the effect of jet lag for your baby or toddler. Be sure to pack essential items in your carry-on bag that will keep little ones entertained, relaxed, and most importantly help your kids sleep on the flight. If you’re new to family travel, here are a few baby jet lag tips to help your little one cope with the time difference and overcome jet lag quickly.
1. Expect a few sleepless nights with your jet lagged baby.
You will inevitably be tired and jet lagged yourself, but your little one might struggle to sleep for a few nights. When babies and toddlers become overtired they actually sleep worse. Although your super tired, super cranky baby needs sleep more than anything, he or she will likely sleep much less than usual for a few nights. Expect frequent night wakings. Your baby may go to sleep at night and wake up a couple hours later and refuse to go back to sleep. Although, night sleep may be a struggle, your little one will make up for that lack of sleep later. Expect your jet lagged baby to take longer than usual naps during the day.
One night during a trip to Germany when our daughter was 19 months old, she slept only 2 1/2 hours the first night. Baby and toddler jet lag is hard and exhausting on children and on parents as well. If you expect a brutal first night, it is easier to cope. Sometimes, just knowing what to expect takes away the shock factor and ultimately makes it easier to deal with.
2. Roll with the punches.
If your jet lagged baby or toddler can’t sleep, don’t try to let them cry it out in the crib. If they are happy laying there awake, feel free to let them be. But if they are getting antsy or fussy, get up with them. Keep the lights dim and opt for a relaxing activity like reading a book. Be patient. Again, they don’t understand why they are awake. They don’t understand that it is the middle of the night. The time change can be confusing for them, and they need you to be a source of comfort.
Often, when we travel a great distance our days start before 5am simply because our daughter won’t sleep any longer. On a positive note, that means we get to visit some of the usually crowded areas before droves of people fill the space. And we are able to snap a few priceless pictures without 4,000 other people in them.
3. Stick to a familiar bedtime routine.
When you’re traveling, stick as closely to your child’s bedtime routine as possible. For us, that means selecting a hotel room with a bathtub and giving our daughter a warm bath when it is getting close to bedtime. When our daughter was still an infant, it meant nursing or traveling with expressed breastmilk so she could have her evening bottle.
Once she became a toddler, it meant purchasing milk each night so she could have a sippy cup before bed, which was something we always did at home. It was also beneficial to stay in an apartment instead of a hotel, so we had a refrigerator to keep her milk cool and a separate living space apart from the bedroom that allowed us to stay up later if we wanted to while she slept. We also brought her sound machine from home to recreate her typical sleeping environment.
All of these things have signaled to our daughter since she was born that it is time to sleep. So sticking to that same routine when we travel helps her to settle into the time change and sleep better at night.
4. Get outside.
When you first arrive at your destination, if it is still daytime, expose your child to daylight. Try to stay outside as much as possible. This helps a child’s internal circadian rhythm adjust to the time change. The fresh air and a little physical activity will also help keep your child awake and distracted. This is especially true when dealing with toddler jet lag.
Find a park or even a town square that your little one can run around in and explore. Your baby or toddler may not feel up to it for that long and might even crash in the stroller or fall asleep in your arms. If that happens, there is nothing wrong with calling it a night a few hours early.
Again, the most important thing is to just roll with it. This is when a lightweight travel stroller or a baby carrier for travel comes in extremely handy! It allows them to take a quick siesta while you continue sightseeing.
5. At night, keep it dark.
Just as sunshine helps to tell our body’s internal clock that it is daytime and we should be awake, darkness signals to our body it is time for sleep. So, if traveling to a country like Iceland where the sun doesn’t set in summer, be sure your hotel room or accommodations have blackout curtains or blinds to keep things dark. You can always bring your own, if they don’t.
6. Make time for naps – but not too long or too late.
Babies and toddlers need at least 14 hours of sleep a day. (Infants require up to 18.) So allow your jet lagged baby time to nap, even if it isn’t their typical nap time. Sleep begets sleep, so napping will definitely help make the transition easier. However, don’t let your baby or toddler sleep too long during the day.
A three hour nap is OK, but anything longer than that and you might have trouble getting them to sleep at night. Set an alarm in case you fall asleep, too. Otherwise, you may all end up sleeping the entire day away like we did once. You also want to avoid letting your little ones nap too late in the afternoon. Try to keep them up for at least three hours before bedtime to ensure they are tired when it is time to turn in for the night.
7. Pad the front half of your itinerary when traveling.
When we travel more than a few hours away from home, we always pad our itinerary with an extra day or two on the front end. This gives us and our jet lagged baby time to recover. We try not to book any tours or have anything big planned on our first full day after we arrive at our destination. The first day should be about relaxing and adjusting to the local time.
Baby jet lag and returning home
I always worry much more about baby jet lag and toddler jet lag when we are traveling or on vacation. Although jet lag has the same impact on our baby when we return home, it seems easier to deal with and overcome in the comfort of our own house. In fact, usually when we return home, our jet lagged baby typically sleeps more.
If that is the case with your baby when returning home from an international trip, let them sleep. Their bodies need time to recover from a trip. When you arrive home, let your baby or toddler sleep in or go to bed early if they are showing signs of sleepiness. Traveling with kids is hard. That should go without saying. But sometimes as parents, we are so focused on how exhausting traveling with little ones is for us, that we forget how hard it is for them, too.
Baby jet lag and toddler jet lag isn’t that much different than jet lag it is for adults. It’s never fun, but ultimately just remember in the moment that showing your little ones the world is worth the momentary exhaustion that comes with the territory.
Toddler and baby jet lag FAQs
Here are a few frequently asked questions we receive about coping with toddler and baby jet lag.
Yes! Just like adults, babies can get jet lag. In fact, jet lag symptoms in babies are often worse because little ones do not understand the concept of time change.
Frequent night wakings, fussiness, napping off-schedule, not eating or wanting to eat at the wrong time of day are all symptoms of baby jet lag.
Typically, it takes about 3 days for babies to fully recover from jet lag and adjust to the new time zone when traveling. Whether we were flying from the United States to Asia or going the opposite direction to Europe, our baby’s jet lag was similar, and it took 2-3 days to adjust and be back on a normal sleep schedule.
Your baby is likely to require a few days to adjust regardless of the time of day you land. Both have advantages and disadvantages. If you arrive in the morning, you’ll have more hours of daylight to help your little one adjust to the local time. But if arriving at night, your exhausted baby may be more willing to sleep longer that first night, especially if they are awake during the last couple hours of the flight.
Do you have a question or comment about overcoming jet lag with a baby or toddler? We’d love to hear from you . Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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This post on dealing with toddler and baby jet lag was originally published in September 2016. It was updated in June 2021 for accuracy and current information.