Jet lag hits almost every human hard, but in my experience, toddler jet lag is the worst. 18 months – 3 year old kids possess the wonderful qualities of knowing what they want but not adequately expressing those needs. They also begin to assert their independence with little to no concept of what that actually entails. So toddler jet lag can be pretty brutal, especially when doing a 12 hour time change for 7 short days!
At this point in our family travel careers, we’ve handled toddler jet lag 5 or 6 times (2x to Asia, 4x to Europe or so, I lose track). I thought I’d share our latest experience in Hong Kong along with some thoughts on how to minimize jet lag’s deleterious effects on toddlers.
For the record, M (4 years old), absolutely killed it jet lag wise (unlike in London, above). She adjusted better than everyone in our family including her grandparents. I only have one personal datapoint, but from what I hear from my friends who take their kids back to Asia, post toddler stage they can handle it pretty well!
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Our experience in Hong Kong
Like I said at the top, Hong Kong and Boston have a time difference of 12 hours. That means 6:00 PM = 6:00 AM, up is down, down is up! We compounded our jet lag issues with a flight that left Boston at 1:45 AM, an adventure unto itself.
So H, our 20 month old, experienced some severe toddler jet lag issues. When we travel we generally co-sleep, for the most part I handled this duty in Hong Kong. Let’s take a look at the play by play of what happened. Note, we couldn’t let him cry it out at any point (which we happily would have done) because my parents and M both were sleeping in (separate) adjacent rooms).
We arrived in Hong Kong at 5:00 AM and had a full day. H had only slept about 9-10 hours total between home in Boston and the flight. That night he woke up 3 times, 1-1.5 hours each time. In an incredibly foul mood every time, often full blown crying. Jess ended up having to stay up with him from 4:30-9:30 AM, then H slept for like 3 hours.
After a decent day (outside of eating, jet lag sapped my son’s appetite), H went to bed at 8 PM. Promising! But then he woke up at 10 PM for about an hour. After sleeping from 11-1 AM, H woke up AGAIN and at this point I had tired of carrying him around or what not. So I made the decision to take him for a walk in Causeway Bay at around 2 AM.
He seemed to enjoy it, and it was nice walking around the quiet city, but I was pretty exhausted. He also didn’t even bother falling asleep. The two of us crawled back into bed around 4 and slept from 430-630 AM, and then we got up and made our way to Hong Kong Disneyland. I’d definitely say this night hurt the most.
Nights 3 & 4
At this point, H finally started truly adjusting and I also had come up with some more techniques. Night 3 he woke up every 2-3 hours, but instead of holding him I just switched to using our Beco carrier (affiliate link). That saved a lot of frustration because even when he kicked and screamed he had nowhere to go and I had no way to drop him. I also caved and gave him milk, which at that point just had to be done for sanity’s sake.
On night 4 he only woke up twice and only stayed up for an hour each time and I managed to cut out the milk. And with that, he finally beat jet lag! Night 5 he had a regular night of sleep, just in time to go home three days later. 🙂
Tips for beating toddler jet lag
As you can see, toddler jet lag can be pretty brutal. We experienced similar difficulties in London and on our first trip to Taiwan. Some might ask whether it’s worth it to travel with kids that young. Personally, I believe it is. You also sometimes do not have a choice, especially if you need to go overseas to visit family. So here are some ideas based on what I’ve learned about how to deal with toddler jet lag.
Try to create a regular sleep schedule as soon as possible
All kids, but especially toddlers, thrive on routine. Our son likes doing things at home in the same order and same way every day. This comes down even to silly things like he gets frustrated if mom is the one giving him a bath or if dad is the one changing him afterwards (it must be the other way around). Travel helps break kids out of their routines in a good way, but when dealing with toddler jet lag you really want to create your road routine as soon as possible.
Thus, we try to create a regular sleep schedule as soon as we can. That might mean putting the kids down at 8 PM and then taking a relaxing midnight stroll, but it’s the 8 PM part that matters. Dinner, bath, bed: we rinsed and repeated every night, shooting for 8 PM, and that really helped to speed up getting over jet lag.
Be flexible with naptime (or even bedtime) until the child adjusts
While we try to create a solid routine for bedtime and morning, we try to be flexible with naps. Think of it this way: your kid uses naps to catch up on whatever sleep he missed at night. So we made sure that we left plenty of space for naps. Sometimes that would be an extra nap in the morning, delaying our day activities. Other times that meant a long stroller nap while we explored Hong Kong.
But I think the key thing here is don’t sweat it too much if your child misses his “regular” nap time. Jet lag throws everyone for a loop, so just let them sleep when they need to sleep and be flexible until the issue has mostly subsided. Really, you have to be more flexible about naps when on the road in general so this is just an extension of that.
Keep mealtimes regular
Keeping mealtimes regular will help both adults and kids adjust to jet lag faster. In the 80s, someone came up with this crazy fast/feast/eat a big breakfast idea that supposedly helps you beat jet lag (the Argonne anti-jet-lag diet). That’s completely unrealistic for little kids but the fact that your biological clock ties in to your eating habits makes perfect sense.
So I recommend that you try to keep mealtimes as regular as possible once you reach your destination. Snack to supplement as necessary (the kids will be grumpy after all) but try to make a routine out of your meals. This should help your kids to adjust mentally, if not physically. Like I said, H had a horrible appetite those first few days of jet lag, so we went heavy on the milk for calories. Gotta do what you gotta do.
Fill your day with activities, but not too many
I’m often tempted to just spend the entire first day in a new environment hanging out and taking it easy at home. You’d think just getting rest would help with the jet lag but nothing could be further from the truth.
For starters, you and your kids will go insane staying in the hotel or apartment all day. You need to get outside just to change things up and get them into new environments. Secondly, getting exposed to sunlight helps your body to adjust biologically.
Most importantly, you went to another country for a reason – get out there and go see some of it! I think one or two activities, or even just some scheduled walks, on the first day can really help to kick that jet lag. No need to create an action packed day, but definitely don’t just stay inside “resting” all day either.
Bring equipment to help you out
You know what works best for your kids, so be sure to come prepared. I know a long plane ride seems stressful but you need to be equally prepared for the first day or two of jet lag. Bring favorite toys, favorite stroller, baby carrier like our aforementioned Beco (affiliate link), whatever you need to keep your kids occupied.
For our kids, it’s most important to make sure we have food and snacks. They get extra cranky when tired and hungry, so we made sure to always have milk and crackers on hand. We also brought our last two Go-go Squeez pouches that I got from DisneySMMC, for true emergencies! Easy and mess free is the most stress free.
Meet your children where they are
My last bit of advice relates not only to toddler jet lag but parenting in general. You gotta know when to hold em’, know when to fold em’, as Kenny Rogers says. You can make all the plans, contingency plans, and emergency plans you can think of – sometimes your kids just won’t cooperate.
So even if you have the best plan to help them beat toddler jet lag, you have to meet them where they are. And if that means you have to go home early, you go home early. If that means you wake up late, you wake up late. If that means taking a walk at 2 AM, take a walk at 2 AM.
Meet your children where they are, both physically and emotionally, and that will really help decrease your stress and theirs. In turn, they can better adjust to the mental and physical toll jet lag can take so you can get on with your vacation!
Toddler jet lag can be pretty rough, because toddlers are rough! Still, I have loved traveling with my kids even at that age. So I do what I can to minimize the toddler jet lag, and these tips have worked for me.
How do you deal with toddler jet lag or jet lag in general? I’d love to hear your thoughts!