Heading out of town for the holidays? If your relatives live in a different time zone, your holiday trip could wreak havoc on your family’s sleep. And if you’re traveling across more than one time zone, your trip that’s supposed to be a break could cause serious sleep deprivation that affects your kids for weeks. If you’re planning a trip to family on the other side of the country, here’s how you can combat the effects of jet lag and make your trip as pleasant as possible.
How Jet Lag Works
Jet lag is a disruption in your circadian rhythms caused by switching time zones. Although your kids’ circadian rhythms are controlled first by their internal biological clocks, they’re reset every morning when the light hits their eyes. The internal body clock is directly connected to the eyes, so it’s reset by the onset of daylight - and its transition into sleep is triggered mostly by the fall of darkness.
When you switch time zones, daylight will come at an hour when your kids’ bodies are not expecting it. If they travel from east coast to west coast, their internal clock is preparing for daylight at 7am EST, but when instead they see sunlight at 4am EST, they’ll be unrested and unprepared to wake up. This asynchronicity between the body clock and external triggers is called jet lag.
The Impact of Jet Lag on Kids
Many of the symptoms of jet lag are similar to the symptoms of sleep deprivation. When suffering from jet lag, kids will feel tired and lethargic, and they’ll have trouble concentrating. They might be irritable, mildly depressed or a little confused.
However, jet lag can also cause insomnia, not because of overtiredness but because the body isn’t ready to sleep yet when it’s dark outside. Jet lag is also associated with mild gastrointestinal problems, nausea, dizziness and headaches.
On the bright side, anecdotal evidence indicates that kids usually adjust to jet lag much more easily and quickly than adults do. The reasons why haven’t been extensively studied, but it’s been theorized that the reason has to do with melatonin levels. Kids’ natural levels of nocturnal melatonin are higher than adults’, peaking around age two or three and decreasing as kids age. This could mean that it’s easier for kids to recover from the effects of jet lag, which is basically a short-term, environmentally-triggered sleep disorder.
What to Expect With Jet Lag
When you’re planning your trip across the country, it’s a good idea to prepare for the effects of jet lag on both you and your kids. The rule of thumb says that you’ll need about one day to recover for each hour of change, so if you’re going from EST to PST (3 hours earlier), it will probably take your family about 3 days to fully adjust to local time. If possible, make sure your entire trip is long enough to have plenty of time to enjoy yourself in the new location after that adjustment period - before you have to jump back and experience jet lag the other way.
Your direction of travel also makes a big difference - jet lag is worse traveling east than west. This observation has been pretty well confirmed by studies, but the reason for it isn’t understood. What we do know is that it’s easier to adjust to a delay in circadian rhythm instead of an advance. This is probably because it’s hard to fall asleep on time after traveling from PST to EST - when your body thinks it’s 7pm but the local time is 10pm, you’re getting a biological surge of energy right when it’s time to be falling asleep. When you travel the opposite direction, it’s easier to go to bed “early” (since an early bedtime local time will feel later to your body clock), so you’ll get extra sleep to help compensate for the time shift. It’s the same as when daylight savings time ends: it’s much easier to gain an hour than to lose one. However, you and your kids can still suffer from jet lag when traveling west. Jet lag isn’t caused just by missed sleep; it’s caused by your inner circadian rhythm getting out of sync with your external environment, and that happens when you travel in either direction.
Travel doesn’t always involve jet lag, of course: if you’re traveling north to south or south to north, you’ll have no time delay if you’re staying in the same time zone. However, north/south travel can affect your biological clock if you travel between hemispheres and switch seasons. Going from the long days of summer to the short days of winter can cause a shock to your circadian systems, and switching to the summer season can trigger seasonal issues like allergies. So it’s good to be aware of how travel can affect your family’s body clocks no matter what direction you’re traveling.
How to Recover From Travel Across Time Zones
The best way to enjoy your long-distance trip is to allow enough time to adjust after arrival and still have plenty of time left in the trip. Ideally, you should allow for an adjustment period after you come home as well, so your kids aren't sleep deprived when they head back to school after winter break.
But if your travel schedule doesn’t allow for flexibility and time, there are some steps you can take to make sure your family has energy to enjoy the trip.
First, start adjusting before you leave. If you’re going west and gaining time, then let your kids stay up an extra thirty minutes to an hour starting a few nights before your trip, and pull the light-blocking curtains in their rooms so they’ll sleep in the next morning. If you’re traveling the other way, do the opposite - start waking them 30 minutes to an hour early a few days before you leave, and put them to bed early with the curtains pulled and their rooms dark. Use a jet lag calculator to plan exposure to light to start adjusting their circadian clocks before the trip. While you’re doing this, talk with your kids about jet lag, the current time in your destination and how changing time zones might affect them. On average, it takes about one day to adjust for every hour of time difference, so every hour you can adjust before you travel is an extra day of sightseeing or visiting with Grandma without dealing with grumpy, tired kids.
Second, get your kids on local time as soon as you land in your travel destination. If you’re traveling west, encourage your kids to nap on the plane, and once you arrive, don’t let them crash till it’s an hour or less of their normal bedtime. And if you’re heading east, then avoid letting them sleep too much on the plane, and get everybody to bed no later than an hour of normal bedtime. Your kids might spend the whole trip staying up a little later and sleeping in a little more than is normal at home, but hey, when in Rome, right? All the European kids stay up late anyway.
Third, do the same thing at the end of your trip to prepare for your trip home: start to get your kids back on your home local time, so when you get home, it’ll be easier to adjust. And if you can, plan to allow a few days between coming home and going back to the regular routine of work and school. If you’re traveling back and then waking your kids early for school the first day home, you could end up with a combination of sleep deprivation and jet lag that might last for a few weeks.
Other Tools for Combating Jet Lag
The best tools for fighting jet lag are plain old daylight and time. Getting on local time, going outside in the morning sunlight and going to bed with the sun is the simplest and best way to adjust. But if you’re traveling a long way and you don’t have a lot of time to spare, you might need a little extra help.
First, you can try using tools for adjusting light, especially if you’re traveling west and you want your kids to be able to fall asleep earlier. This approach might be especially useful if you’re traveling west and you’re traveling north or south enough to get a significant difference in the length of the day. If 8pm in your new time zone correlates with 2pm in your old time, and it’s also not getting dark till 10 or 11 in your new location, then your kids are probably going to have a hard time falling asleep before midnight. Have them wear dark sunglasses starting a few hours before bedtime, and bedtime might be a little easier.
Second, artificial melatonin a few hours before bedtime can help, especially if you’ve switched to a later time zone. Discuss this with your doctor before you try it since the effects of melatonin for children haven’t been extensively studied.
Finally, no matter what happens, don’t panic. Your trip is more than time zones, and travel to exotic new locations - even with grumpy kids in tow - is usually worth the trouble.