It’s a jet-setting kind of world we live in—which means that you may be taking to the skies with your baby or toddler at some point, whether it’s to visit far-flung friends and relatives, or just on a vacation. Some of these trips have an added wrinkle: A time zone change. It’s hard enough for adults to deal with jetlag, but how do you help your baby or toddler manage the transition to a new time zone and sleep schedule without everyone ending up cranky and sleep deprived?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer—every baby is different—but here are some approaches that should help make things easier.
First, though: If you’re only going to be away for a short time—one to three days—and you’re not crossing more than three time zones, experts agree that it’s probably not worth completely shifting your baby’s schedule to match the new time zone. Instead, do your best to have your little one stay on your home schedule.
If you’re headed off for a longer trip, keep reading.
Start adjusting your baby’s sleep schedule before your trip.
If it works for your home / work situation, you can start shifting your baby’s bedtime and naps earlier (if you’re traveling eastward) or later (if you’re traveling westward) by about 20 minutes a day, starting about a week before your trip. Even though you won’t likely be able to shift your baby’s sleep completely before you travel, you’ll be that much closer—which should help make the transition easier. (Check out our daylight savings post for more tips on gradually shifting bedtime!)
As always, be sure to take along some of your baby’s favorite bedtime things: Loveys, blankets or swaddle, books, PJs, etc. Those familiar little bedtime cues will go a long way toward helping your baby slip into their new schedule when you arrive at your destination.
Time your travel wisely.
We know, we know, taking a nighttime flight, when your baby is more likely to sleep, may seem like the easiest way to go. But according to Dr. A.J. Schwichtenberg of the Pediatric Sleep Council, you’re actually better off flying during the times your baby is typically awake, preferably allowing you to land late in the afternoon or early evening. Not only will it make it easier for you to start the adjustment to the new schedule, but an awake, happy baby can actually be easier to fly with than an overtired one.
Take it easy at first.
While you may be tempted to jump right in to activities and plans once you get to your destination it’s wiser not to jam your days too full at first, while your little one gets reoriented. It takes about one day to adjust per one hour of time difference. So, if you’re traveling from New York to California, it will take about three days to adjust to that three-hour time difference. Make sure you allow time for naps and good nighttime sleep during that transitional period.
But get outside!
Our body’s circadian rhythms take their cues from light and dark, so if possible, try to get outside and active in the morning when reach your destination, instead of hunkering down in your hotel or your host’s house. The light will make it easier for your baby to adjust. Meanwhile, make sure the room where your baby is sleeping is dark at night and in the early morning hours. If there aren’t good curtains or shades, a black garbage bag masking-taped to the window works great in a pinch. It’s worth packing a few just in case!
Gradually adjust bedtimes and wake-up times.
If your baby wakes up earlier than usual in the morning, as often happens when you travel westward, wait a few minutes before going in to them. If you’re traveling eastward, don’t let your baby sleep too far past their usual wake-up time in the morning, tempting as it may be. Aim for naps at your baby’s usual clock times, give or take. Your baby may get tired earlier than usual or not feel tired at their usual naptime but stick to the routine anyway even if it doesn’t result in successful sleep. Over the course of a few days, things should shake out.
Are you a seasoned time zone hopper? Let us know in the comments or on Instagram what tips and techniques have worked for you and your baby. Happy travels, and happy sleep!