I hear the timber floor boards squeak. The time on my phone is 2.34am. Miss 5 creeps around to my side of the bed (why is it always my side and not daddy’s?!). “Mummy, I can’t sleep. Can I turn the light on?” Whispered negotiations commence. I get up, knowing that the only thing worse than not sleeping is trying to convince your body to sleep when it still thinks you’re on the other side of the world.
It’s now been a week since we got back from Europe and I’m thankful that we’re all well and truly over our jet lag. Honestly, it wasn’t too bad this time. The kids are at an age where they’ll play quietly for a while and then eventually go back to sleep (usually with a parent lying close by). I can’t imagine doing the same journey with a baby.
The best thing we did was stop over for a few days in Hong Kong on the way home. When we landed in Hong Kong after a long flight from Frankfurt, the thought of having to get on another plane made me feel ill. We had umm-ed and ahh-ed over it this trip due to time constraints, but stopping over was definitely the right decision.
Surprisingly, in Hong Kong everyone slept through each night (although admittedly we were having 10pm bedtimes which is very unusual for us). Our biggest challenge was getting out of bed in the mornings (not something I’ve ever experienced before in my family!). In fact, on our last day we slept so late we had a mad scramble to get to the airport for our flight home!
We got back to Brisbane in the middle of the night (not ideal, but common with flights from Asia to Australia). We pushed the kids through the first day without any naps and spent as much time as we could outside. Each night, we adjusted bedtime to get closer to the normal routine.
I don’t think you can ever entirely beat jet lag, although some people (and children) do seem to suffer more than others. Here are my top tips for beating jet lag with kids:
1. Book a stop-over on the way home
I’m a huge believer in stop-overs, especially when flying east to west. Breaking up two flights when you have small children helps with both jet lag and children’s behaviour on flights. I’ve found that whenever we’ve done two flights back-to-back, the children are more tired and prone to meltdowns on the second flight (and let’s face it, so am I). This is most applicable when flying from Europe to Australia, and I prefer Asian stopover destinations to the Middle East only because they’re closer to Australian time zones. A hotel with a pool is preferable, and even a night in an airport hotel is better than none. Plus, you get to give the kids a taste of a whole new destination!
2. Get on local time
It sounds obvious, but getting onto local time upon landing is key. Eat and sleep according to local time, and be mindful of your child’s normal patterns. If they don’t usually nap, avoid napping. If you have a toddler who still has a daytime sleep, factor that into the day (a stroller nap might be the way to go).
3. Keep moving
Tire out those little legs! Walking or swimming in the sun is ideal to reset body clocks, especially during the first few days at a new destination. Lie down at your peril.
4. Stay in the light… or make it dark
Stay outside in sunlight as much as possible. It’s all about sending the right signals to the brain, which releases the hormone melatonin to make us drowsy when it’s dark. Which brings me to sleeping in the dark — make bedrooms as dark as you can. Hotels usually are great for this, but I have been known to travel with dark blackout fabric. A masking tape and bath towel can work, too.
5. Pick your accommodation
One big challenge when dealing with jet-lagged kids is that you don’t know who will wake up when, and what they’ll be like at 3am. And the last thing you want is a toddler waking up the whole family. Interconnecting rooms, suites or apartments with more than one room are a godsend for jet-lagged families.
6. Have a night-time strategy
Work out a plan with your partner before you go to bed. Who will get up to children in the night? Where will you go and what quiet activities can you do? Do you have the facilities to make a warm cup of milk or a light snack? Will your kids sleep better if someone is in the room with them? Instead of fighting midnight wake-ups, quietly play or watch TV until you see signs of drowsiness. Then move to the usual pre-bedtime routines like books, lullabies and patting. And as always my philosophy is: do whatever works!
7. Be flexible with bedtimes
I’ve found it’s better to go to bed later than battle wide awake children for a few hours. If you’ve arrived early in the morning or had a huge nap-free day, an early bedtime might be in order. It takes a few days to get into the rhythm of a new place, so don’t stress too much about the actual time if it’s within a few hours of the norm.
8. Watch the naps
We all know how hard it can be to get a child to go to sleep at night when they’ve had huge a nap. If that child is a jet-lagged two- or three-year-old? It’s the stuff of nightmares. I always err on the side of not napping for the first few days at our destination. At the beginning of a trip, I’d rather the kids have no nap and an earlier bedtime until they properly adjust to local time. Beyond that, I’ve found that a siesta and late bedtime can be fun when travelling, especially in Europe and Asia where they have a vibrant nighttime culture.
9. Set a routine (of sorts)
Routines provide cues to small children, letting them know what’s coming up and preparing them accordingly. Of course, you don’t want a regimented routine when you’re on holidays, but it helps to establish a flow to your days (even if it does just revolve around the pool and beach). The usual pre-bedtime routine (for example baths, books, and lullabies) is a must.
10. Go easy the first few days
It’s going to take everyone a few days to get into the swing of things, so whatever you do, take it easy! Avoid long drives and crazy itineraries to begin with – your body will thank you. I’ve also noticed that the grown-ups need a little time to decompress from work and the pre-trip rush, so starting slow is a win-win for everyone.