Taming Time Zone Trauma

Traveling anywhere with young children is a challenge. Add crossing time zones into the mix, and many parents feel like they are entering the danger zone. Adults often feel the effects of jet lag when changing as few as two or three zones, so imagine how kids feel! No wonder we get so many panicked questions from parents asking for guidance to help their kids sleep well and adjust to time zone changes.

I wish we could give some rules that hold true for every situation, but when it comes to time zone changes, it really depends. One thing is true regardless of where you are going: children will adapt best if they are well-rested before their trip.

I have traveled with my kids many times from my home in California to visit family on the East Coast. When my kids were infants, eating and sleeping every couple hours around the clock, it didn’t matter what time zone we were in. The routine and schedule was the same. As my kids got older, I tried many things. What worked best for my family in dealing with a three-hour time difference was to keep the kids on our home schedule. Going from West to East meant they would sleep late and could stay up late – perfect for participating in family events! But we found that the longer we stayed, eventually the kids naturally adjusted to the local time and would wake earlier in the morning and tire earlier. We also found that if we were with other E. Coast based kids, it was easier to get our kids onto the same schedule.

When my daughter was 18 months and my niece was nine months, we took a big family trip to Italy for two weeks. Keeping the kids on home schedules wasn’t going to be a viable option, since none of the grown-ups wanted to be up all night. So for that trip, we tried to get the girls onto the local schedule as quickly as possible. We had several days of night wakings and irregular sleeping, but soon the kids fell into a reasonable schedule for our location. We made sure to institute routines and let our kids nap every few hours around the same time each day.

This past February, my family visited Australia for several weeks. It was a 17-hour time change. I was terrified. But it was actually the smoothest transition we have had. We boarded the plan in the late evening (I had put the kids in their PJs at the airport), and settled the kids to bed after a few hours of flying. They slept most of the flight and we arrived in Sydney in the morning. After checking in and unpacking, we headed right outside for a long walk to a playground, giving the kids plenty of sunlight, fresh air, and exercise. Then home for a nap after lunch. More outside time in the afternoon and then bed shortly after dinner. One of the kids woke briefly that first night, but then we were adjusted. Just like that!

I know it doesn’t always work that way. Frankly, I was shocked! When you travel, you have to expect (and plan for) several days of early waking, or trouble getting to sleep, or night waking. Try to be patient and understanding.

So if you are lucky enough to be traveling with your children to a different time zone, keep these tips in mind:

  • If you will be away for less than a week, consider keeping kids on their home schedule. This works well when traveling East, so wake time and bedtime are later. But it can be hard if traveling West, which would necessitate an early wake and bedtime.

  • If time zone change is greater than a few hours, you will likely need to change over to local time. You can prepare for this by moving bedtime slowly earlier or later (depending which direction you will be traveling) – i.e. wake 15 mins earlier each day.

  • When you get to the new time zone, get as much daylight, fresh air, and exercise as possible. This will help set your body clock to the local time zone.

  • Make the bedroom dark when it’s time to sleep and let the light in when it’s time to be awake. You may need to get creative (garbage bags can help block out light if the shades or curtains don’t do the trick)!

  • When adapting to a new time zone, don’t let your child sleep too long during the day. If he usually naps for 2 hours at home, wake him up after about 2 hrs to preserve a reasonable bedtime.

  • Create a routine that’s as similar to home as possible. Bring items from home that will make the bedroom seem familiar.

  • Expect night waking or early morning waking or trouble getting to sleep the first few days and be patient.


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