So you’re traveling. Across several time zones. With a baby. With the pandemic slowing, I'm seeing more and more families starting to resume their travel plans.
I salute you, intrepid traveler, because this is not a task for the weak-willed. This requires courage and determination beyond that of the ordinary adventurer. If Lewis and Clark had’ve had a baby along with them, I’m guessing they would have called it quits before they hit the city limits.
But hey, we’re mothers and that makes us the hardest of the hard core, right? We’re not going to stay chained to our homes for five or six years waiting for our babies to reach an age where they’ll be more conveniently portable. We’ve got a world to explore and our babies are coming with us.
But before you set out, I want to make sure you’re armed with all the information you need to maintain those sleep skills you’ve been working so hard to develop. I’m a sleep consultant, after all, so sleep is what I tend to focus on. If you’re looking for hotel recommendations, you’re in the wrong blog.
So how do we maintain good sleep habits while we’re traveling? If we’re crossing time zones, how do we deal with the inevitable complication of jet lag in our babies?
1) Avoid the Red-Eye
Some of us like to envision this scenario where we jump on the plane when baby’s already asleep, and they just magically sleep through the entire flight, arriving fresh and rested and ready for the upcoming adventure.
It may have even happened once or twice in human history, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it. It’s much more likely that you’re both going to have an awful night and arrive frazzled and seriously overtired. Catch a daytime flight and hope for a decent nap or two on the way. You’re all going to arrive with a bit of a sleep debt anyways, since motion sleep isn’t nearly as restful as what we’re used to, but that can actually help you get your baby adjusted to the new schedule.
2) Travel Prepared
Given the special circumstances surrounding travel, I think this is one of those rare times when it’s OK to give in to their demands. If they want to watch seven straight hours of Backyardigans, I say that’s fantastic. Be sure to pack your carry-on with an absolute cornucopia of toys, snacks, books, and portable battery chargers, and whatever they ask for, hand it over.
The only real exception here is not to feed baby a bunch of sugary snacks in the hopes of keeping her placated during the trip because it’s just going to result in a big old crash when she comes down from that high, and that’s going to make sleep that much harder. Offer her plenty of fruits and vegetables, and make sure you keep her hydrated. It’s probably going to mean a bunch of potty breaks, but trust me, it’s worth it. Jet lag symptoms go way beyond sleep. Constipation and diarrhea are two of the most common so maintaining proper hydration is crucial.
3) Is it worth altering the schedule?
If you’re traveling for less than five days, it’s probably not worth making adjustments to baby’s bedtime regardless of the time difference. Experts say that jet lag lasts, on average, for about a day for every hour of time change, so if you’re taking a four day trip and you’re looking at a six-hour time change, it’s hardly worth getting baby fully adjusted to the difference just to turn around and have to do it all over again once you get home.
If, however, you’re going to be gone for longer than five days, then you’ll want to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible. Luckily, our bodies have an inherent ability to adapt to new time zones based on the light/dark cycle, so you’ll have nature working on your side. So yeah, night one, straight into the new time zone. It might not be a seamless transition, but we’ll work on that.
4) Stick to your bedtime routine.
Bedtime routines are about more than just getting into comfortable clothes and cleaning the crud off our teeth. A predictable bedtime routine sends signals to the brain that sleep is just over the horizon, so the brain start preparing for it by firing up the melatonin production, relaxing the muscles, and slowing down mental activity. So whatever your baby’s bedtime routine is at home, stick as closely to it as you can.
An important rider on this bill here, black out any external light sources two hours before baby’s bedtime. If that means putting garbage bags over the windows, then you bust out the Hefty Sacks and the masking tape, because esthetics don’t matter to a sleepy baby. A completely dark room is one of the best tools you’ve got for helping them get to sleep and stay asleep. And it's easy to pack contractor's trash bags and a roll of tape.
5) Sunlight’s on your side.
As much as we don’t want any sunlight getting in the room while baby’s trying to sleep, we want gobs of it when they’re awake. Getting a significant amount of sunlight during the day charges up our melatonin production and helps get the circadian rhythm adjusted quickly to the new time zone, so getting outdoors during the day will work wonders in helping baby sleep well at night.
6) Add an extra nap.
Even in the best case scenario, baby’s still going to be needing a little more sleep once
you get where you’re going, so an extra nap of somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour and a half, can really help counteract the overtiredness that comes after a long flight. Just remember to leave enough space between waking up from her last nap and bedtime so that there’s time for fatigue to build up in the interim. Let’s say you’ve got an 8 month-old and your usual bedtime is 8:00. You’ll want to get her up from her last nap of the day by no later than 4:30-5:00 so she’s sleepy enough to go down for the night once bedtime comes around.
7) Keep things familiar.
Remember to pack baby’s favorite PJs, lovie, blanket, pillow, and so on. Once baby’s asleep, it will help them to stay that way if their surroundings are similar to the ones they’re used to. And if you don’t usually share a bed with your little one, don’t start now.
Let me just repeat that.
Do not bed share while you’re traveling unless you want to bed share when you get home as well. Babies get attached to this scenario in the blink of an eye, and once they’ve gotten attached, they can be seriously tenacious about sleeping in their own bed.
8) Remember who you’re dealing with.
Nobody thrives when they’re sleep deprived, and kids are no different. We’re all going to be a little grumpy and short-tempered once that plane lands, but you’re the adult here and it’s up to you to keep everything on an even keel, even if your baby starts melting down. She is, after all, a baby, and she’s likely pretty tired.
As I mentioned earlier, it takes about a day to adjust for every hour of time difference, so it’s going to require patience and consistency on your part to get them over the hump as soon as possible. Keeping your cool will help baby adjust quicker, and the sooner you’re all accustomed to the new time zone, the sooner you can all get on with enjoying your trip.