How to Beat Jet Lag in Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Smooth Travel

May 22, 2024

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Don't let thoughts of jet lagged kids interfere with your family trip planning. Let's tackle it together.

If thoughts of jet lagged kids are interfering with your family trip planning – or worse yet, stopping you from booking your family trip in the first place – don’t worry. We’ve got tried and true tips and tricks for your troop. Beat the jet lag (or at least manage it) and enjoy your time away together.

Jet lag: The thorn in the side of many weary travelers, especially when traveling with little kids. We’ve talked to countless parents about their travels – and taken dozens of trips with our kids – and tackling jet lags with kids is a constant theme of those conversations.  

Disruptions to sleep patterns and adjustments to new time zones can leave the whole family feeling irritable and groggy, putting a damper on the excitement of the journey ahead. But we want to make sure that concerns about managing jet lag in children don’t prevent your plans from leaving the Pinterest pin abyss.  

If fears of how to deal with children and jet lag are holding you back, the solution is not to skip the trip! Plan ahead, mentally prepare for the likely symptoms of family jet lag, and board the plane armed with tips for minimizing the disruption! You can do it.

Taking the family trip to your dream destination – even if it might involve navigating jet lag with children – is always worth it.

With some savvy planning and a sprinkle of creativity, you can learn how to get rid of jet lag fast and ensure a smoother journey for your family. 

Try these well-tested travel tips to help your kids conquer jet lag like seasoned globetrotters.

how to beat jet lag in kids

What is Jet Lag?

First, let’s talk basics. What is jet lag, what causes jet lag in children, and why is it the bane of every traveler’s existence?  Jet lag occurs when our internal clocks, known as circadian rhythms, fall out of sync with the local time at our destination. 

This misalignment can wreak havoc on our sleep patterns, leaving us feeling like we’ve been hit by a big, red London double-decker bus. Common symptoms of jet lag are fatigue, disorientation, body aches, and full-fledged crankiness.

And – perhaps the worst part when traveling with kids – jet lag is what causes you to wake up at odd hours, often before dawn, and lay wide awake in bed hours later unable to doze. 

The effects of Jet lag may get worse as you get older – but kids aren’t immune to its effects. The fact is, kids often feel the brunt of the jet lag more than us grown-ups.

There are things you can do before your flight, during, and upon landing that will significantly reduce the chances of jet lag-induced irritability for the whole family.  Let’s dive in! 

jet lag and children

How to Prevent Jet Lag in Kids: Pre-Flight Preparations

Don’t wait to get to your new time zone before preparing. There are things you can do before your flight, during, and quickly upon landing that will significantly reduce the chances of jet lag-induced irritability for the whole family. 

Strategize about your desired schedule

As you plan our your daily itinerary with kids, think about how you’d like to structure your days. In Spain, for example, where it’s common for families to be out at restaurants until 10pm or later, you might not want your kids to operate on a standard 7am – 8pm schedule. 

Instead, you might want to take advantage of the jet lag, and try to adjust your kids slowly, perhaps by only a few hours, so that your travel days run from 9am – 10pm, or even later. 

Don’t rush to adjust: Strategize before your trip about how to take advantage of the time change. If you want to spend your evenings strolling the streets of Lisbon, keep your kids close to EST so they can stay up late.

This might not work for your entire trip:  Come up with a plan, but don’t be rigid about it.  By the end of your trip, your kids may naturally adjust to the local hours, but at the beginning, you’ve got more room to choose to keep them up with their internal rhythms. 

Gradually Adjust Sleep Schedules

If you do want to get your kids adjusted quickly, there’s another secret to sidestepping jet lagged kids that begins before you even set foot on the plane.

Ease your child (and you) into the new time zone by gradually adjusting their sleep schedule in the days leading up to your trip.  A general rule of thumb is to allow yourself one day to adjust for every hour of time zone changes. 

This may not be possible for longer-distanced trips, where adjusting requires putting your kids to bed earlier and earlier – bedtime battles would be too great. But making some small changes ahead of time can make a big difference later.

jet lag and children

Stay Hydrated Before and During Travel

Dehydrating is the archenemy of jet lag, so keep those water bottles flowing. You’ll want everyone to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight.  

If you’re not diligent about having your kids keep water bottles on hand at home, try to introduce this good habit in the weeks before a trip.  Encourage your children to sip on water regularly. 

Once you’re on the plane and at your hotel room, too, stick with water. Limiting sugary and caffeinated beverages is best during travel days, which can hinder sleep.

jet lag with kids

Pack Your Kids’ Comfort Items

Giving children a little slice of home in the form of familiar items will help your children relax on the airplane. Pack stuffed animals, cozy blankets, and snuggly pajamas or comfortable clothing to make your children feel more at ease. Having familiar objects, especially ones involved in their sleep routine, can provide a sense of security, promote relaxation, and encourage them to fall asleep quicker even in the face of jet lag.

Tire Them Out

Before your flight, tire those kids out! If you can’t take them to the park before your journey to the airport, get creative at the airport (while still respecting other airport patrons). Most airport terminals are long, meaning you can burn off a lot of energy by walking the course of the terminal.

Tire older kids out before an overnight flight. But remember when it comes to jet lag for babies and little kids: sleep begets sleep. It’s better for littles to go into a travel day well rested and calm.

Some airports have play areas designed specifically for children. Make sure you scope out your airport ahead of time to know if this is available to your children and where it’s located. An airport playground is the perfect place to burn off pre-flight energy.

jet lag in kids

How to Deal With Jet Lag and Children: In-Flight 

Once airborne, it’s time to implement your jet lag-busting plan. Here are some in-flight strategies to help you and your children to adjust to the new time zone.

Create a good atmosphere for sleeping 

As parents, we spend so much time thinking about how to get our kids to sleep. This is yet another example of how strategy and line setting can help you out. 

If it’s nighttime at your destination, you’ll want to do as they do and sleep. Create a cozy sleep sanctuary for your children onboard the plane. Some areas of the plane will be more conducive to a comfortable night of rest, but try these things to lull your child into having a sound sleep:

Use neck pillows 

Most overnight flights provide pillows and blankets. In addition to any blankets and neck pillows you bring, these will give you more flexibility to create a cozy place to crash.

Research ways to make an impromptu bed 

On a long haul flight to France, I prepped ahead of time and used inflatable footrests, a blanket from their backpacks and a travel pillow to build a bed they could curl up on. Upon takeoff, you’ll need to have these stashed away, but once the seatbelt sign is off, it’s fair game to inflate them and get the kids to bed. 

That being said, it’s essential to research these items. Not all airlines allow the use of these on board. When all else fails, consider stacking your under-the-seat bags to be level with your child’s seat.

Bring your favorite sleep aids from home 

If your child falls asleep at home to white noise, or storytime with a Tonies Box, then bring along those tools for the plans.  Having sleep aids to maximize shut-eye on the overnight flights is always worth taking up the extra space in your carry-on. 

jet lag and children

Noise-canceling headphones 

Airplanes can be loud and keep your child awake. Investing in noise-canceling headphones can give your child a quieter experience that is more optimal for rest.

To conquer jet lag with toddlers: bring their car seat 

Most children have had a lot of experience sleeping in their car seats. If you will need their car seat at your final destination anyway, bringing it on the airplane with you makes sense, as long as your child has their own seat.

Car seats can be a safer option for the littlest of children and be a familiar place for them to sleep to minimize the risk of major toddler jet lag.

 Before bringing your car seat on the airplane, ensure it is certified for use in an aircraft. For more information, check out the guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration.

To navigate jet lag with babies: stick with babywearing 

Sometimes, snuggling up close is all a baby will need to sleep soundly. Consider bringing your child’s most comfortable wrap or baby carrier so they can cuddle up close during the flight.  And now might be a good time to download an app to help remind you of the appropriate nap windows on the go. 

Move Around With Kids To Keep Them Awake 

Is your flight headed in the opposite direction, where you must keep your child awake longer than usual? The answer is simple: keep them moving! There are obvious safety concerns of having them marathon up and down the airplane aisles. However, creative ideas like in-seat yoga or a game of head, shoulders, knees, and toes can help them move without disturbing others.

jet lag in kids

Limit Screen Time

While screen time is a great way to keep children quiet and occupied on flights, it can make their internal clocks go haywire. Blue light is one of the biggest culprits of circadian rhythm shifts and could counteract your other jet-lag prevention methods.

Instead, swap out tablets and smartphones for old-school entertainment like books, coloring books, listening to music, or travel-sized board games. Or another one of my personal favorites? Window clings! Your child’s brain will thank you for the break from the digital deluge and help your time zone adjustment efforts.

If your kids are used to having screens during flights, prepare them that overnight flights will be different. Stay firm on the rules: No iPad till morning.

Conquering Jetlag with Children: After Touch Down 

It’s not over yet. As you touch down at your destination, keep the momentum going with these post-flight pointers:

jet lag with kids

Embrace the Great Outdoors 

Don’t go straight to your hotel room when you land and hunker down for a nap on your first day. To tackle jet lag with kids, step into the sunlight and let Mother Nature work magic on your child’s body clock. 

Spend time exploring outdoor destinations in your new location, soaking up the sunshine, and reveling in the sights and sounds of your new surroundings. It is a great way to scope out the sights, promote wakefulness during the day, and adjust you and your family to the new time zone.  Be patient when minor meltdowns inevitably happen – whether it’s you or your child doing the melting. 

Establish a Routine 

While sometimes vacation and routine don’t go hand in hand, you can establish a sense of normalcy for your children by sticking to their regular schedule as much as possible. As mentioned above, come up with an ideal schedule and try to implement it from the get-go. 

From meal to sleep times, routines signal to your child’s body that it’s time to wake up or wind down, which will ultimately help keep kid and toddler jet lag at bay.

 

Want more travel tips to implement on arrival? Learn our best tricks for hotel stays with toddlers

 

Stay Active

With the concept of time completely thrown off, one way to ensure your child is tired when it comes to bedtime is by keeping them active. Encourage your child to engage in light physical activity throughout the day to help them burn off excess energy and promote restful sleep. Active outings will help adjust your child to the new time zone while keeping them entertained and engaged in your new destination.

jet lag in kids

Be Flexible 

Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor is a perfectly adjusted body clock. Be patient, stay flexible, and give your child the time to acclimate. While it might seem best to pack your schedule to keep your children busy, this could backfire on you when their bodies are demanding more sleep. 

We factor jet lagged kids into your itinerary design. If you’re traveling to Europe, for example, we suggest starting with the more relaxing countryside or beach portion of your trip to get acclimated in a calm setting where you don’t need to be on the go all day.

Try to keep a flexible schedule so you can intuitively switch gears when your child needs more time to adapt. If not, they might end up fast asleep in a Vespa sidecar on a tour of an Italian city. Don’t ask me how I know this. 

Are you incorporating a beach stay into your international trip? Get our best tips for tackling a beach vacation with little kids

We’ve Got an App For That: Tackle Jet Lag with Timeshifter

If you need more help or a little hand-holding through your exciting excursion, there is a jet lag app that can advise you on what to do and when to do it, specific to you, your location, and your travel destination. Timeshifter can help you do just that- shift time and will be one of your favorite travel companions.  Your first trip plan is free, to try it out on your next time change! 

jet lag in kids

Not Yet Ready to Take On Jet Lag With Kids? 

We don’t blame you. The idea of traveling with children can feel intimidating in itself. Adding some jet lag into the mix- yikes.

However, this doesn’t have to stop your wanderlust! Instead, choose a different location within two time zones, rather than jumping multiple time zones. The further you travel, the more impactful jet lag can be. If you want to avoid jet lag, choose a location closer to home.

If you are local to the U.S., there are so many unique locations to travel to that will still fill your travel bucket without subjecting you to jet lag unknowns. Consider a trip to Key West, Florida, or a Caribbean island for your next vacation, or perhaps Central or South America.

Let Mango Tree Help You Plan Your Family Vacation 

Are you ready to conquer jet lag with kids and embark on a fantastic family adventure? The Mango Tree team can help you plan and take one more thing off your to-do list. With a customized Mango Tree Travel Itinerary and these jet lag-busting strategies in your arsenal, you’ll be ready for the journey of a lifetime. 

Not entirely sure what it even means to work with a travel advisor? Get the details here