Finally! We Figured Out Jetlag

Are you traveling anywhere for the holidays? We’re staying home for Thanksgiving but heading to California for Christmas. The three-hour time change used to freak me out, but after four California trips, we finally figured out how to beat jet lag. Here are our five steps…

1. Wreck them the first night. If you’re flying west, kids will want to go to bed early (since 7pm New York time is 4pm California time). But make them stay up! Book an evening flight. Go out for pizza. Let them watch TV. Go swimming at the hotel pool. Give them an afternoon nap, if they need it, but don’t let them oversleep. Encourage them to stay up as late as possible, so they’re completely exhausted by the time they finally crash. If they can make it to their regular bedtime, they’ll be able to sleep in the next morning. (The photo above shows Toby on our first night in California last year:)

If you’re flying east, kids will want to go to bed later (since 7pm New York time is only 4pm California time). Have them skip their naps that day, or at least take much shorter naps, so they’re sleepier than usual by the time bedtime rolls around. They’ll probably go to bed a bit later the first night, but 8pm or 9pm is much better than 10pm, right? And each night you can shift it an hour earlier.

2. Eat meals according to clock time. Your body will adjust much more quickly to your new sleep schedule if your meals are on that schedule, too.

3. Go outside for as much sunlight as possible. Get those little bodies on new circadian rhythms!

4. Serve a bedtime snack. Our boys wake up in the middle of the night if they’re hungry (especially if their bodies think it’s time for dinner or breakfast), so we give them a snack before bed to help them sleep.

5. Make the bedroom pitch black. We often rent houses on vacation, but the catch is that they usually don’t have thick curtains. Luckily, Alex discovered these awesome black-out curtains, which attach to windows with suction cups. We’ve used ours a hundred times, and the extra hours of sleep are so worth it. We also have this white noise app and put it on the Extreme Rain track. (There’s also a train ride setting, and the click-clack noises are surprisingly relaxing.)

Any other tips you swear by? I would love to hear. With time changes of 3 to 5 hours, our boys now usually adjust within one day (knock on wood!). Have you ever done a bigger time change? My friend’s family goes home to Malaysia every Christmas and I don’t know how she does it! Good luck! Happy travels!

P.S. 10 tips for traveling with a baby, and 10 ways to entertain a toddler on a plane.

  1. Kurt says...

    We finally beat jet lag too, after we got this tip from a seasoned traveler: After a redeye to Frankfurt from JFK, we went straight to the gym at our hotel and did 30 minutes of cardio. We felt so much better that first day.

  2. The curtains are a great idea. We’ve found that we basically have to keep our kid (who is six) on his normal schedule (that means that we have to put him to bed around 4-5 on the West Coast – if we don’t it’s a terrible disaster. He can’t handle losing sleep – and it’s a nightmare once we get back to NYC. We’ve learned the hard way! However, going to Europe is a different story – there he seems to adjust very quickly.

  3. Hi there! I don’t know if it’s good for everyone but for me works as a charm. Change your watch to the time where you’re headed. Since the plane is such a strange environment the body starts to adjusts from the beginning of the journey. When you get there just go on with everything as the time hasn’t changed. Next morning you’re as good as new, at least i’m.
    I love your blog, keep the good work!

  4. We have traveled from NY to Europe several times with our now 2 year old, and after a few trips we figured out the best trick of all for us – we barely adjust him to the time difference! Going to London we will only adjust him a couple hours, so he ends up being awake and happy for dinners out, and goes to bed when we do (around 11 or so). Plus that means he sleeps in.

  5. these are great. I moved west from the east this summer and im still not together.I still get tired the same time I would back at home and its the worse. I hope I will adjust back when I move back next year. Its my brain telling me oh look at the time. Not only that the east had daylights savings and mine didnt move(AZ) so man im really off. but now im making it worse because im flying to a whole differnt time zone and I am hoping that I am awake to take pictures. I am tired just thinking about it.

  6. I agree with the commenter who said she thinks jetlag is 90% sleep deprivation (this is especially true the longer the travel time). Of course you’re going to be tired for days if you’ve just stayed up 24-36 hours traveling, regardless of how many hours apart your time zones are. I’ve been to Asia twice in the last two years, and Europe twice in the last two years. Wholeheartedly I believe the key is to stay awake until a normal bedtime, regardless of if you arrive 8 am local time (brutal) or 8 pm local time (score!). I would say to only try to sleep on the plane if you’re going to arrive very early in the day (10 am or earlier) local time, otherwise you need to tire yourself out so you will be ready to sleep through the night. My dad has been traveling to Japan many, many times a year for more than 20 years (he finally gave in three years ago and lives there now), and his advice (which is BAD advice) is to force yourself to stay awake only until dinner, say 6 or 7. But then he, and all of his work underlings who follow his advice, complain about waking up for the day around 4 am. Of course you will wake up crazy early if you go to bed crazy early. I would wake up at 4 am at home if I were going to bed at 7 pm! Even traveling to Japan, the only jetlag I get once I’m there is that about 10 pm every night for the first week, I can barely keep my eyes open, so I tough it out for one hour and go to bed around 11–a totally normal time for me. I bounce out of bed in the mornings full of energy that lasts until nearly bedtime. When I return to the US, I have no jetlag at all. In Europe I have not had problems traveling in either direction. My other advice, for adults, is to always resist a nap, not just that first day but every day. Be outside in the sun if it’s daytime when you arrive, and as much as you can in the following days. Immediately get on the local time’s meal schedule, even if it means you eat a local meal an hour after your last plane meal. I think part of it is also psychological–you expect to be exhausted. Try not to assume you’re going to be jetlagged–you might be pleasantly surprised!

  7. I need those black out curtains! Great tips.

  8. I used the fasting protocol when flying to and from Japan, and it worked perfectly. The idea is, fast for 12-16 hours, until it’s breakfast time in your new location, and then eat. It has the bonus of meaning you skip on awful airplane food.

    I doubt that would work for little ones, though, so I will remember these tips!

    Be very careful using melatonin. Some brands are labelled with this warning and some are not, but it is not safe for anyone with an autoimmune condition. I had a terrible experience with it– I have a very minor autoimmune disease (thyroiditis) and taking melatonin caused me to experience terrible muscle pain– for weeks. However, my dad uses it all the time and has no problems.

  9. This is so great to see. I just came back from italy and I love these tips. I actually wrote about a few that helped me getting to and from italy, maybe they can help on your next trip. Have you ever tried valerian root?

  10. I’m so happy you wrote on this! My son will be 4months old when we head west for Christmas– a two hour time change. Do you recommend similar things for babies? I’m dreading a 4-5am wake up call.

  11. Those are great tips; we always fly to Brazil from Portugal, because that’s where my parents live. It’s a 10-hour-flight heading west and a 9-hour-flight heading east. I always try to take the night flights; even though it leaves me completely exhausted – it’s easier for the baby to wake up in a different time zone and just go on with his day the regular way. Even though the flight is so long, there is only a 4 hour difference during our summer (both countries adjust their time in opposite directions) and a 2-hour-difference during our northern-hemisphere winter; so it’s fairly easy for the baby to adjust.
    He only goes to be at 10pm in the evening anyway, so he can spend time with his father when he gets home – if the baby went to bed at 7pm, dad would only see him when he was asleep).

  12. Those curtains are genius! I usually tape black bin liners to the bedroom windows when we rent a holiday house, which is very unnatractive but does the job! I

  13. Agree with all of the above- works for adults too! :)

    The only things I’d add are, set your watch to where you’re going as soon as you get on the plane and sleep/eat accordingly already then; and make sure to pee just before bed!

    I always wake up at 4am when I’m going between Sweden & California, but have convinced myself it’s just to pee so I get up and go to the bathroom, turning on no lights, go back to bed (not allowed to look at my phone!) and sleep until a reasonable hour.

  14. My husband and I don’t have kids but frequently travel to Boston to visit his family. He has an easier time adjusting than I do. We typically take a red eye out in order to enjoy the day. It still takes me 3-4 days to adjust. Trying this out next time!

  15. Joanna, I love reading your blogs, they’re so inspiring! They excite me for when I have a family one day. I just want to meet your sweet little family, you all sound so wonderful! Maybe I’ll bump into you all in Brooklyn sometime.

  16. When I came home from Ireland this summer, I left Dublin at 10am and got to New York only two hours later at noon!!! (about 6:30pm Dublin time) It was crazy but you’re right – schedule activities to keep yourself awake and adjust as well as you can. I had the excitement of getting home, being with my parents and family again, etc. and it helped me to beat the jet lag. Great advice!
    ~ Samantha

  17. When we have gone to the east from California, we just keep our daughter on California time. In NYC she went to bed between 10 and 11pm, which would’ve been 7-8pm california time. We could still have late nyc dinners and enjoy some night life. We did the same in Chicago.

  18. Congrats to you for figuring out what works!

    But…I’m with Lucy W. from Australia :)

    We live in Korea and travel to the East coast yearly (and soon we’ll have a baby!) We’re a 14-15 hr time diff and I’ve often laughed at airports when I overhear people complain about 3 hour “jetlag” ;)

    Generally, I try as much as possible to get myself in sync with the timezone we’re going to as much (daylight/darkness, sleep, eating, etc), which I think definitely helps :)

    But…I’ve been living in Asia for 6 years now and sometimes those things work, but other times they don’t…perhaps bigger time differences are just a lot harder to manage :)

    I’ve found that it depends on several factors:
    – how big the time difference is
    – your activities before/after
    – excitement factor (adrenaline can be a huge booster in staying awake longer!)
    – how rested your are prior to flying (on a 14hr flight, sometimes I can sleep for half of the flight, and sometimes not much more than an hour or two)
    – time of year (we flew to Europe in January this year and stopped for a night in Helsinki…it was dark when we landed at 2pm and dark when flew out the next day at 9am…we couldn’t stay awake for anything!)

    I’ve also read that wearing sunglasses before you fly out can help start adjusting your circadian rhythm if it’s night where you’re going but daytime where you leave from.

  19. I live in Arizona– and when we’ve traveled with my now 3 1/2 year-old son to the East Coast (2-3 hours earlier), we’ll keep him on Arizona time. It works out because we can generally eat dinner later — and he’ll sleep in a little later as well. Unfortunately, as the trip progresses, he’ll usually start getting up a little earlier each day.

  20. This is so funny – I’m en route to California from the east coast right now (layover in o’hare) and we booked an evening flight for that exact reason. So glad to hear about the blinds – we were just trying to figure out what to do!

  21. oh. my. god. those curtains. amazing.

  22. we went to switzerland from california this summer… and my baby was up for FIVE hours the first night in the middle of the night, then FOUR hours the next night, then THREE, then he was onto it, but before we knew it it was time to come home. Travelling west was much easier. But wow, we were all turned upside down!

  23. This is so incredibly timely! We’ll be doing the reverse trip (CA to MA) with our 16-month-old daughter. I’m already anxious about how the time change will affect her (and, thereby, our) sleep patterns, but reading your tips gave me hope that we can make it work without too many bumps. Now I just need to look into activities for the plane ride to keep her occupied…step 1: we splurged on premium coach seats for the extra room! Thanks for producing such an excellent blog. It is such a pleasure to read each day!

  24. Headed to New Orleans tomorrow. We had a 2.5 year old but it’s only 2 hours time difference. Thank goodness!

  25. I’ve followed your blog for about 6 years now! I feel like you’re a close friend, and although I am nowhere near the “adult” stage of my life, I am always bookmarking your posts about kids, and family. your beautiful life makes me excited for my future, and I look forward two having to jet-lagged kids of my own.

  26. This made me smile as a three hour time difference is nothing for our family! We travel to the UK yearly from Australia with our two and four year old boys, our time difference is over 24hrs combined with a 26hr flight to get there! I guess it’s all relative!

  27. We travel from Chicago to France each year, and the best thing I’ve discovered is this 12-hour fast idea, based on the idea that your body has a food clock and a circadian rhythm clock. I found even if it’s unrealistic to completely fast (like for kids!), eating super lightly–lots of water, simple salads, and fruits for 12 hours makes adjusting so much easier!

    One day, I’d also like to try this:

  28. I 100% agree with forcing yourself to stay up as late as possible going west. I am a nightmare by the time it gets to be 11pm in California but the next morning I’m 100% on west coast time.

  29. Hi Joanna! I am from Nepal but I live in US. The time difference between two countries is 11 to 12 hours different depending on the daylight saving. I usually adjust to time difference in plane. If I know I will be home in about 10 hours and it is going to be morning, I sleep so that I am awake when I reach and vice versa. It really makes a difference. Hope it helps

  30. Great if that actually works for you. I’ve tried everything and none of it works. My husband is ok with jet lag, but my sister and I just can’t handle it (must be genetic?!). I go to the UK every year or two (7 hr time difference) and it’s the worst. It takes my sister and I nearly a whole week to adjust. Just awful.

  31. This post came just at the right time for me as I am trying to convince my husband that we should bring our three kids (6m, 2yrs and almost 4yrs) to Vancouver this summer. We live in Stockholm, Sweden, so that is a 9 hour difference. He is mostly worried about the flight (five minutes into our last flight with our two-year old my husband turned to me and said “I’m not flying across the Atlantic with him” – they hadn’t even turned off the seatbelt sign yet but little Louis was already restless and all over the place, and that was only a 3 hour flight down to Italy). I’m not too worried about the flight because however it goes it’s only one day. But the jetlag could have us up at all hours for most of our stay! Thanks for these tips Joanna!

  32. When we lived in Russia, I found that trying to keep our son awake when he wanted to nap on flights almost always back-fired. He was so over-tired once that he ended up having night terrors. Granted, we’re talking an 11-hour time difference and 30 hours of travel time. I’m definitely going to check out those curtains though! I’m so excited to move to Peru – a one-hour time difference is gonna be awesome!

  33. Stop! Those black-out shades are GENIUS! Thank you :)

  34. Absolutely anywhere we fly to from New Zealand involves some serious time adjusting! Even flying from Auckland to Sydney is 3 and half hours and to London is looooooong. I think getting on board with local time as soon as you land is the best advice. Have a wonderful trip.:)


  35. We travel from Australia to France every 18 months or so to visit my husband’s family and now do it with 2 kids! It’s not a fun trip to say the least, nor is the jetlag, but this most recent trip it wasn’t too bad at all. And I think my best tips are getting in to the new timezone’s rhythms (meals, bedtimes etc), getting as much sunlight during the day as possible and yes, exhausting them during the day so that they sleep at night.

  36. My tips are more for adults i guess… but if i’m flying international i work out when i would be sleeping in the destination country and take a sleeping pill on the plane so that i can get in the rhythm straight away. to me jetlag is 90% sleep deprivation.
    Also eating fresh food on the plane and after landing, grab an apple at the grocer when you arrive. Standing barefoot on grass or bare ground is also really good for re-setting your body clock (the ultimate would be to lie on the earth for an hour or so, works wonders)

  37. We travelled to Thailand from London when my son was 2. That wasn’t too bad. Far, far worse was the jetlag when we went to California from the UK when he was 4. We could not keep him awake when we got to San Francisco…we tried and tried but he was asleep at 2pm. Only to be wide awake at midnight, ready for the day. (For the next week or so, he’d fall asleep randomly in restaurants and cafes. He is normally the most sleep resistant child.) Coming back to the UK was far worse though. We had a week of him being awake from 2-6 every night. We had work in the morning. Not much fun. Still worth it though. We had an amazing holiday.

  38. It’s funny but I find a 3-5 hour time difference much more difficult than a longer one. We’ve travelled a few times back to Australia (which is 14-16 hours ahead) from NY with our little one, and despite the torturous flight, she gets back into rhythm much faster than when we’ve been to the West Coast. Fingers crossed this is still true when we head back next year with two kiddos!

  39. I traveled from India to England in summer this year. It was a nine hour day flight and I reached London at about 6 PM GMT. but my body clock was at about 11 PM.
    But I was meeting my husband after two months apart (that too as newlyweds!) And somehow I kept up until 10 PM GMT. And my body adjusted in not more than a day (no jetlag! :) so I guess it helps if you keep up with the times of the place you’ve reached as much as possible.

  40. Um genius! I’ll be storing this away for future children and nieces or nephews. Thanks!

  41. These are great ideas! I live in Maine, but most of my family lives in California. I fly anywhere between 2-3 times a year and have done three cross-country road trips! Honestly, I have started to take melatonin or something similar so I am at least able to nap on the plane. That has helped a lot.

  42. We are moving to LA from the UK next year and I am terrified of the toddler jet lag already! Will definitely remember these tips. We have two of those blackout blinds and they really are life savers!

  43. I live in Paris and am heading home to Sydney, Australia in January with our boy who will then be 16 months. I am flat-out terrified about both the flights and the jet lag! Help!

  44. Melatonin is AMAZING. I used it religiously when I travelled to Europe this summer and had a much easier time with jetlag than usual.

  45. We travel from the west coast to Greece every summer (10 hours difference) and basically it just sucks. If kids are under five they just don’t understand it, and there’s no reasoning with them in the middle of the night. Midnight baths for 1-2 hours are de rigueur as a way to stay calm, not make too much noise, and hopefully get back to sleep. We use melatonin on the plane and for three nights afterwards – a half a pill for kids over two. My advice is, just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, that’s the worst night, then you’re on the upswing.

  46. Oh my gosh those blackout curtains! Genius!

    My sister lives in Barcelona, so I’ve taken my boys to Europe several times already. It’s an overnight flight, during which they don’t get much sleep, but they somehow manage to plow through that first day and crash for 12-15 hours. My tactics for dealing with it have changed as they’ve gotten older. They got more sleep on the plane as babies, but now they are as uncomfortable as I am! And at 5 and 7, they don’t want to nap. (Unless I can get them in a car, which we did our first day this past summer – they both snoozed for 2 hours, which was awesome.)

    Traveling to Spain is also relatively easy, since they do everything later there anyway. We’ll eat dinner at 9PM (most restaurants aren’t open earlier than 7 or 8 anyway), bed at 10 or 11, and we all sleep in. It’s not a bad transition that way.

  47. the curtains are a total lifesaver. we used them when we moved, too, before we had shades installed. and we take them to relatives’ houses, too.

  48. A few years ago, we took an evening flight to Shannon, Ireland from Boston, which put us into Ireland in the earlier morning (I believe it’s a 5 hr difference). The owners of the B&B that we stayed at suggested that we grab coffee and snacks and then go for a hike (which was the last thing we expected to hear), followed by dinner and wine and a visit to the local pub. She strongly suggested that we do not nap after checking in (clearly she had hosted American tourists before :). The fresh air and physical activity was just what we needed and the adjustment to the time change was much easier than expected.

  49. Man, I wish this worked for us. We do all of this and the kids still wake up on EST time!

  50. Nice tips! We are JUST now getting back into the rhythm from the daylight saving situation. (ARGHHH). Love love love your blog.

  51. Those curtains are GENIUS! In my Amazon cart now. Great tips here, too. Now… any tips for dealing with the 18 month sleep regression? :)