Little jet-setters get jet lag too

Help young children fight jet lag with a few simple steps

young boy on an airplane

JET-SETTER Help young children adjust to a new time zone by giving their bodies lots of cues, such as sunlight.

Olesia Bilkei/shutterstock

Sleep is at the top of the list of conversation starters among parents with young children. With our recent cross-country move west, my family added a twist on sleep deprivation: jet-lagged children. To get some clarity on this new horror, I called developmental social scientist A.J. Schwichtenberg of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Two main processes control sleep, Schwichtenberg explained. The first is the constant buildup of sleepiness, a pressure to sleep called homeostatic drive. Like adults, children reach a certain point and need to crash. “The longer they’re awake, the more likely it is they’ll want to go to sleep,” Schwichtenberg says. But unlike adults, children reach their limits sooner. That’s why most kids need to nap.

In the background of this sleepiness buildup is a roughly 24-hour daily rhythm. Called a circadian cycle, this rhythm is regulated by cues such as light, activity and even meals. When sleepiness coincides with a dark room, the result is usually blissful rest.

In the days after our recent move to the West Coast, however, this beautiful alignment went awry. Although the room was dark and quiet at 4 a.m., the two youngest people in our family were most definitely not sleepy.

After a few minutes of listening to my daughters whisper-shout about the funny hotel alarm clock, it finally sunk in: These kids were wide awake and ready to go. After all, their body clocks were still on the East Coast, where it was a reasonable 7 a.m. So like any conscientious parent, I threw an iPhone at them with unlimited Peppa Pig. That bought us a half hour. After that, my husband and I chugged hotel coffee and accepted our zombie fate.

In retrospect, Peppa might not have been the best choice. Schwichtenberg recommends keeping those obscenely early mornings dark and quiet. “You don’t want the world to be a superexciting place,” she says. Expose your child to the local time zone cues as much as possible. That means darkness when it’s time to sleep, lots of sunlight when it’s time to be awake, and meals at the right times.

The strongest of these reset cues is light, says Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at University of Chicago Medicine. Sunlight in the morning tells the brain to be awake at the new time, she says. And at the end of the day, blue light, the kind emitted by electronic screens, should be avoided. Blue light dampens levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. To avoid this, screens ought to be turned off one hour before bedtime, she says.

Your newborn might escape jet lag entirely. Babies aren’t born with a solid circadian rhythm. Scientists think it takes about three months for babies to learn, with the help of lights and sounds, when to sleep and when to be awake (a skill my 2-year-old still struggles with). That means that if you are bravely traveling with a brand-spanking-new baby, jet lag might not be a big concern. “They sleep so much anyway, Schwichtenberg says. “There’s not a distinction between day and night.”

For quick trips of three days or less with older babies and kids, it might be best to just keep the whole crew on the same schedule as back home. In that time frame, it’s going to be difficult to shift cycles back and forth. The rule of thumb is that a person shifts about an hour per day.

If you’re going to be gone for longer than three days, you may want to begin shifting your child’s clock before you leave. An hour in either direction is a good place to start, Schwichtenberg says. We could have prepared our girls by having them stay up later than usual before our westward journey. And for the travel day itself, Schwichtenberg recommends traveling during the day. “Work your flight to arrive in the afternoon or evening,” so that your child will be tired on arrival, around the time for bed.

If you’ve traveled east and find yourself with a wired kid at 10 p.m., you might be tempted to turn to a drowse-inducing antihistamine such as Benadryl. But for some people, antihistamines can cause the opposite — disastrous — side effect of hyperactivity. Other drugs such as melatonin can be hard to dose correctly for young infants, Schwichtenberg says.

When trying to get older children to sleep, try to keep some semblance of normalcy. If you do a bedtime routine at home, use the same one while traveling. The biological plausibility of warm milk as a sleep aid isn’t settled, but it’s worth a shot. (Never underestimate the power of placebo.) Whatever you do, don’t despair. Your child will eventually adjust to her new time zone and you’ll get a full night’s sleep, at least until the next tooth erupts.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine