How do I help my toddler get over his horrible jet-lag?
August 5, 2014 9:20 AM   Subscribe

We recently arrived back in Australia from the UK. We are seasoned travellers (even the toddler in question, aged 21 months) but this round of jet-lag is kicking him (and us) in the ass. I'd love to hear from people who have dealt with this precise situation, because we're not sure what we should be doing. Specific details inside.

Toddler is normally a wonderful sleeper. He self-soothes like a champion, actually enjoys going to bed, and (before this) would happily lay there quietly and just talk or think himself to sleep.

We've also done several round-the-world trips with him before without too many problems in the way of jet-lag. They've always ended up with him having a flipped schedule for a few days (i.e., bedtime N hours before or after his normal bedtime, with each subsequent day moving it about an hour back until it's normal). It's been fine and relatively pain-free.

This time has been a bit more problematic because of the combination of the time in the day we arrived and the constraint that we've had to go to work in the mornings so we haven't been able to do the flipped bedtime thing. As a result we've gotten stuck in a situation where he goes to bed at 7pm (his normal time), then wakes up in the middle of the night for a few hours (this corresponds to daytime in the UK), and only then does he fall back asleep. Then we have to wake him up at 7am (his normal time) in order to go to work, daycare, etc.

The net result of this is that he's losing about two hours per night of sleep. It wouldn't be a sustainable situation for this alone, not to mention that we all want to go back to the glorious days where he'd fall asleep at 7pm and wake up at 7am with nary a peep in between. We definitely don't want him to develop the habit / expectation that he will wake up every night for a few hours of play.

Unfortunately right now we can't figure out how to get out of it. For the first few nights, given that he (and we) were not actually tired at this time at all, we got him out of bed and did quiet night-time activities for a few hours, then went back into the bedtime ritual to go back to sleep. That worked well but we didn't want to entrench the habit of waking up in the middle of the night for some playtime, so we've started trying to modify it. One night we had him go back to bed sooner (one hour rather than two). The result was that he tried heroically to go to sleep for an hour (he was so cute and tried so valiantly - we explained to him that planes make it hard to sleep at night but we all have to try anyway)... but he only managed to sleep after about two hours anyway. Another night we tried not getting him out of his crib when he woke up. This was a lot more miserable, and involved about an hour of crying, only ending after we got him up, did the whole bedtime ritual again, and got him down to bed finally.

We're really not sure what strategy we should be pursuing here. I'm not resistant to anything that will work, but CIO just doesn't seem sensible in this case: he's already a great self-soother, the problem is simply that his circadian rhythm is off and he can't sleep because he's not tired. I also don't want bedtimes and sleeping to change from something that he found comforting and really liked to become a battleground. But slow modifications haven't worked as far as I can tell (unless we're being too impatient and they're not slow enough? What kind of thing would be slow enough? How do we slowly transition?).

I'd love some perspective from someone who has been there themselves.
posted by forza to Human Relations (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How recently did you make the trip? Has this been going on for a day or two, or more like a few weeks?

It honestly sounds like it will work itself out with enough time and exercise during the day. This weekend I'd make a concerted effort to wake up at the usual time, get lots of energy out during the day, start the bedtime routine a bit earlier, and see what happens.
posted by barnone at 9:28 AM on August 5, 2014

Five days at this point. Perhaps I'm jumping the gun here in being worried, but always previously it's been pretty much back to normal by this time, and we haven't really changed things one jot from the first day (other than having more pain and suffering around it).
posted by forza at 9:31 AM on August 5, 2014

When I moved to Germany with my oldest son, who was an infant at the time, both of us were up all night and sleeping all day until, one day, I ran errand that had both of us outside in sunlight for much of the day. Then, our body clocks were suddenly reset.

Can you arrange for him to play outside in sunlight more during the day?
posted by Michele in California at 9:34 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

You are jumping the gun. Our experience is a day for every hour you change, plus more if it's a lot. It took our kid almost 3 weeks to get over a trip to Japan (14hr time difference).

You do need consistency. You can't get up and play one night and cry it out the next. So keep him on a normal schedule, put him to bed at the regular time, and comfort him as best you can in the middle of the night. Soothe as needed, but don't play, don't turn lights on, and don't have any interesting conversations. Just repeat quietly that it's time to sleep and he needs to sleep, even if his body is having trouble with it right now.

In this situation we often bring our kids to bed with us in the middle of the night, and have had good luck with them being able to go back to sleeping the full night on their own some nights later when whatever is troubling them has passed. Other kids make it a habit that you then have to break, though, so proceed with caution.

But ultimately you just have to suffer through it. Compassionately, of course, since it's really not his fault. Good luck.
posted by telepanda at 9:45 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, as another data point my then-15-month-old took 2.5 weeks to readjust from a Japan/East Coast US jet lag. I think we ran with it for a few nights (midnight bathtime! random snack! Let's go to Target, since we're all up!) and then gradually tried to keep it quiet at night and very, very active during the day. I think Michele in California's suggestion of lots of daytime sunlight is about the best you can do. Hang in there!
posted by chocotaco at 9:58 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree with tele panda. My experience is about 1 day per time zone difference, depending on the direction of travel. Most people have more trouble going west to east, but I think it can also depend on the timing of the travel and whether you are a natural lark or owl.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:06 AM on August 5, 2014

This article suggests foods rich in certain nutrients, like calcium and magnesium and certain B vitamins, can help increase melatonin production. That fits with my general understanding of the brain's chemical waking-sleeping cycle. So you could try working more of that into his diet.

(Bonus: It also states that sunlight can help boost melatonin production. I was not looking for that information but, there you go: Support for the above anecdata.)
posted by Michele in California at 10:24 AM on August 5, 2014

I found this article interesting. It suggests sunlight as one of the most important factors.
posted by bfields at 10:43 AM on August 5, 2014

In my experience sunlight is very helpful. I'd make sure he gets as much sun as possible in during the day, and make it as dark as possible when he sleeps.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:50 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Watching the actual sunrise or sunset is said to be helpful, but I'm not clear if your child is tending to be awake during one of those times while jet-lagged. (By which I mean to clarify: I'm not suggesting you wake up a sleeping kid to try this one, even if they are sleeping at the wrong time.)
posted by juliplease at 1:34 PM on August 5, 2014

Thanks everyone. It does look like we were led astray by the relative ease of the previous times we've done this, and we just need to step back and let it all go more slowly. We make sure to get as much exercise and sun as possible and at night will just focus on keeping it quiet and dark and comforting, but not try to force things. I appreciate the perspective.
posted by forza at 7:36 PM on August 5, 2014

Just as an update, I wanted to note for posterity that Toddler did eventually get over his jetlag. It took him a lot longer than his norm but was in line with the estimates above.

That said... by making him cry it out when he wasn't tired in the first place we "broke" him and where he once loved to sleep by himself and self-soothe, at night we now have to sit on a chair in his room to reassure him we're not going to abandon him again. We can only leave when he's gone to sleep.

We're slowly working on fixing this (and have a plan to do so)... but let this be a warning to anyone in similar shoes: if your kid is jet-lagged or actually unable to sleep, making them stay crying in the crib anyway is really idiotic and will only make them loathe the crib and everything associated with it.

Perhaps nobody else would be quite so stupid, though. That was just a very bad parenting decision which we are still paying the price of. I can only blame our complete sleep deprivation and our own jet-lag at the time -- both that decision and the AskMe itself were not exemplars of clear thinking: in hindsight this entire question was probably obvious but I still needed to hear these answers at the time. So thanks.
posted by forza at 11:37 PM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

((HUGS)) -- if you want them -- and best of luck with the new problem.
posted by Michele in California at 9:44 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Parotid gland weirdness   |   Partner's Abusive Ex and Communicating My... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.