Jet Lag In Children

Traveling far from home is often a worth while trade off to experience some of the world’s most intriguing destinations. Yet the disruption from jet lag can put a snag in those early days of the trip. Understanding a bit about jet lag and why it occurs will help your family get on local time more easily and prevent it from shortchanging too much of your trip.

Our bodies have built in clocks that tell us what to do and when.  Those clocks are fueled by the ebb and flow of daylight. Jet lag occurs when our sleep/wake cycle is disrupted by experiencing a different time zone than we are accustomed to. It is really a transient sleep disorder that results from our internal clock resetting all our body systems.

It’s during the adjustment to the new time that we feel the symptoms of jet lag which often include tiredness, trouble sleeping, stool changes (constipation and diarrhea) headache, nausea, sweating, trouble thinking, dehydration, and jumpiness or irritability. What is interesting about jet lag is it impacts adults more than kids. The further you travel from home, the more jet lag you can expect.

The direction you travel determines the extent of jet lag you experience. Traveling north to south typically isn’t an issue because you are traveling within your customary time zone.  Traveling east causes the most jet lag because your clock is losing time. Traveling west you typically do better because your clock is gaining time.

The ultimate cure to jet lag is getting on local time which should start as soon as you get to your destination. Reset your watches. Play when locals play. Eat when locals eat. Sleep, or attempt to, when locals sleep.

Everyone’s clocks will eventually reset. According to Dr. Richard Ferber, one of the top pediatrician’s in the United States and author of the popular How To Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,   “…there are no situations where (a body’s) rhythm won’t reset. It should only be hard if sleep and light are not properly controlled. You too won’t reset well if you nap too much when you go to Europe. And they should adjust to the new time zone faster than the parents.”

One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid is not paying attention to the direction of travel and when your kids sleep. So, when traveling east, better to try and keep the child up and get that initial bed time closer to local time than fall asleep too early and get up much earlier than local breakfast time. Similarly, when traveling west, your child may have trouble falling asleep that first night. Have books and a movie on hand but wake your child up at local time the next day regardless of what time your child actually falls asleep.

Finally, sleep aids may be tempting to use but really are not effective in children, nor are needed. And many have a paradoxical effect in kids so instead of becoming sleepy your child ends up more awake.

When in doubt, just keep your eye on the ultimate goal: getting everyone in your family on to local time and local schedule. As they say, when in Rome….

(Originally posted June 2007; Updated December 2009)

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