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Changing Time Zones and Your Child’s Sleep

Changing Time Zones & Your Child's Sleep
Stephanie Nielsen

Stephanie Nielsen

Traveling with your children can be so fun and exciting for the entire family, but let’s be honest, it can also be stressful!  Add changing time zones and your child’s sleep to the mix and you may find your anxiety spiking as you prepare for your trip. If you are someone who likes to be prepared, this post will give you a game plan and tips to make the time zone transition as smooth as possible!

For more traveling with children travel tips, check out this post.

Preparing Your Child’s Sleep Space Upon Arrival

First things first…

Whether you are traveling to grandma’s in the next town over or to the other side of the World, you want to setup your child’s sleep space for optimal sleep. You want your child to continue to fall asleep easily and be well-rested while on your trip. Here are some of our top tips to optimize your child’s sleep space when traveling:

  • If your child is in a crib, try to request one from the hotel in advance if possible and if not, ask when you arrive so your baby has a safe, comfortable place to sleep. If cribs aren’t available, you may want to bring a pack n play from home or rent one.
  • Pack comfort items from home and anything your families relies on for healthy sleep at home:
    • Your child’s lovey or comfort item
    • A crib sheet from home – the feel and smell of the sheet from home will feel familiar
    • Your sound machine turned louder than normal – hotels and room sharing can be loud and disruptive
    • For toddlers, their ok to wake clock and any sleep safe nightlights
    • Your child’s bath products and anything else that you use for the routine
    • An unwashed sleep sac – it will smell like home and may help to calm your child
    • A couple of your child’s favorite bedtime books
  • Keep the room dark, especially if it gets lighter earlier in the new time zone! Black Hefty trash bags and painters’ tape pack easily and will help keep the room dark if it doesn’t have adequate blackout shades / curtains.
  • Here are all of our favorite products for sleep and travel.

Adjusting Your Child’s Sleep For New Time Zones

One Time Zone

If you are traveling one time zone east or west and your trip is less than a week, you don’t have to make any adjustments and you can keep the same schedule as you have at home.

If you’re an hour ahead and your children usually go to bed at 7:00 pm, the new time zone they go to bed at 8:00. When you get back home there is no adjustment. Same if you are going West.

This usually works, but the sun is a really powerful force on setting our body clocks, so you may find that your little one naturally adjusts themselves to the new time zone. Not much we can do about that! But you’ll easily be able to return to your normal schedule when you return home.

More Than One Time Zone

Begin adjusting your child’s sleep when you arrive. Some consultants recommend shifting in advance, but we oftentimes find that it isn’t effective. It is easiest to adjust in the new time zone because you can adjust all aspects of the schedule, including wake time, meals, playing outside, etc. Plus you have the sun on your side with resetting your little one’s internal clock.

When you arrive, expose yourself and your children to the morning and late afternoon/evening sun to help your body begin to adjust. Then move your child’s entire schedule (wake time, naps, meals and bedtime) to the same times at home in the new time zone.

You may have to stretch your little ones some, especially if you are traveling West. Aim for bedtime to start no earlier than 1 hour earlier than your bedtime at home, in the new time zone. For example, a 7:00 pm bedtime in Boston, means that your little one won’t go down before 6:00 pm in LA.

Same with wake time in the morning. Aim for no more than 1 hour earlier than you do at home. So a 7:00 am wakeup in Boston, means that the earliest you want to take your child out of the crib in LA is 6:00 am.

Remember, these are loose goals – do what you’ve got to do and use the other techniques to help recover from jet lag and to get your little one on the new schedule.

International Travel

If you are traveling outside of the country and the time change will be 10-12 hours different, it is likely going to take 1-2 days to jump into the new schedule, although you and your child likely won’t be fully acclimated for a few more days after that.

The first night, sleep may go well because of the exhaustion from traveling, but the next few nights may be challenging. You and your little one may find yourself awake in the middle of the night because your bodies still think it is the middle of the day! Normally if this happens, it usually normally for 2-3 days and then your little one should be able to start sleeping through the night again.

If your child is awake awake in the middle of the night, it’s ok to take your little one out of their crib or bed. Make sure to keep the lights low and have minimal interactions. Then try to put your little one back down in one hour. We want to try to override that body clock! See below the tips for jet lag – outside time will be key with traveling through so many time zones.

Tips To Help With Jet Lag:

  • Get outside! Try to get outside every morning and in the evening to help your child’s body clock continue acclimating to the new time zone. The sunlight is poweful for resetting our internal clocks. This will help your kids adjust and you too!
  • If you arrive and it is light out, spend some time outside to help your child’s body clock acclimate.
  • Same if you arrive and it is dark out. The darkness will tell your child’s body it is nighttime and will make it easier for your child to fall sleep.
  • Keep the same routine for nap and bedtime: Potty, brush teeth, books, songs. These are all powerful cues that sleepytime has arrived, even if your little one’s body hasn’t gotten the message yet.
  • Keep meals on the schedule in the time zone you traveled to help your child adjust to the new time zone. 
  • Don’t stress too much and enjoy your trip! You can get right back on track when you get home.

Tips For Returning Home:

  • Once you get back home, exposure to morning and evening sunlight / darkness will help your body clocks to reset.
  • Move all awake times, nap times, meal time and bedtime back to your original schedule.
  • If your child appears overtired or cranky, an early bedtime is your BFF. Think 5:30 – 6:00 pm for babies and 6:00 – 6:30 for toddlers and big kids.
  • When traveling back from international travel, be prepared that it can take one day for each time zone you traveled for your child to fully acclimate back to their normal schedule.

Need Help Preparing To Travel Or Get Back On Track?

I’d love to help you figure it all out! We offer quick Ask Me Anything sessions to help solve sleep challenges or we work with families to develop a sleep plan and provide support. If you want to learn more, please fill out our contact form.

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