8 Tips for overcoming time differences when you travel with your family

Here we are in mid-July, lockdown’s slowly lifting here in England and I think a lot of us are starting to think about going away somewhere for a week or two over the summer holidays.  

Maybe just the thought of all the precautions you will have to take because of Covid-19 are enough to put you off?  Or maybe you’re willing to undertake it all just for a change of scene (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t agree with that right now?), but it’s the thought of changing time zones that’s putting you off?

Well, obviously, I can’t help you make a choice regarding whether it’s safe to travel, but, I can offer a few tips and a bit of advice about how to adjust when you get there if that’s your concern!  Of course, the effect of travelling will be different depending on how you’re travelling (car or aeroplane?) and just how far you’re going and how many time zones you’ll cross.  Hopefully below I’ll answer your questions regardless of how far you’re travelling.  Or why not check out my other blog on ‘How to make travelling with children easier’?.

So, the million dollar question is how do we maintain good sleep habits while we’re travelling with mini versions of ourselves while keeping a semblance of sanity? And if we’re crossing time zones, how do we deal with the inevitable complication of jet lag or time differences in our little ones? 

1. Avoid night flights (where possible)

I appreciate that depending on where you’re going, sometimes you have no choice in the time of your flight (sometimes with cost being a major factor or simply the airline schedule). Some of us like to envision a scenario where we jump on the plane when baby’s already asleep, and they just magically sleep through the entire flight, arriving fresh and rested and ready for the upcoming adventure while you’ve also managed to get some shut-eye and maybe even read your book…. 

I hate to burst your bubble, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it, I’m sorry. What is more likely to happen is that your bundle of joy (obviously depending on their age) will be so excited by all that’s going on just getting to the airport, let alone the excitement of being at the airport with so many people around (which, let’s face it, many of us just aren’t used to at the moment), and then of course, there’s the plane itself!  So your hopes of a serene flight may well be dashed.  Instead, it might be a better idea to try to catch a daytime flight and hope they’ll have a little snooze (so you can rest your eyes too!).

Alas, if you do have to take a night flight you’re all going to arrive with a bit of a sleep debt anyway since sleeping sat upright (potentially with a stranger sat next to you) isn’t nearly as restful as snuggling up in our bed at home, but that can actually work in your favour when you get to where you’re going anyway.

2. Travel Prepared

Given the special circumstances surrounding travel, I think this is one of those rare times when it’s OK to give into your munchkins demands. If they want to watch a few straight hours of something on a tablet or your phone, I say go for it! 

I’d like you to think of yourself a little like Mary Poppins here with a bottomless bag of goodies, including toys, snacks, books, colouring and portable battery chargers. Whatever they ask for, hand it over. 

I would just add the caveat that while sugary snacks might seem like a good idea for a long journey, you may find that actually you create a caged monster when the sugar high hits (and of course a seriously irrational monster when they come down from that high!), which isn’t going to help the sleep scenario.  If you can, offer plenty of fruits and vegetables (dried is good), and make sure you all stay hydrated. It’s probably going to mean plenty of walking to and from the toilets or stops if you’re driving, but trust me, it’s worth it. Travelling across multiple time zones doesn’t just affect our sleep. Constipation and diarrhoea after flying can be really common so making sure you’re all well hydrated is really important. 

3. Is it worth altering the schedule?

This sort of depends on how far you’re going.  If the time difference is going to be a couple of hours maximum, then I would always suggest keeping them on UK time if you can (so if you’re travelling within Europe, their 7pm bedtime would be 8pm or 9pm instead).

If you’re travelling further afield but for less than five days, again it’s probably not worth making adjustments to baby’s bedtime regardless of the time difference. Experts say that time zone shifts and jet lag lasts, on average, for about a day for every hour of time change, so if you’re taking a four day trip and you’re looking at a six-hour time change, it’s likely to be harder work adjusting them only to have to readjust when you get home a few days later.

If your trip’s going to be for longer than 5 days though it’s usually best to adjust to the new time as quickly as possible. Luckily, our bodies are programmed to respond to daylight (and lack of it) as that’s what keeps our body clock ticking, so that’s definitely on your side!  I’m not saying the first night will be easy, but, it will get easier the longer you’re there.

4. Stick to your bedtime routine

I literally can’t stress enough how important a good bedtime routine is (for us adults too!).  It’s our chance to signal to our body that we’re winding down for bed, not just a necessity as we change into comfortable clothes ready for sleep.  It’s our signal to our brain that it’s approaching bedtime and now it’s time to start firing up our melatonin production (the sleepy hormone) which starts to relax our muscles and slow down our mental activity.

I know, when you’re somewhere else, maybe staying with family or all squashed in a hotel room it’s going to be harder than it would be at home, but try sticking to the same steps of the routine you would usually do as much as possible.

I’d also suggest trying to keep the room as dark as possible, regardless of where you are.  That may well mean some bin bags and masking tape as a temporary measure, not too pretty, but will make a difference when the sun starts shining bright in the morning!

5. Sunlight’s on your side

As much as we don’t want daylight in the room while your little one’s trying to sleep, we DO want as much of the stuff as possible during the day (again, that’s for us adults too!).  Our body clock is governed by our exposure to light and dark, so the more sunlight we can get during the day, the quicker and easier we’ll adjust to the new timings.  Light through windows is ok, but full on, outside sunlight is best, especially earlier in the day.

6. Add an extra nap

Even in the best case scenario, your little love is still likely to be needing a little more sleep once you get where you’re going.  Depending on their age an extra nap of somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour and a half, can really help counteract the overtiredness that comes after a long flight (and will also give you a few minutes to close your eyes too!). You do need to be careful that the nap isn’t too close to bedtime though, as they obviously still need to be tired enough at bedtime to sleep through the night.

7. Keep things familiar

There’s always so much to remember to take with you, especially when your little one is very little, but I would always suggest remembering to pack their favourite PJ’s and their lovie/comforter (if they have one) and anything else that’s feasible for you to take with you that you think might help the transition.

I will take this opportunity to say, if you don’t usually share a bed, and it’s avoidable, try not to start while you’re away.  I get it, it’s lovely having those sleepy snuggles while you’re away, but, as my old Mum used to say, you are almost definitely making a rod for your own back.

Kids are smart, often a lot smarter than we give them credit for.  Of course they’re going to want to snuggle up to the people they love more than anything in the world to go to sleep.  The problem is they’re then going to expect exactly the same thing when you get home too…

8. Remember who you’re dealing with

Let’s face it, by the time we get to where we’re going, we’re all pretty tired.  As adults, we can rationalise it and we know that after a good night’s sleep, we’ll be feeling better in the morning.  Our little one’s (depending on their age) don’t have that insight!  They’re just tired and cranky and don’t really understand why.  So it’s worth remembering to try to cut everyone some slack (yourself included!), and know that tomorrow is not just another day, but the proper start to your holiday!

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