Nothing can be compared to the bad jetlag suffered by children, from not being able to sleep all night to being irritable and losing their appetite. But it’s that time of year again, where many families are returning to the UAE in time for the schools to reopen, next week, and with them they bring the agony of jet lag.
As adults we adjust and find a way to beat it, but little children who follow routines find it very hard to come around. Usually parents suffer for days trying to get them back into bed at a reasonable hour.
Jet lag is a physiological condition in which a human’s internal body clock is disrupted due to travelling between time zones. Jet lag affects patterns of sleeping, waking up and eating.
“A child’s biological clock is much more susceptible to jet lag because the brain is so much less mature. When travelling, your child does not adapt to the sleep receptors [or cues] as readily as an adult [can],” Julia Mallon, a certified IPMI Sleep Consultant, explained.
“For example, a two-year-old’s brain is much more sensitive to light and sound, meaning they find it more difficult to fall asleep. Plus, when travelling, children will find themselves sleeping at odd hours and therefore the flow of the sleep hormone Melatonin is much more easily disrupted,” she added.
Jet lag is worse when a person is travelling eastward, as days become shorter and the human body has less time to recover. It’s vice-versa when going the other way because you add hours to your day, making it easier to sync with the change in time.
We asked Mallon for tips to give mothers, especially those who work and need to be in office after a long night handling an irritable child, for a plan to ease the symptoms.
“A useful tool is that for every hour of time difference it will take your child 24 hours to adapt back to their usual sleeping habit. Parents shouldn’t expect a quick fix, so if there is a three-hour time difference between here and the UK, allow your child three days to readjust,” she said.
However, there are a few things you can do when you return from the West to the UAE to make your transition easier. Try this:
Bedtimes: Eastward travel is always a bit more challenging for adults as well as children. A child may not be tired at [his/her] usual bedtime, but try to get [her/him] into bed close to that time. Rely on a soothing bedtime routine; a dark room, some white noise to help set the stage.
If you travel from London to Dubai and your child’s bedtime is 7pm, keep in mind that your child will get tired close to 10pm Dubai time on the first night. Use bedtime cues to help him fall asleep around 9.30pm on that first night. From then on, move the snooze hour gradually, 30-45 minutes at a time, to the time desired. By the third or fourth night, your child should fall asleep at his usual bedtime.
Wake times: When traveling east, avoid the temptation to allow your child to sleep in. Wake your child up at the usual time so his body can adjust to the new time zone. During the day plan for lots of light and activity in the sun to help reset a child’s biological clock.
Nap times: Again, aim for naps at your child’s usual time. Using the London to Dubai example, expect that your child won’t be tired at his usual 1pm nap time because it will only be 10am according to his internal clock. Use a combination of a lot of morning light and activity, followed by a dark room, and a consistent bedtime routine to get him to fall asleep close to that time. Try to move the time as close to 1pm as possible in 30-45 minutes increments over a few days.
One of the most powerful methods to overcome a jet lag is to expose your child to natural sunlight during the day - this will naturally adjust his internal body clock. It is also very helpful to make sure your child has lots of outdoor activity, so that he is physically tired through exercise.
If you are headed the other way, from Asia to the UAE, Mallon advises the following:
Bedtimes: When crossing two-three time zones, attempt to keep your child awake until his normal bedtime hour. The more time zones crossed, the harder this will be. At your destination, aim for 30-45 minutes later each night and expect a few nights’ adjustment period. If you travel from Hong Kong to the UAE and your child usually falls asleep at 7pm, he will be tired at 3pm. Try to keep him awake until at least 5pm. On the first night, use late afternoon light exposure to help you; the next night your goal should be closer to 6pm. By the third night or fourth night, he should fall asleep at close to his normal bedtime in the new time zone.
Wake-up times: When traveling west, expect your child to wake up in the very early hours of the morning. So if they usually wake up at 7am expect that they will be up by 4am. Try to keep children in their bed with a book, an iPad or a toy until a “reasonable” hour, and be flexible. You will most likely be waking up earlier too!
In a few days, wake times should normalize as long as you don’t respond to the too-early calls of the day in the first few days.
Nap times: Try to stick to a nap schedule as much as possible. When going west, your child will probably be tuckered out earlier than usual during the day, but still try to keep usual nap time. If your child usually takes an afternoon nap at 1pm, then she will be tired as early as 10am the first day or so. Do everything possible to keep them going until as close to 1pm as possible. If you need to put your child down at around 10.30-11.30am the first day, go ahead, but then push for another 30-45 minutes later the next day. Within three days your child’s routine should normalize. Also, don’t allow for a long nap, which is tempting after a particularly long trip, to ensure a reasonable bedtime.
Julie Mallon is a qualified and certified IPMI Sleep Consultant, working with Nurture to Sleep and Babies and Beyond.