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Jet Lag Hits a Traveling Family

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When traveling a long distance by air east or west jet lag is a common occurrence. Adults understand what is going on and can adjust, but young children seem to become confused by it as, for all they know, day and night just flipped. My two and a half year old daughter just experienced jet lag for the first time, and here is my advice on how best to deal with it in children. 

SHANGHAI, China- 2:52 AM Beijing time: “Is it morning now?”

“No. Go back to sleep.”

2:59 AM Beijing time: “Is it morning now?”

“No. It’s the middle of the night, go back to sleep.”

3:05 AM Beijing time: “Now is it morning?”

Get up, turn on the light, get dressed, start the day. My family’s first day in China began in the middle of the night — as would the next day and the one after that. We had just taken a flight from New York and my two and a half year old daughter is still on western hemisphere time. She wakes up in the middle of the night ready to start the day, she is experiencing jet lag for the first time.

I’ve never suffered greatly from jet lag. I sleep the entire time on the airplane. If it’s daytime when I arrive at my destination I’m well rested and ready to jump in to a new place. If it’s night I go back to sleep and wake up when morning comes. I’ve never written about jet lag over the eight years I’ve been publishing this blog because it has never been any sort of issue — truly nothing to mention. I write about jet lag now — as I sit three sleepless days into China — because it has become an ordeal.

When a child doesn’t sleep nobody sleeps.

When a child doesn't sleep nobody sleeps

The best thing to do to combat jet lag is to jump into the local time schedule as soon as possible. In a day or two you will generally be sorted out. The problem comes when you have a child in the room trying to get your lazy butt out of bed at three in the morning. This makes it nearly impossible to jump into local time and removes the traveler’s best strategy for beating jet lag. If a child is jet lagged the entire family is jet lagged.

Petra Hendela Adara Shepard has been traveling by car, bus, train, and plane since she was six weeks old. Up to now all of the places she has traveled through have been within three hours of Eastern USA time. Now in China, the eigth country of her journey, she abruptly jumped 12 time zones.

WTF? She does not seem to know what happened.

All of a sudden night was day, day was night, she was wide awake when the sun was in remission and tired as a dog when it was high in the sky. “I’m not tired!” she yells at night. No shit. Hours and hours go by, she is rampaging — neither her father nor mother can get a wink of sleep. Jet lag is perhaps contagious.

I felt like stuffing the kid into a suitcase and shipping her back to EST. But I had to empathize: this was a new travel experience for her. A new travel experience that she could understand — when we go to Asia day and night flip — but not really comprehend. The mystery of trans-oceanic aviation and internal clocks is a touch too heavy for a two year old. All she seems to know is that she’s ready to rampage in broad moonlight.

And I knew that the daytime would be equally as trying.

Sure enough, upon daybreak the kid wanted to crash. But we couldn’t: we had to get into the Shanghai bus station from Pudong, get on a bus and head out to Taizhou, meet my wife’s employers, get an apartment, be showed around town, receive a banquet . . . A big day.

“Sorry, kid, you have to stay up.”

Petra was able to sleep intermittently throughout the day, napping on buses and while being carried. This was a luxury that her parents could not fully share. But once nighttime came around again, surprise, “I’m not tired! I want to play! Is it morning yet?”

What is jet lag?

Everyone has an internal clock regulated by daylight, and a cycle of bodily functions that are programmed to occur throughout the span of a day (called circadian rhythms). Flying over many timezones east or west screws up these internal timetables as the body clock is no longer in step with the destination time.

Travel east you lose time, travel west you gain time. So when you travel east you will feel as if you need to force yourself to go to sleep whereas when you travel west you will need to force yourself to stay awake. As most people have a cicadian clock that is slightly over 24 hours it is often easier for people to stay awake late at night than it is to wake up early in the morning.

My advice for overcoming jet lag in children

Like kicking up the dirt on the surface of a pond, the body simply needs a little time to resettle from jet lag. Getting on local schedule in steady increments is the best (and perhaps only) remedy I have for jet lag. Some people try to force themselves to sleep on westbound flights and stay awake on eastbound ones, but I’ve found this rather difficult to do and unnecessary. Intentionally depriving the body of sleep is, in my opinion, far harsher than the shock of a new local time. My solution to jet lag is to oversleep and wait for your body to sort it all out — if you have this luxury. Too much sleep is better than not enough. If you sleep the entire time on a plane and find yourself wide awake in your destination’s night just rest as much as possible watching TV or reading until morning. The next day stay up for as long as you can and go to bed when you feel like it. Sleep as long as possible and wake up when you wake up. In a day or two you will adjust perfectly.

Adults can curb their sleepiness or restlessness with logic, but kids have no such devices in this matter and must just suffer through it. My advice: give them time and space, allow them to adjust at their own pace. Use a baby carrier or stroller so they can sleep when they wish. People have biological clocks that set themselves naturally to day light. Spend a lot of time outside and being active, and they will adjust in a couple of days. It would take an iron British nanny to do things any other way.

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Editor’s note: Apparently, Viagra isn’t only useful in keeping people up at at the ready in the bedroom but in new time zones as well. An off the box usage of Viagra is to curb jet lag. Surprised? We’re not — who could be tired in that state?

VagabondJourney.com does not condone this remedy for children.

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Filed under: Health, Travel With Family

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap