Jet Lag And Kids: How I Prevented It On Our Last Long-Haul Flight

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Managing jet lag in kids is entirely up to the parents and something that years of practice and paid professional advice allow me to have nailed down. Instead of 6 transpacific/transatlantic journeys a year (we were expats), we’re down to 1 or 2. My daughter, now 5, is a little bit out of practice, but probably responding now more or less like an average child of her age. Just in case you have long-haul flights with kids on the horizon, here’s how our last one went. I’m hoping this advice will help you manage jet lag in kids, however, the advice isn’t too different for adults.

Outbound Flight Details

Depart SAN at 10:00 a.m.
Arrive LAX at 11:00 a.m.
Depart LAX at 1:00 p.m.
Arrive Hong Kong at 7:00 p.m. the following day.

Transpacific flight time from LAX – HKG: Almost 15 hours.
Total journey from door to door: 22 hours.

Onboard Sleeping: 15 Hour Flight

We were flying Cathay Pacific business class. However, La Jolla Girl has developed a strange habit of not wanting her seat reclined, much to my dismay. So, despite her potentially having a spacious flat bed, she never took advantage of it. Therefore, I don’t believe that class of service, in this case, makes a difference. I also have never been one to sleep on these flights, bed or not.

8 hours into the flight: She finally falls asleep after watching multiple movies. This is 9:00 p.m., normal time. I was at my wit’s end by that point wishing her to sleep, however, deep down I knew that the less she slept on this particular flight, the better off we’d be. We brought her My Pillow Pet blanket and pillow which I genuinely believe were of great help keeping her comfortable. The beauty of a 1:00 p.m. flight is that she’s ordinarily awake and not likely to fall asleep right away. If she had, I would have woken her up.

12 hours into the flight: She wakes up. I have no idea why. Typically, she’ll sleep until landing. She is a bit fussy but watches movies until we land, almost 3 hours later.

That’s 4 hours of sleep total on a 15-hour flight. Oy.

Onboard Eating

Cathay Pacific allows you to order kids’ meals in advance. I try to encourage her to eat basic food like the roll with butter and fruit. I limit the junk food but do allow whatever they are serving after the main meal as a treat. I have found that if she eats rich food onboard (typically found in the adult meals), she sometimes gets a stomach ache that is exacerbated by the plane’s motion. Not good. Since then, I always keep the air sickness bag open and within reach.

Handling Sleep After Landing

Luckily, adrenaline seems to kick in, regardless of age, after landing in a new destination. It was 7:00 p.m. local time which means that technically she should be sleeping within the next hour (her normal bedtime is 7:00–8:00 p.m.). Remember, she only slept 4 hours on the plane.

By the time we cleared customs and arrived in our room at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, it was almost 9:00 p.m. Even though it’s later than we would ever usually eat, I immediately ordered room service. Hunger exacerbates jet lag. When in a new time zone, our body is used to eating when we are trying to force it to sleep. It’s essential on the first few days to make sure that we aren’t hungry at night. Yes, it will feel like perpetually eating, but it’s a trade-off.

We enjoyed our room service, and I kept her up until 11:00 p.m. local time. She slept until 6:00 a.m. Consider 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep after landing a victory.

The Day After Landing

Though we were both tired, we woke up and started the day gangbusters. I always make sure that we have substantial, kid-friendly activities planned until the late afternoon. We ate breakfast, unpacked a little bit and headed to Ocean Park, an amusement park in Hong Kong. From there we shopped and then headed back to the hotel for a rest. Around dinner time, I yanked us both back up to eat somewhere of her choosing. I fought to keep her awake until 7:00 p.m., not by nagging, but by doing fun stuff. I tacked on an extra dessert, even.

Bottom line, if the kids are tired you need to make sure that whatever you’re doing on this day appeals to them, to avoid tired fussy. Do not let them nap if they don’t usually nap.

She slept through the night. We did not get jet lag. If you can get them to sleep on nights one and two, the rest will typically be easy peasy.

Return Flight

Our flight home was shorter as our departure city was Tokyo. I repeated the same strategy. Once we landed in San Diego, we went home and bathed. My husband took her grocery shopping and out to ride her scooter. Again, you need to play off and extend any scrap of adrenaline.

She went to bed around 7:00 p.m. and woke up at 8:00 a.m.

She did not get jet lag. I got a little on the first night because my brain started focusing on my to-do list now that I was home. However, a kid with jet lag will ensure that you have it for days on end.

The moral of the story is that your instinct may be to coddle your kids and allow them to rest. Be strategic about how you keep them awake, and they’ll never know what you’re up to. It’s one of the best ways to ensure they don’t get jet lag or get it for just a night or two, versus an entire week. Yes, the latter is possible.

Do you have any useful jet lag tips? Please share!

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2 Comments

  1. Anita
    April 27, 2014 at 11:11 am — Reply

    I totally agree with everything you said in your article, I am a nanny and have done close to 100 long haul flights with children (one job was as a travel nanny going round the world). Two things i try to do is change my watch the moment I get on the plane and try and move the child’s schedule to the new time, sometimes that means forward thinking and bringing extra food on so they can get their “meals” at the right time. Also if I have the luxury of doing it I try doing a sliding routine before we travel so that the final time jump isn’t too large.

  2. June 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm — Reply

    Great advice – my ideal flight lands me in my destination closer to dinner, but I’ve found a lot of European flights get you there in the morning. I typically do what you did on day two – nap a few hours after lunch and before dinner. Now I’m heading over to Amazon to pick up your ebook!

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