Managing jet lag in kids is entirely up to the parents. Through years of practice, I’ve learned this, having been an ex-pat and flying with my daughter across oceans since she was six weeks old.
Our community of ex-pats was lucky enough to use sleep consultants who specialized in helping families navigate long flights together.
So, the tips below are based on personal experience and professional advice. I logged one of our flights from San Diego to Hong Kong and will use that as an example of how to manage jet lag in kids. The same rules apply to adults, too.
Outbound Flight Details
The strategy I’m outlining below is based on this set of flights. My daughter was 5 years old at the time but it’s a routine that we’ve repeated more times than I can count over the years.
Depart SAN at 10 a.m.
Arrive at LAX at 11 a.m.
Depart LAX at 1 p.m.
Arrive in Hong Kong at 7 p.m. the following day.
Transpacific flight time from LAX – HKG: Almost 15 hours.
Total journey from door to door: 22 hours.
Sleeping Onboard a 15 Hour Flight
It’s never worked to our benefit to have my daughter sleep more or less through an entire transpacific or transatlantic flight. She usually sleeps for about 4-6 hours, depending on flight departure times.
On this particular flight, we were in Cathay Pacific business class. However, my daughter has developed a strange habit of not wanting her seat reclined, much to my dismay. We brought her My Pillow Pet blanket and pillow which I genuinely believe were of great help keeping her comfortable.
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, flat bed or not.
Eight hours into the flight: She finally falls asleep after watching multiple movies. This is 9 p.m. Pacific Time and a few hours later than her normal bedtime. I was at my wit’s end by that point, wishing her to sleep because I could tell she was overtired.
Deep down, I knew that the less she slept, the more tired she’d be when we landed at night Hong Kong time. And, the more tired she was, the more likely she’d sleep through the night.
The beauty of a 1 p.m. flight departure is that she’s normally awake and not likely to fall asleep right away. If she had, I would have woken her up after a few hours.
Twelve hours into the flight: She wakes up. I have no idea why. She is a bit fussy but watches movies until we land, almost 3 hours later. The upshot is that she was awake for the final meal service so not hungry while in the airport going through customs, collecting bags, and transferring to our hotel.
Just in case she isn’t awake until landing, I do carry snacks to avoid post-landing meltdowns due to hunger while navigating from the plane to the hotel.
The end result on this flight is that she slept for four hours.
Eat Filling, Simple Food During the Flight
The bottom line is that it’s best to keep food bland and simple, but also filling. The more protein, the better. When she was young, I would pack these protein pancakes she loved as snacks in my carry-on.
Order Kids’ Meals if Possible
Like other Asian airlines, Cathay Pacific allows you to order kids’ meals in advance, which I normally do order. However, I encourage her to eat basic food like the roll with butter and fruit from the regular meal service.
Overall, I try to limit the junk food but do allow whatever they are serving after the main meal as a treat.
Avoid New or Rich Food
If she eats rich food or food she’s not used to onboard (typically found in the adult meals), she sometimes gets a stomach ache exacerbated by the plane’s motion. Not good. I always keep the air sickness bag open and within reach.
She outgrew the stomach aches and motion sickness brought on by flying when she turned 11, thankfully.
Stay Hydrated Throughout the Flight
Make sure to keep your children hydrated while in-flight even if it’s more juice or sparkling water than they would normally drink.
You don’t want to make up for this after landing, because if they drink a lot of fluids after landing they might wake up in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom.
Or, if they don’t drink enough water before landing, they might wake up thirsty during the night.
We’re trying to do whatever it takes to keep them from waking up at night.
Stay Up Late and Do Not Go to Bed Hungry the First Night After Landing
The idea is that you need to immediately transition kids (and yourself) into the time zone that you’re landing in by immediately implementing the same schedule you maintain at home. However, I modify this on the first night.
Landing at Night
It was 7 p.m. Hong Kong time when we landed which means that, technically, she should go straight to bed since her normal bedtime is between 7–8 p.m.
Luckily, adrenaline seems to kick in, regardless of age, after landing in a new destination.
By the time we cleared customs and arrived in our room at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, it was almost 9 p.m. Even though it’s later than we would ever usually eat, I immediately ordered room service.
I do this every time we land overseas at night, even if it’s late. Hunger exacerbates jet lag. Eating before we go to bed helps. And, it helps us to stay awake longer than we otherwise would
When in a new time zone, your body is used to eating when trying to force it to sleep. It’s essential during the first few days after landing to ensure 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 p.m. local time. She slept until 6 a.m. I consider seven hours of uninterrupted sleep after landing a victory.
Landing in the Morning
Many overseas flights land in the early morning. It’s usually hard to check-in to a hotel room early, so you may have to drop your bags and do some sightseeing, even though you’re exhausted.
We try to eat a full meal, usually breakfast. We constantly eat during the day to fuel our bodies so that we aren’t woken up in the middle of the night due to hunger. Then I try to schedule something fun to keep us awake, just like my advice below for this trip which applies to the first full day after landing.
Schedule FUN Activities the Day After Landing
Back to this particular trip, though we were both tired, we woke up and started the day gangbusters. I always make sure that we have plenty of kid-friendly activities planned until the late afternoon on the first full day after landing.
Ours went like this. We ate a giant buffet 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, right as we started to fade, I yanked us both back up to eat somewhere of her choosing. I fought to keep her awake until 7 p.m., not by nagging, but by doing fun stuff. I even tacked on an extra dessert as a reward (and because stopping into a store, buying, and eating it would keep us awake even longer).
The bottom line is that it helps to make sure that whatever sightseeing you’re doing on this first day appeals to kids, to avoid them becoming extra tired, fussy, and bored. Do not let them nap if they don’t usually nap. If they do nap, don’t let them nap any longer than they normally do. It will be hard to wake them up, but I promise it’s worth it.
The result is that she slept through the night. We did not get jet lag. If you can sleep through the night on nights one and two after flying overseas, the remaining nights will typically be easy peasy.
Repeat After the Return Flight
Our transpacific flight home was shorter as we’d already flown up to Tokyo. The flight from Tokyo to San Diego is about 11 hours.
Nonetheless, I repeated the same jet lag strategy. Once we landed in San Diego, we went home and bathed. My husband took my daughter grocery shopping for fun food and out to ride her scooter. Again, you need to play off of and extend any scrap of adrenaline your kids display.
Eat a full meal before bedtime. Protein-based foods help keep us full.
My daughter went to bed around 7 p.m. and woke up at 8 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.
Jet Lag in Kids: The Bottom Line
The moral of the story is that your instinct may be to coddle your kids and allow them to rest or sleep when they shouldn’t after crossing time zones.
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 it may last for just a night or two versus an entire week. Yes, I’ve heard plenty of stories about kids being jetlagged for entire vacations. This, we do not want.
Do you have any useful jet lag tips? Please share!