Long Haul Flights With Young Kids: Planning Flights and Jet Lag (Part 1)
I didn’t sleep well during the several weeks prior to flying with my baby from Hong Kong to LAX. She was not quite 3 months old, the distance was far and I was scared out of my mind. On top of that, due to last-minute booking we also had to connect in Tokyo. The journey was about 24 hours door to door and my baby had pretty severe reflux. In the end, we were fine.
Since then, I’ve flown long haul with her countless times until we moved back to La Jolla permanently after seven years of living overseas. The only long haul flight my husband ever flew with her was our last one because his job never allowed for long vacations home to California. Plus, I enjoyed being on a crazy adventure like that with her. I know, you must think I’m nuts for loving long haul flights with kids.
I’m going to split these travel tips into four posts. Keep in mind that some of my suggestions for flying with kids and babies might not work for you. But I was so nervous before my first long haul flight, that I found myself very interested in what other people were doing so I’d like to share my experiences with you.
I should also note that I was flying primarily Asian airlines, like Cathay Pacific, which are much nicer amenity-wise and more kid-friendly than domestic U.S. airlines, in my opinion. This shouldn’t matter too much, however. I also am referring mainly flying with younger kids and babies.
Planning The Long Haul Flight With Kids
If at all possible, schedule your flight in a manner that allows your baby or toddler to remain on the same daily schedule as at home.
For example, my first long haul flight mentioned above put us on the airplane to Tokyo exactly when my daughter usually napped in the morning. I also arrived at the airport much earlier than necessary so that I could relax, change her diaper and feed her before we boarded the plane. I didn’t want her to be hungry in case we got stuck on the tarmac before takeoff or in turbulence shortly after takeoff—at which point I’d be unable to reach my bag due to airline restrictions. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you can get caught up in the stress of travel and forget stuff like this, trust me.
The Worst Long Haul Flight I Ever Took
The worst flight that I ever took was one of the midnight Cathay Pacific direct flights from LAX to Hong Kong when my daughter was about 5 months old. If you fly to Asia, you probably know this is a common time to schedule a direct flight because it will put you at your destination in the early morning (though a full day later) and allow most business travelers to enjoy a full day of work. Plus, it’s designed to help eliminate jet lag by trying to force you to get some sleep on board since it’s night time in the US and you’ll wake up when it’s morning in Asia.
Anyway, my baby was not used to so much activity so late at night. She slept a little bit in the car on the way to the airport but woke up as soon as the car stopped. I thought eventually she’d pass out on the plane for almost the entire flight. She didn’t. Therefore, she became so incredibly OVERTIRED and confused that she screamed the whole bloody way to Hong Kong (in business class on Cathay Pacific). She slept the first 30 minutes after the plane left the gate, and was shocked awake by the captain giving his flight message over the PA.
Can you imagine? I thought I was going to die. I nursed her like mad to try to get her to pass out but it didn’t work. I had my own seat with plenty of room and she had the bassinet, which she never went in to (more on airplane bassinets later). I must say that some of my friends have had an OK time with the late night long haul flights, because their babies slept fine. My daughter wound up being a routine-dependent baby and any deviation from it was a disaster. I never, ever took a late night flight again.
Preventing Jet Lag In Kids
Because my baby was routine-dependent and not a great sleeper, we went to a sleep clinic. Hong Kong is full of American, British, Australian and other expats who routinely fly long haul and need to frequently address the issue of jet lag in their kids. The clinic gave us very useful jet lag advice which I am passing on to you through these posts.
The other reason to schedule your flights so that your kids can stay on the same daily routine while in transit, has to do with jet lag. You should always, regardless of time change, keep your baby or toddler on the same daily routine UNTIL you arrive at your destination.
This is hard if the airline is trying to force night time by making the plane dark. After you arrive at your destination, plonk your little traveler into the new time zone by implementing their normal routine using the time of the zone you’re in. This seems cruel, but trust me, it works. I was lucky that my flight times made it quasi-easy for me to do this. If we were to arrive at my house in La Jolla around 1:00 p.m., then I would put my daughter down for a 2-hour nap since she napped around 1:00pm in Hong Kong. Remember, she’s tired (as am I) so getting her to nap was not hard. Waking her up after 2 hours was a nightmare because her little body thought it was night time (as it was in Hong Kong) and she would cry and whine like you wouldn’t believe. Trust me, the agony of the first day is worth it.
On the flip side, keeping kids awake is hard too. I would have to do an insane song and dance (sometimes literally) to keep her awake so that she’d go to sleep for the night at her normal time. As the parent, it’s exhausting but it’s MORE exhausting to have a kid with jet lag for a week or longer when you have it too.
If you do all that I mentioned in my paragraph above, your little traveler will still most likely wake up in the middle of the night on the first night. My daughter would somehow realize she was in a strange bed and not know where she was. After she woke up, I would go in, hold and console her and when she leaned toward her bed, I’d put her in and to sleep. Sometimes I’d have to do this several times during the first night. As she got older, she wanted to walk around the house in the dark to just remind herself where she was. The sleep clinic said that if the child is wide awake in the middle of the first night, go ahead and calmly play or do whatever they like until they tire out and want to go back to sleep. Eventually, they will do the latter except at this point 20 minutes feels like 20 years. Just keep the room as dark as is tolerable and keep your voice and motions calm and sleepy. Easier said than done, I know.
On the second day, wake up in the morning and do your routine like normal. If your little traveler is sleeping in longer than usual, despite maybe being awake in the night, wake them up. If your little traveler wakes up during this second night, then you do not go in the room. Let them sort it out by themselves. It sounds harsh, I know, but you use your judgement. By day 2, my daughter is usually back to normal. She does not get jet lag. I firmly believe that the flight scheduling has a lot to do with it along with her inconvenient habit of not sleeping well on the plane and needing to catch up after landing.
I’ll talk next time about what to do and bring on the plane. Please also leave comments about what works for you.
Here are links to the rest of the series:
Long Haul Flights with Young Kids, Part 2: What to Pack Carry-on and In-flight Meals
Long Haul Flights with Young Kids, Part 3: Getting Little Traveler to Sleep on the Plane and Gear
Long Haul Flighs with Young Kids, Part 4: Packing List and Final Thoughts
Also, I wrote a short book that’s available in paperback and Kindle called Flying with Kids: Safe and Sane Air Travel with Your Baby, Toddler or Young Child (Volume 1). Have a look!
Photo credit: istockphoto/vsurkov