On long-haul flights, two of the biggest challenges that you face as a parent: getting your kids to sleep on the plane and, when changing time zones, jet lag. Here are some top tips for a restful journey.
How can I help my child sleep on long-distance journeys?
Plan your travel timeWhenever possible, try to schedule your flight in a way that best suits your child’s schedule. (Although, granted, you might not have a choice!) If they don’t struggle to sleep in new surroundings, the ideal is an overnight flight that coincides with night-time at home. Many parents find that this allows them to stick to the home sleep schedule as much as possible. But if your child finds it hard to sleep on planes, it may be better to plan a daytime trip with an evening arrival, so if they’ve been awake on the flight they can go to bed soon after you arrive.
Choose an optimal seatIf you’re travelling with a baby, the bassinet bulkhead seat (the first row of seats in a section) is a good option. Otherwise, go for seats in which you can raise the armrests. If you’re travelling on your own with one child, travel-wise parents recommend taking the middle seat, so the child isn’t sitting next to someone they don’t know. Your child will feel more comfortable and safe nestled between you and the window.
Consider bringing a travel bedThere are various products available that can transform an airline seat into an inflight bed for children up to the age of seven. These include bed boxes that open out to create a flat surface, and inflatable cushions that can be inserted in the leg area between seats so your child can stretch out more easily. However, certain airlines don’t allow these devices as they can obstruct the movement of other passengers and impede access to the aisle. It is highly recommended to contact the airline in advance to ask what its policy is before bringing items like this on board.
Stick to your bedtime routineIf you’re on an overnight flight, follow the usual bedtime rituals your child would have at home: mealtime, changing into pyjamas, teeth brushing, story time, etc. If they have a ‘sleep cue’, like a special stuffed animal or blanket, bring that along. The aim is to try to make the environment as similar to home as possible rather than getting caught up in the activity on the airplane.
Help them wind downAirlines provide a variety of things to keep children entertained, but it’s a good idea to bring along some activities such as colouring books, puzzles or storybooks that aren’t overstimulating. To help your child wind down, switch off any gadgets and seat-back entertainment during the sleep-transition period – blue light and screens can decrease sleepiness. Oatmeal and milk are both sleep-inducing foods, so these are good choices if they want a snack. When it’s time to sleep, slip a blanket under the headrest and drape it over the seat to make a dark and cosy tent.
How can I avoid jet lag?
Get a head startSome sleep specialists recommend starting to adjust to the new time zone a few days before the flight. For example, you could shift your child’s routine towards the new time zone by half an hour every couple of days. However, if this risks being disruptive, it’s better just to try to make sure your child is well rested before you leave. If possible, plan to arrive at your destination before their usual bedtime – local time, that is!
Reset your body clockThe key thing for beating jet lag is to adapt your routine to the time zone of the destination as quickly as possible. That means staying awake during daylight hours and waiting until dark to go to bed. As sunlight regulates melatonin (a sleep hormone), maximizing exposure to the sun in the morning and avoiding dim light in the late afternoon helps your body clock adjust. It’s especially important to be in the sunlight at the time when it would be dark at home.
Eat, drink & play on local timeA great way to get kids adjusted to a new time zone is to take them to a playground (or at least outdoors) first thing in the morning. This gets them out in the fresh air and sunlight, and running around a bit boosts their energy levels. If your child is really tired, let them nap for 15–20 minutes earlier in the day – but avoid naps near evening. Make sure to wake them rather than letting them sleep to avoid prolonging the adjustment time. Adopt local mealtimes as soon as you arrive, as eating patterns play a role in when we feel drowsy or energized during the day. And, of course, make sure your child stays hydrated by drinking lots of water.
Take it easyPlan a light schedule for the first day or two when you arrive: it’s a good idea to include activities that get you out and about, but don’t try to pack in too much, and make sure you leave time to get to bed early. Above all, be patient – it will take a few days to adjust, so waking up at odd times is to be expected. If your child wakes up at night, a quiet activity like reading for an hour might help before you try to get them back to sleep. The main thing is not to worry if you all get less than a full night’s sleep – even a few hours can make a big difference to feeling more rested.
Airline information on travelling as a family: