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Jetlag and kids: the struggle is real

I keep swatting at my legs because I’m getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, sitting in a park bench in arguably Beijing’s kitschiest landmarks. We’ve already had a delicious variety of (fantastically-cheap) meals, explored the Temple of Heaven, and wandered through central Beijing’s via metro. And before we leave the city, our days are reserved for the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the like.

But the name of the game in these early days of travel is getting over jet lag. And as a by-product, not killing each other in the process. Since we woke up still a family of five, I’d say we’re on our way.

We’re in this trip for the long haul, and in most places, we’d rather go deep than wide. This sort of undertaking is quite a shock to everyday expectations, even for our seasoned-traveler kids, and we want to be gentle on their little hearts and bodies. So if going to a ridiculous theme park for an afternoon helps them adjust, so be it.

Jetlag: the struggle is real. You’ve gotta power through or else it’ll drag on needlessly, like pulling off a millimeter of Bandaid per day.

But I’ve found it crucial to remember that as hard as jet lag is for adults, it’s even harder on kids. I’ve heard it said kids need one day for every hour difference in the time change (so, 15 days for a 15-hour difference). Not quite sure that’s true, but it’s definitely not an overnight cake walk.

Here are the most helpful things we do to power through jet lag.

1. Get outside.

There’s nothing as powerful as fresh air and sunshine to help our bodies acclimate to the current time zone. Unless it’s already dark when we check in, we toss our luggage on our beds, shower the airplane off our skin, and get right back outside.

2. Move.

When we do get outside, we stay moving as much as possible. Just a gentle stroll is sufficient—window shopping, finding a nearby park, whatever. When we stop for a meal or a coffee, we feel the tiredness barreling down, threatening to commandeer the rest of our day. So yep, we pay that tab and keep on walking.

Kids at the Temple of Heaven

3. Drink water.

It’s strangely easy to get dehydrated in a new place, so we score drinkable water asap, then carry a bottle as we walk—it’s magically restorative. Not quite sure of the science behind it, but water seriously helps speed up jetlag recovery.

4. Eat your first few meals according to the clock, not your body.

If we listened to our jetlagged bodies, we’d wake up ravenous in the middle of night. In normal life, I’m a fan of only eating when we’re truly hungry, but for the first days in a new place, we ignore it and eat either when the culture dictates or when it’s most reasonably logical for the family. It speeds things up. (But we still get hungry at weird times… it takes awhile.)

5. Grace, grace, and more grace.

We do our best to give it to ourselves individually, to pour it over the family collectively. We say things we don’t mean when we’re jetlagged. The whining is unreal. The four-year-old is up at five a.m., ready to rock and roll. It’s just a stage. We avoid any major mentally-challenging activities, if we can at all help it (work, heavy reading for school, etc.), and we go light. We watch silly movies. We find ways to laugh.

Jet lag and kids: 5 ways to help power through

The kids are honestly doing great; I’m so proud of their endurance right now. Every day we’re able to stay up later and later, and we’re sleeping in just a bit more each night. We’re on our way to settling in to eastern hemisphere time. Which is good, because we’ll be on it for the next four months.

More about China soon!

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10 Comments

  1. Cujo

    When my oldest (now 18) was 2.5, I worked in CA for 6 months and in the middle she and my wife visited from VA. I still vividly remember bringing her to Denny’s at 3:00am that first morning after they arrived (so that my wife could keep sleeping). And that was just a 3-hour time change! Be strong, it’ll pass before you know it.

  2. Heidi Rees

    I just did a 13 hour time change with my three kids (ages 2, 4, and 6) two weeks ago, so I feel your pain! I’ve found that going east tends to be a bit harder than coming west, when we went to Malaysia last year it took about two full weeks until everyone was settled, but coming back to the States this year it was only about eight days before their sleeping was back to normal, and another couple of days after that before their behavior settled down.

    I did use melatonin on this trip for the first time, which seemed to help somewhat, especially for those 2:30am wakings that happened every night for the first few days. I got a low dose version (0.3mg) so that I could redose them in the middle of the night if need be, and whether it was a placebo effect or not it did seem to help the boys calm down and get back to sleep more quickly to have their “sleepy bear.”

    I think the behavior is the hardest part of it for me to deal with, everyone is so much more irritable and the kids are so much whinier and weepier. I hope it passes quickly for all of you and you’re able to settle in and enjoy your time in China! I look forward to reading about your adventures this year.

  3. KAtelyn

    We experience surprisingly little in the way of jet lag when we moved from Washington state to South Korea earlier this month. My son slept about 3 hours (asleep at his normal bedtime) towards the end of our 11.5 hour flight and then was awake for another 4 hours to get through the end of our flight, immigration, baggage pickup and the ride to our hotel. We were able to go to bed at a normal local time and though we woke a bit early those first 2 days, we were set after that. I’m grateful!

  4. Rheagan

    Jet Lag with little ones is the worst. I have found that going west is harder for the kids, but easier for me. Every time we fly overseas, my kids usually take 1 day per hour of time difference to get over the jet lag. I keep hoping that it will get better once they get a bit older, but so far…no luck. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that your kids bounce back quickly!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yep, I agree—going west actually doesn’t take me long at all to acclimate, but for whatever reason, it takes awhile for the kids. Perhaps it’s because of the early mornings? Not sure…

  5. Amanda Kendle

    I think I leave just enough time between every really long haul trip we do to forget about how awful jet lag is with kids! I do always try wherever I can to arrive somewhere mid afternoon so we can see some sunlight but not have *too* long to have to stay awake. Since none of us sleep well on planes then we arrive exhausted and if we can just make it through the first few hours and then sleep it can help (though there are some early morning parties). All your tips are great Tsh, hope everyone is fully over it soon!

  6. Loretta S.

    You are awesome!!

  7. prasti

    what an adventure! i am really enjoying the IG updates. you guys are such an inspiration! thanks for sharing the realities of overseas travel. we haven’t really done that yet with all of our kids…the only jet lag we’ve experienced was a 3 hour time change when we moved from the eastern part of the U.S. to the west. i did live overseas as a kid, so i remember the jet lag when we used to holiday in the states. we would wake up so early!

  8. jill britz

    I love this. traveling with kiddos, traveling light, traveling at all. right now I’ve got them at my parents’ farm, taking in grain harvest. we’d planned to do so much more traveling this year, but when the sale of our house didn’t go through, we had to recalculate. i’d like to be going across the country in a bus, but I am doing my darnedest to make going to grandma’s fresh & new & adventurous.

    thanks, as always, for the inspiration. 🙂

  9. Diana

    Amen to sunshine and movement! When I came back from 2 months in Australia, we had a lake day the very next day. Being outside, in the water all day long seriously took care of any jet lag. I don’t remember experiencing any. It was amazing 🙂

    Thanks for the updates, and so excited you’re finally in the middle of this adventure!

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