A client recently asked me how to prepare her 8 month old son for travelling to Europe. Europe...that is 6 time zones! It's not New Zealand-type far, but still!!
So what is a parent to do?
There are a few considerations...
When travelling across three or fewer time zones or you are only staying a few days it's probably easier not to change your schedule. But chances are if you are travelling further than that you are planning to stay awhile, in which case you will want to adjust your schedule to the new time zone. There are several things you can try. First of all, try to choose flights that allow you to land in the late afternoon or evening. Then keep everyone awake (the excitement and new environment should help with this!) until it is bedtime in the new time zone. In the morning be sure to wake your baby, and everyone else, at the time he normally wakes up. Try to keep naps on schedule too, and don't allow oversleeping. Naptimes may be a bit off the first couple of days, but make an effort to keep them as close to your regular schedule as possible, and avoid letting baby sleep much past 4:30pm or it will interfere with bedtime.
Sunlight is important for setting our circadian rhythms, and plays an equally important role in resetting our body clocks when travelling. Different times of day are best for sun exposure when battling jet-lag. When travelling to France, for example, try to expose your baby to sunlight between 10:30am and 1pm on day 1, and between 7:30 am and 10:00am on day 2. There are several jet-lag calculators available online to help you figure out the best time to get outdoors in your vacation destination. I used the one available at www.britishairways.com.
Sometimes you can't avoid travelling during the night. If you have to take a red-eye flight, you can keep baby in a nap holding pattern. Dr. Polly Moore advocates a 90-minute cycle* for babies under 12 months. Her ideas are worthy of another post altogether, but as it applies to travel she suggests you initiate sleep during the flight, and then keep the baby in a 90 minute nap sleep/wake cycle until you have reached your destination and it is the baby's bedtime in the new time zone. Okay so what one earth is a 90 minute cycle? It's quite simple really. During the flight, when it is time for the baby to sleep, let him. Then wake him after 90 minutes, and initiate sleep again 90 minutes later, for another 90 minutes. Repeat and continue until you have arrived at your destination and bedtime rolls around.
For the super organized plan-ahead personality parent, you can start adjusting your baby's schedule at home before you leave. This method will take a lot of effort and focus, so be prepared. It would also work best if your flight is during night sleeping time. And obviously it will depend on how many hours difference your destination is, because it would be difficult to change your child's schedule by 12 hours ahead of time! But let's assume you are looking at a 6 hour difference and traveling east, for example. You may want to alter your baby's current schedule by three or four hours before you even leave. A week before you travel, start shifting the baby's schedule by 30 minutes each day. Start at bedtime and keep him up 30 minutes later. Morning wake-up time is also 30 minutes later. Push naps back by 30 minutes as well, including the afternoon nap. I will include a sample schedule below. Continue this each day until you have successfully altered his schedule by 3 or 4 hours. It will work best if you alter meal times as well since the body clock is set by sleep and hunger cues. When you arrive at your destination the time zone transition will be easier because you have already shifted your baby's internal body clock (and likely your own as well!)
Regular schedule Bed 7pm, wake 7am, nap 930am, nap 130pm
day 1 Bed 730pm, wake 730am, nap 10am, nap 2pm
day 2 Bed 8pm, wake 8am, nap 1030am, nap 230pm
day 3 Bed 830pm, wake 830am, nap 11am, nap 3pm
day 4 Bed 9pm, wake 9am, nap 1130am, nap 330pm
day 5 Bed 930pm, wake 930am, nap 12pm, nap 4pm
day 6 Bed 10pm, wake 10am, nap 1230pm, nap 430pm
day 7. Bed 1030pm, wake 1030am, nap 1pm, nap 5pm
Once you arrive, follow the first couple of tips for wake times and bedtimes. It will take a couple of days to get back on track regardless of what tricks you use. Try to plan day trips when it should be naptime if car, train or bus travel will be involved so baby can sleep enroute. And try to keep your baby's sleep needs in mind...it's easy to get caught up in the adventure and just tote baby along everywhere with you, but you may be setting yourself up for stress and baby meltdowns. While I would never recommend this at home, use movement to your advantage while on holidays. Take your trip to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre when baby will snooze in the stroller. It will be a much more pleasant trip for all of you!
When you return home, start off by waking baby up at the regular time. He may be more tired the first day or two, but if you stick to your regular schedule for naps and bedtime, things will fall back into place rather quickly. Extra cuddles and soothing may be needed during the transition, GO FOR IT! Keeping in mind you want to avoid any sleep associations that you may have previously worked hard to change! Find a different way to soothe your tired babe but don't ignore his need for a bit of extra help ;)
And most of all......Enjoy your trip!!
If you have other tips for weary travellers please feel free to post them here. And we would love to hear how things went once you return!
* Dr. Polly Moore. The 90-Minute Baby Sleep Program. Workman Publishing, 2008.