The foolproof strategy to get kids over jet lag in record time
Nothing in life is certain, but death and taxes. In the UAE, that needs to be amended: nothing is certain but death and jet lag. Family life in Abu Dhabi and Dubai made an official comeback this week: the sound of small voices ricocheting down the halls, lights turned on in children’s rooms, bedclothes being pulled back – or not. And with family life, the seasonal ordeal of baby jet lag also returns.
Adult jet lag is one thing, but for kids, it is a whole other ball game. They go manic, are prone to giggling fits and sobs, as if delirious at the sheer prospect of being awake in the dark. And who can blame them? Try to explain to a 3-year-old that the Earth is round, the sun only lights a part of it, and that you’ve been on an airplane that travels faster than the earth spins – seriously, just try it.
But after five years of children and travel, I have developed a foolproof strategy to get over jet lag in record time. And we’re talking the nine-hour jet lag from the East Coast United States. It’s a cruel method, but it’s effective.
The goal? Total anarchy
Here’s the strategy: keep them up for 36 hours straight and exercise the dickens out of them. That’s it. Pick a flight that has the most ridiculous timings for human sleep and then just keep your kids hopped up until a half-hour past bedtime. Your goal is simply to confuse their sleeping patterns beyond recognition. I will help coach you.
Our family, for example, returned on a 7pm flight from JFK, with a two-hour layover in Manchester and an onward morning flight to Abu Dhabi. But, our flight had a four-hour delay and we took off at 11pm. Did our kids sleep while we were waiting? Of course not. And that’s all to the good. Your goal here is total anarchy.
Try to get them to sleep on the plane. Guess what, they won’t. They’re up in the middle of the night and have a screen barely inches from their faces. Again, have at it. It doesn’t matter. There is no plan. It’s good to build in a layover so that the kids can get out of the plane and run around. This year, we missed our initial connection, and were put on another red-eye. Thanks, Etihad. Here, you might be thinking – two night flights in a row? That’s hell at cruising altitude. But nope, it’s all for the best. Nothing could be better for this stratagem than arriving at 7am with kids who haven’t slept for two days straight.
Now that you’ve landed, the crucial part is to get them outside or at least running around. Just imagine they’re a bunch of overweight Labrador retrievers that you’ve been tasked with entering into the Westminster Dog Show. Race them, chase them, make them collect small sticks and balls. Ignore the humidity. Expose them to sunlight. Keep them moving. Then, once you’ve kept them awake for 36 hours straight, delay putting them to bed.
I don’t know why, but I always do this. And it always works. Initiate bedtime routine a half-hour late, wherever you are. Give them dinner. Run that bath. Pyjamas. Stories. They’ll fall asleep mid-story and you’re guaranteed at least nine hours, which isn’t half-bad. The second night will be trickier, but by night three, they’ll be on a normal schedule. You’ll be broken, a haunted shell of a human being, but nothing in life comes easy.
Here's another method to try
Of course, if you’re already back in the UAE and if you’ve missed the chance to do this properly, or simply value your sanity, here is some gentler advice: set your watch to the destination’s time zone as early as possible, and resolutely follow the new time zone – waking your kids at 7am, for example, rather than saying, well, it may be 7am here, but it’s 4am in Surrey. Surrey doesn’t matter anymore. It’s dead to you.
Make them eat at the new time zone’s meal times. The rhythms of eating have as much effect in setting a new circadian rhythm as those of sleeping. Chuck them outside. Just exposing your body to sunlight helps make it understand that day is day. Your skin will burn, but you’ll never be happier for the UAE’s cloudless sky.
If your kids are still napping, don’t let them sleep in their beds. The goal here is to make their nap as uncomfortable as possible so it doesn’t stretch into any night sleep. Put them in the stroller, leave them unblanketed on the sofa, let them stay in the car seat, if it’s safe.
If they do wake up in the middle of the night, keep up the pretence that it is night-time. Leave the lights dimmed, don’t immediately make them breakfast, and do quiet things like reading books and colouring. Don’t let them watch television – though, by gosh, if you’ve had a string of three nights of 2am starts, turn that Paw Patrol on.
Finally, conventional wisdom holds that children can handle an hour of time change per day, so the sooner before school you return, the better. While it’s a good reminder to remain patient, I don’t know any parents who return six days early from Sydney and let their kids wake up at 1am to start staggering the sleeping patterns. If you are that parent, you have a heart of gold. For me, I’ll stay distributing the earplugs to my neighbours and mopping up the mess from another cold turkey start to the school year.