Time Zone Travel Tips for Managing Sleep on Vacation


If you live in Atlantic Canada, chances are you have family that lives 1 to 3 time zones west of here.  Recently, I received a question on my Sunday Night Sleep Q&A about dealing with the effects of jet lag and how to prepare for it.  I try not to reinvent the wheel when I can help it, but there was no good quick and easy reference for this concerned parent.  So here is some information about managing travel between time zones. My first word of advice, no matter which direction you are travelling, is to allow for flexibility on your travel day.  Don’t expect your child to sleep at exactly the times he/she normally would, and don’t get anxious about your child not being in bed by EXACTLY 6:30 PM! Most of these tips can also be applied to daylight savings time too.

Travelling West

  • Try to keep your child awake until his/her normal bedtime.  Obviously, this won’t happen right away if you are crossing 3 time zones, so it will have to happen gradually over 2-3 nights and may take an additional night or two for your child to adjust.
  • Expect your child to wake up earlier than usual the first couple days as he/she is adjusting.  You will likely wake up earlier too.  Allow for some flexibility there. Attend to your child, because you know if you traveled 3 time zones, it isn’t realistic to ignore him/her for 3 hrs.
  • Try to stick with your child’s nap schedule as much as possible.  Your child is likely going to show sleepy signs “earlier” than usual.  Try and hold him/her off until the clock in your new time zone matches the time that your child would normally nap.  If it’s a 3 hour difference, you may only be able to hold your child off for a maximum of 30 minutes a day and it may take a few days to adjust.
  • You can help your child adjust to the time zone that you’re in by exposing him/her to natural light during the times that he/she is supposed to be awake.
  • To make the transition easier, you might want to try moving your child’s  nap and bedtimes a little later than usual a few days before you travel (15-30 min increments is usually helpful).  This can help your child adapt sooner to the new time zone once you arrive.
  • If you have a short trip (a few days), you may just choose to let your child continue to do what they normally do in their “natural” time zone.  Keep in mind once you get home, your child should adjust to his/her normal routine within a few days of consistency.

Traveling East

  • Traveling east normally seems a little easier on people. You may find that your child isn’t ready to sleep until a little later for the first few days, so be flexible with that.  That being said, having a strong routine may help you move bedtime up in 15-30 min increments to get your child back on track.  Strong bedtime routines trigger the body to get sleepy too if they’re close enough to bedtime.
  • Wake your child up at the time that you normally would in the morning to get their body adjusted to the time that they should be awake, and avoid letting them sleep in if you can.  Again, exposure to sunlight, will help shift your child’s biological clock and circadian rhythms to match the time zone that you’re in.
  • If your child wakes up later than normal, it’s foreseeable that your child may also want to nap later too.  If you wake them up at the time that they normally would, then keeping the naps at the time they should be happening on the clock will be easier too.  Try and keep them as close as possible to their “normal” time.  If you are traveling over more than one time zone, you may need to shift the nap times in 15-30 minute increments to help your child adjust.
  • If you are traveling over more than one time zone and it will be for more than a few days, you may want to help prepare your child for the adjustment by making bedtime earlier a few days before your travel.
  • As stated earlier, if your trip is only a few days, you really don’t need to do very much.  Consistency of your regular routines will keep your child on track.

Crossing Oceans

  • Travel of this kind is generally more than a 4 hour time difference.  As mentioned above, if you travel west, your child will be waking up and going to sleep earlier than usual, and if you are traveling east, your child will be waking up and going to sleep later than usual.
  • You can’t force your child to sleep when his/her body isn’t ready for it.  However, you can stretch your child’s wakeful periods.  Yes, you will risk him/her becoming overtired, but natural sunlight exposure will help shift your child’s circadian rhythms to that of the new time zone.
  • To further help shift the body’s circadian rhythm, you should wake up your child at the time that they should be awake in the new time zone.  Discouraging him/her to sleep according to the old time zone will encourage sleep during appropriate times in the new time zone.
  • Don’t be surprised or discouraged if your child wants to sleep most of the first day of your arrival and be up all night. It will likely take a few days, but eventually your child will adapt.  Just go with it! If you all need a nap, then take one! Remember, you’re on vacation, so make the best of your time!  Have fun and relax!

Long Car Rides – Are we there, yet?

  • Long car rides can be a nightmare for all members of the family.  If you have little ones, take a break every 2-3 hrs during the day to allow for diaper changes, washroom breaks, snacks, and some stretching/physical activity.
  • The old tricks and techniques our parents used to pass time still work – singing songs, 20 questions, I spy, reading and/or colouring books, magnetic board games, counting the number of different license plates, and talking about all the fun and exciting things you’ll do when you arrive at your destination.
  • Technology also helps keep kids in the back from bothering one another and making you really consider turning around and going home!  Portable video players and games for older kids will keep them occupied when the driver really needs silence to concentrate on the road. When traveling at night, avoid TV as the light from the screen will interfere with melatonin production (http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/newsroom/pr_story.asp?id=235) when you want your kids to be sleeping.

Where ever you are going and whatever you are doing, know that your child will adapt to the new time zone.  Try and stick with your routine as much as possible, and be flexible when necessary. Know that your child will also adapt when you return home.  Happy travels!

What are some of your favorite ways to pass time during the long car drives?



More information can be read from the following “Sleep Bibles:”

Ferber, R. (1985) Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. New York, NY: Fireside.

Sears, W. et al. (2005) The Baby Sleep Book. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company.

Weissbluth, M. (1987) Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Weissbluth, M. (2003) Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

West, K. & Kenen, J. (2010) The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up Happy. Philadelphia, PA: Vanguard Press.




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