Jet Lag and Children

What gives the worst jet lag;
traveling east or west?

World map with compass and time zones

Firstly, yes jet lag is a thing, you are not imagining it. But why do you get jet lag, and does it get worse if you travel east or west?

When traveling between different time zones, you may find that our built-in biological clock, which sets our day and night, awake and sleep, is disturbed. This is jet lag and it can affect our work and performance and even reduce the vacation experience. 

Jet lag: East vs West

All humans have a built-in biological clock, also known as our “circadian rhythm” or daily rhythm. It tells us when we should sleep and when it is time to wake up. When we travel from one time zone to another, our rhythm will be disturbed, as our destination is often at a different time of day than our origin.

Graph of daily rhythm for local time zone

If you travel from New York to London your daily rhythm is set to breakfast (7AM). But when you land in London, the local time is already close to lunch time (11AM). 

If you travel from London to New York it is slightly easier because the rhythm is similar. When it is 3AM in London it will be 11PM in New York.

If you travel from London to Sydney your daily rhythm will be opposite of the local rhythm. In order for you to align to the local rhythm in Sydney, you will need to sleep or stay awake approximately 12 hours. When your daily rhythm is telling you that you should be sleeping (4AM) it’s already dinner time in Sydney (7PM)

*Examples provided do not include seasonal changes or daylight savings

Graph showing daily rhythm when traveling from New York to London
Graph showing daily rhythm when traveling from London to New York
Graph showing daily rhythm when traveling from London to Sydney

Symptoms of jet lag include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Poor quality or disturbed sleep at night
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Upset stomach

Did you know? Dehydration can give similar symptoms as jet lag.

Tips: What to do to manage jet lag?

Jet lag is worst immediately after a flight and disappears within 4-6 days, as you adapt to your new local time. If the duration of your journey is less than 48 hours, it is recommended that you continue with your usual daily rhythm during your stay, if possible. Take time to decompress and rest from your travels (they can be challenging on our bodies, even without timezone shifts). But try to get to bed at what you consider a normal hour.

Jet lag may only take effect with a change of three or more time zones. Some individuals, however, can be affected by as little as a single time zone shift, or simply the shift to or from daylight saving time. 

For long-haul travel, jet lag can be reduced if you start to adjust to the destination’s daily rhythm 1-2 days before the trip. This can be achieved by shifting mealtimes and sleep. It is also recommended to follow local circadian rhythm, both with regards to meals, bedtime and social interaction, as soon as possible upon arrival.

What do the experts say?

In our previous interview with sleep expert, Dr. Dana Obleman we asked when adjusting bedtime to help with jet lag should start. These are her tips:

  1. My best advice, before the flight, is to really stick to the routine as much as possible to make sure you are as well rested as possible.
  2. When you get to your destination, you are probably already really tired. But, try to jump into the new time zone as quick as you possibly can.
  3. Your child may need an afternoon nap if they have had a rough travel day, but don’t let them sleep all day, otherwise they will be up all night. A little nap is fine to take the edge off, but then jump in!
  4. Get the melatonin levels (the hormone that tells us when it’s night time) corrected for the time of day – shut the curtains, make it dark, avoid screen time if it is night time.
  5. In the morning, get outside, go to the park or for a walk. The more daylight exposure you can get the better you melatonin levels adjust. It may take a few days to get into the new zone but you may find that your child handles it even better than you do.

The good news about jet lag with children is that if they are on a good sleep schedule before you travel, they tend to do better with jet-lag than adults because they are not already going into the travel with a sleep deficit, Dana states.