Jet lag is a permanent, unwelcome guest for most people who cross a few time zones to visit family. It’s part of the travel package.
There are endless tips for how to beat it. But whatever you try, it seems you just have to plow through and realize, if you’re affected by time changes the way most people are, you will spend a few days in zombie land stressing such heavy decisions as whether or not you want fries with that. (You do.)
According to a report by Jim Waterhouse, a professor of sports science who studied travel’s effects on athletes, Recovery takes about two-thirds of a day per time zone traveling East. Half of a day per time zone traveling West.
Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all plan to banish the time zone blues. There are too many variables. Personal physiology. Number of time zones crossed. East versus West travel. Length of stay. Whether or not you caught a cold from the woman in 22 A who forgot to cover her mouth when she coughed.
But it’s helpful to gather a few ideas and see what fits into your personality, your circumstance and the energy you want to devote to trying to “fix” it. Just know this: You’re going to be tired. You’re going to be forgetful. Cranky, maybe. Confused, likely.
So pack a little patience, and forgiveness, a come-what-may outlook, and the day will come when you forgot that it’s really bedtime while you’re eating dinner.
Easier said than done when your toddler is bound for the toy box at 3 a.m.
Here’s a look at what I’ve done to put up with jet lag.
Early preparations: Nothing. Some people have tried pushing themselves back (or forward) an hour every couple of days until they are on their destination’s clock. But this has always been beyond my comprehension for time changes greater than one or two hours. Think Daylight Saving Time. Even dropping or adding one hour can be a struggle. Now, I’m going to do this for a six-hour time shift over several weeks before we leave? Nope. Why prolong torture?
East to West
This direction is a much easier transition. The trip begins with a morning flight. The day goes on and on and on, but when you arrive, it’s fairly easy to have a bite to eat, unpack or have a quick visit with your host, shower and head to bed in your new evening time. Since it’s the middle of the night back home, you’re already beat.
The trick is staying asleep. Your body thinks it’s 9 a.m. Your destination clock says it’s 3 a.m. When we can’t sleep in, we start the day early with a small breakfast and a little quiet play time or reading. Then, back to bed for the toddler and reading for mom and dad.
Nap during the day if you need to recharge. Set the alarm for an hour. Don’t keep your finger on the snooze button. But allow yourself recovery time to be refreshed for the evening. You’ll still be tired at night.
Fresh air really does wonders, even when it’s cold. If it’s raining, crack open a window or see if you can stretch your legs in a mall. The sun is said to be the biggest proponent of adjusting your circadian rhythm so the more outdoors available to you, the better.
We don’t use any medication to sleep so check with your doctor if you’re thinking about it. But I definitely indulged in caffeine to help me scoot through the day with my eyes open.
It took us about three days to get in the swing of the Eastern Standard Time from Central European Time.
West to East
Heading back to Europe is more difficult for me. The flights begin in the evening around dinner time with the idea that you can have a meal on the plane then call it a day. Sleep in your seat. Wake up to nice airline breakfast and start your day in your new destination.
Trouble is, I have never been able to sleep on airplanes, especially now that we travel with an infant in our lap. So when we arrive home we are faced with extreme exhaustion and a good 10 hours or so before we reach bedtime.
What helps? Unpacking and cleaning. Seriously. Stay busy. Keep moving. It’s so tempting to sit on the couch and pass out. There are bags under our eyes as big as our luggage. But when I start moving in a sleep-deprived stupor, as long as I get in motion, I remain in motion. Kind of like newborn days.
The trouble is falling asleep. Not necessarily on the first day with exhaustion of a 36-hour travel day. But nights two and three etc. might find you up till the wee hours. Sadly, that doesn’t mean the sun doesn’t rise on time. You might have three nights of as many hours of sleep. It’s painful.
I still advocate naps if you can squeeze one in as a stay-at-home parent or a working person who can snooze for a short while after work or on a lunch break. Just don’t give in to the urge to stay in bed for a week.
It took us about five or six days to be back on track.
For the Little Ones
Sophie has flown to the United States three times now: at five months, 10 months and 15 months. Each stage of baby-hood presented different needs and lengths of time to adjust.
The easiest was her first trip. She was still waking several times a night to nurse and still napping several times during the day. So the time didn’t really mean much to her. (Nor to me, as a matter of fact. I was so used to being up at all hours.) That doesn’t mean there won’t be some crankiness.
At 10 months and 15 months, Sophie was more aware of the world and a little more challenging to bring into the new schedule. After the first night, she knew the difference between day and night. Naps went well, but there was always a window of a couple of hours in the middle of the night that were awake, sometimes resting, sometimes restless.
We did whatever worked to help her get sleep in those first couple of nights.
Keep a bedtime ritual. We brought her nighttime snugly and a couple of books. But when she woke in the wee hours, I held and rocked her until she was ready to go back in her crib. We don’t do this at home anymore, but I wanted her to get well rested first, then lay down some boundaries.
After about three nights of holding her for a couple of hours, I used the same technique as at home and let her fuss and cry herself to sleep. Took about an hour. One night of this and she was sleeping practically perfectly for the remainder of our two week trip.