12/07/2011 03:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

Fighting Family Jet Lag Through the Holidays

I love this story about how to combat "junior jet lag." We're in the thick of the holiday season, which is prime time for travel. School vacations and holiday visits to family make this a time of year when many people are packing up and heading across time zones. Travel can be disruptive to sleep for kids, especially travel that involves time zone changes. Long days in transit combined with time zone shifts can throw kids' schedules quickly out of whack. Parents, you know what this means: tantrums in the airport, little ones wide awake at 3 a.m. in grandma's spare bedroom, meltdowns at the dining room table, and generally difficult behavior all around. Vacationing with the whole family should be fun -- and it can be. Sleep can make a critical difference. Its worth it to plan ahead to make sure that everyone in the family, especially kids, are prepared to handle jet lag and adjust their sleep schedules.

What's behind jet lag? When we ask our bodies to adapt to a different time schedule, we disrupt our circadian rhythm, our body's powerful internal regulator, which governs our sleep-wake cycle, our ability to fall asleep and to wake feeling rested and ready to get out of bed. Our circadian clocks have a powerful effect on our mood and energy levels, and even our immune systems. This internal regulatory mechanism is finely tuned -- even very slight disruptions can have an effect on how we feel and our ability to sleep. Moving across time zones, with changes of an hour or more to the "normal" schedule, can have a significant effect.

Let's face it, as adults we don't always weather these changes particularly well (or happily), so it's no surprise that our kids don't handle jet lag with ease and good humor. The good news is there are a number of things you can do to prepare your kids for travel that involves changes to their schedules. Taking the time to plan ahead can make a huge difference in how well your children handle the travel itself and adapt to time zone changes when you arrive. Smart preparation begins before your bags are packed:

Book reasonably.
That off-hours, overnight flight to your destination may save you a bit of money, but it may not be worth it if your family is too tired and irritable to enjoy your time once you arrive. A good rule to go by when factoring jetlag into your planning is that it takes the body 1 day to adjust for every 1-2 time zones you cross. Designing a travel schedule that minimizes delays and avoids overnight flights can help reduce the impact of jetlag, especially with kids in tow.

Bank sleep.
The best strategy starts a few weeks ahead of your actual travel. Of course, making sure your child is getting plenty of sleep should always be a top priority. But in the weeks leading up to a trip, it's even more important that your kids get ample rest. Go back to basics: stick closely to schedules for meals and homework in the evenings, make sure bedtime and wake times are consistent, turn off the TV and electronics (and especially for older kids, the smartphones and computers) in the hour immediately before bed. I call it the electronic curfew!

Adjust bedtimes in advance.
Use the week before you plan to travel to begin to shift your child's schedule toward the time zone where you'll be going. Now, I'm not talking about keeping kids up late into the night, or waking them before dawn! But adjusting bedtimes 15 or 30 minutes (earlier or later, depending on where you are traveling) can give your kids a head start on the adjustment they'll need to make during the trip.

When its time to travel, take a deep breath and keep these tips in mind:

Limit naps. As tempting as it might be to let your child sleep for hours on the plane, both of you may pay for that peace and quiet at your destination, when your child is up in the middle of the night, or refuses to go to bed at all. When deciding whether to allow your child to nap, keep in mind your destination time zone. Early in the day naps will have pose fewer problems than naps closer to afternoon and evening of your destination. Keeping naps brief, no longer than 30 minutes, will help prevent this extra sleep from disrupting your kids' bedtime.

Avoid medication.
I hear often that parents are using over the counter sleep and cold medication to help their kids sleep during travel. It's never a good idea to employ medication for treatment beyond its intended uses. And medicating a child to sleep through travel will only further disrupt his or her sleep-wake cycle, leaving your child even less able to adapt to sleeping in the new time zone.

Get out in the light.
Sunlight and exercise are two of the very best ways to help speed your child's adjustment to a different time zone. Exposure to light and physical activity will help re-set their circadian clocks. If you've arrived early in the day, getting your kids outside to play will help boost their energy and fall asleep more easily at the right time. If you arrive in the late afternoon or evening, close to bedtime, keeping kids quiet and away from bright light will help prepare them to wind down for bed.

My last tip? Parents, take care of your own sleep! If you are rested, you'll be that much better able to handle the ups and downs of travel -- and your kids' unpredictable moods -- with patience and good humor.

Happy holidays and happy, well-rested travel!

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep™
twitter: @thesleepdoctor