A jet lag survival guide for parents of babies and toddlers

Travelling long-haul is one of the few situations where being a sleep-deprived parent comes into its own. You may grumble when your baby or toddler repeatedly wakes you up in the middle of the night, but the benefit of such training is that when it comes to jet lag, you might not really notice much difference – you were tired to begin with, and now you’re just a little bit more tired, but in an excellent new location. Unfortunately, jet lag is almost certain to affect your child. Here’s what you can do to help her ­through it.

Where possible, book an outbound flight that doesn’t require waking your baby up earlier than usual. Leaving for the airport in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn is a pain as an adult, and doing it with a baby is worse. You want her as well rested as possible before you go. Similarly, encourage napping on the plane – easier said than done, of course, but always worth a go. I’ll go into this further in a separate post, but the sling is your friend in this situation.

Make a call depending on where you’re going about whether to adjust to the new time zone. If the difference is less than four hours, and you’re heading east, keeping your baby on home time can be a good workaround – she eats with you at adult dinner time and stays up until your bedtime, meaning no need for babysitters or spending your evening sitting in a hotel room in the dark beside your sleeping child (some useful hotel room tips here).

You can prepare for a bigger time difference by moving your’s baby bedtime forward or back a bit in the days leading up to the trip. I’ve personally never got organised enough to do this with the baby girl, but a couple of friends swear by it, and I plan to try it next time we travel long-haul.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that your baby sleeps really well the first night because she’s exhausted from the journey, but is wakeful at night and grumpy in the day after that. Don’t worry, it will pass; it’ll just take a few days – four probably. (And don’t worry about getting back into a sleep routine after the trip – that too will take a little while, but it’ll happen eventually.) But bear these timings in mind when booking your trip – if you’ve got less than 10 days to play with, a smaller time difference might be a better idea.

Being easy on yourself during those first few days is crucial, including not attempting any ambitious adventures until you and your baby are adjusted to the new time zone. Nap when your baby does so you’ve got some energy to cope with additional nighttime wake ups, and spend some time outdoors – day light helps kick the body clock into line.

Try to keep your baby’s bedtime routine as close to what it is at home so she knows on some level that it’s time to sleep even if her body is telling her the opposite. She might be hungry when she wakes at night – whether or not you feed her will depend on how you manage night feeds generally. My thinking with these things is just to go with it and trust that your baby will work it out eventually.

If you’re a breastfeeding mother, bear in mind that your milk production might go a bit haywire as it adjusts to your baby demanding feeds at different times (your boobs are jet lagged, basically). Pack a few extra sets of nursing pads to deal with possible leaks, and remember to drink plenty of water. (I’ll be going into greater depth on breastfeeding while travelling in a later post, so sign up to the mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it).

When it comes to jet lag so much depends on where, when and how you travel, as well as on the foibles of your particular child, so please share your baby and toddler jet lag hacks by commenting below. Forewarned is forearmed.

A baby sleeps in a sling worn by her father, her head covered with a muslin cloth. The wheely bag and passports he carries show that he's at the airport, about to board a flight.
You want to avoid arriving tired, if possible, so napping en route is a good idea – by whatever means necessary.

 

 

Baby and toddler hotel room hacks, part 1

Self-catering accommodation is almost always going to be preferable when travelling with a baby or toddler, but if you need to stay in a hotel or bed and breakfast, here are some tips to make the best of the situation. This post is a little longer than usual, so I’ve split it into two parts; look out for part 2.

Before you book, get in touch to find out what the hotel or B&B provides in terms of in-room amenities. A kettle is very useful for warming up baby food or milk, and a fridge for keeping it cold. If they’re not available – more common in a B&B – ask if you can use the management’s kitchen.

If there’s an option, and you can afford it, always go for a room with an en suite bathroom. It’s easier for baby bedtime, means you can keep dirty nappies separate from where you’re sleeping, and serves as a nightlight if you leave the door open a crack. Also, you don’t want to be traipsing to and from the communal bathroom when you realise you need to pee after you’ve got up to feed or soothe the baby. Ask for a bathroom with a tub; if there isn’t one available, pack a small inflatable paddling pool.

Washing and sterilising bottles is more challenging without a kitchen, but perfectly doable in an en suite if you’ve packed the right paraphernalia. You’ll need a bottle brush, a bit of washing up liquid (though I used shower gel last time and it was fine), cold sterilising tablets, and a Tupperware box with a lid. I’ll do a separate post on this another time.

Many hotels will provide a cot if you request it in advance, but bear in mind that it might be rubbish – the hotel we stayed at in Egypt didn’t include mattresses in theirs. So if you can handle the extra luggage, bring your own travel cot. If not, pack some bedding just in case – this has the added benefit of smelling like home, thereby making your child feel more secure in a new place. The baby girl kicks off her blankets so we use a sleep bag instead (it also comes in handy on planes).

The first few trips we did with the baby girl she slept in the carrycot bit of her pram. When she outgrew that we moved her into a little pop-up tent, which packs down very small and is super light. The other benefit of the tent is that it’s its own contained environment so your baby isn’t distracted by her surroundings. Whichever style of travel cot you opt for, have your baby nap in it a couple of times at home so it’s familiar when you go away.

If your child needs darkness to sleep, consider packing a SnoozeShade to cover the cot. That way you don’t need to worry too much about chinks of light coming in between the curtains, and can have a light on in the room after your baby has gone to sleep but before you’ve gone to bed (I find the buggy model of SnoozeShade invaluable too). For co-sleepers, bring a travel blackout blind instead, which you can sucker onto the window. They’re a bit of a faff to use, but worth it if your baby is very sensitive to light. You’ll want to buy head torches too if you’re co-sleeping – ones with an infrared setting won’t wake the baby but are bright enough to see your way around and to read by.

That’s it for now. I’ll cover dealing with noise, childproofing and some tricks for bedtime in the next post…

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The baby girl napping in her tent in our hotel room in Egypt (our hotel rooms are always this messy).

 

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.

Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.

Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.

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My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.

It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.

At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?

Museums and galleries

Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.

The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.

Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.

Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.

With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.