All I want for Christmas is a good night’s sleep

Sleep

Dr. Caroline Okorie, pediatric sleep specialist at Stanford Children’s Health, shares tips for how to get kids to sleep well during school breaks and holiday travel.

Q: How do you avoid disrupting kids’ sleep schedules when they’re on winter break and don’t have to wake up early for school?

A: Although it is tempting to let kids sleep in during break, try to keep your kids on the same sleep and wake schedule as much as possible, varying only by 30 to 60 minutes if needed. Younger kids may not struggle with this, but older kids (especially teenagers) tend to want to sleep in. Try to schedule family time and activities in a way that encourages regular waking and sleeping habits. In the morning, consider having breakfast as a family or schedule fun morning activities (with exposure to bright light, when possible). Avoid late-night movie binges as a family. If kids stay up late, they will need to sleep in the next day to make up for lost hours, which will throw off their schedule! The more off schedule they are when it comes time to return to school, the harder it will be for them to return to their regular routine.

Q: Many families will be traveling for the holidays. What are your tips for avoiding or managing jet lag in children?

A: Jet lag is when your internal clock is out of sync with your external surroundings. Generally, your external surroundings and cues will eventually reset your circadian clock to your new time zone. The degree of jet lag you may experience depends on the direction you’re traveling, the length of time you’re travelling for and time of day that you’re travelling. If you’re just taking a quick weekend trip and only crossing one or two time zones, sticking with your normal schedule in your home time zone will likely cause the least disruption for your little ones. For example, if you travel from San Francisco to Chicago for a two-day trip, have your little ones continue to go to bed at their normal sleep time. So, if they have a bedtime of of 8 p.m. PST, have them go to bed at 10 p.m. CST.

For longer trips, there are a few strategies for reducing the effects of jet lag. If you’re traveling eastward, you will need to eat or wake up earlier than you would in your home time zone. If you’re traveling westward, you will need to eat or wake up later. Light exposure is one of the most important cues to our internal clock, so if you need to wake up earlier in your new location because you’re traveling east, be sure to get early morning light in your new location. If you need to wake up later in your new location because you’re traveling west, aim to get some afternoon sunlight exposure.

To lessen the blow of jet lag, you can adjust you and your child’s schedule before you travel. To do this, shift your child’s nap and sleep schedule incrementally for a few days before you travel. Start with small changes of 30 to 60 minutes at a time. Even a small change may help the process go smoother.

If you’re taking a long plane ride, set your clock to the new time zone as soon as you can. This can help get you in the mindset of the new time zone as soon as possible. Be sure to keep your kids well hydrated and limit caffeine intake for teens. Avoid taking long naps during the day to make sure you’re ready to sleep at your desired bedtime.

If your family is sharing a hotel room, be a good sleep neighbor. Create a cool, dark environment when your child’s bedtime rolls around instead of keeping the lights or TV on. If your child will be sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play or other type of travel bed on the trip, try it out at home one to two nights before leaving. As a general rule, kids don’t sleep well in new environments, so give them time to adjust before leaving. Even with pre-planning, don’t expect perfect sleep right away. It will realistically take kids three to four days to adjust to big time zone shifts.

Q: If parents need another tool to help jet-lagged kids sleep, is melatonin a safe option?

A: Melatonin has been shown to be safe for short-term use in kids. Research is still being conducted in regards to long-term use. Just make sure to give them a kid-sized dose. Toddlers only need 1 mg, and you can give teens up to 3 mg, but some of them may do fine with just 1 mg. Start at a low dose and work up, if needed. Melatonin should be given 60 minutes before your child’s desired bedtime. When traveling eastward, melatonin may help make an earlier bedtime more inviting.

If your child’s sleep problems last longer than a holiday fruitcake, consider seeing Dr. Okorie or another sleep specialist at Stanford Children’s Health. Call (844) 724-4140 to make an appointment.

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