With summertime officially here, moms everywhere are gearing up for their first summer family vacation after a year of quarantine. But while many are busy planning their adventures in a manner that will keep them safe from the virus, it’s likely they are overlooking another health concern: travel fatigue.
Between the excitement of visiting somewhere new and the physical act of traveling, whether it be by car, plane or boat, it’s extremely common to struggle with getting enough sleep when going on vacation, especially with kids. Poor sleep during a trip with children can have many causes and easily disrupt a family’s entire vacation experience if not addressed or treated properly.
The Causes and Effects of Travel Fatigue and Jet Lag
Sleep struggles while traveling can arise from a variety of factors and can affect people differently. For children, a large factor related to struggling with sleep while on vacation is the disruption to their daily schedule. Long travel days can cause children to miss their daily nap or cause them to have to stay up later than they are used to. Parents often suffer from anxiety over flying or the act of traveling itself, along with stress related to packing, motion sickness from being in a plane or car for too long, and increased amounts of caffeine and sugar consumption.
Understanding what can contribute to travel fatigue can help parents recognize the symptoms related to jet lag and other sleep troubles. According to the CDC, jet lag results from a mismatch between a person’s circadian (24-hour) rhythms and the time of day in the new time zone. If a parent knows they are traveling to a new time zone, be sure to keep an eye out for the below symptoms:
- Difficulty falling asleep during the nighttime and suffering from daytime sleepiness
- Inability to perform simple mental and physical tasks during the day
- Increased feelings of fatigue, headache, irritability, anxiety and depression
- Gastrointestinal problems
Besides traveling to a new time zone, changes in diet, nighttime routines, exercise regimes and sleep settings also contribute to a lack of sleep while on vacation. In fact, it has even been reported that part of the brain will stay active when sleeping in a new environment as a survival response.
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How to Sleep Better When Traveling with Kids
The first step to ensure families don’t suffer from travel fatigue or jet lag is to be well rested and organized before the journey even begins. To help prepare young children for changing time zones, try putting them to bed earlier or later (depending on the time zone you’re visiting) for a few days prior to the trip to allow them to acclimate to a new sleep schedule. Parents can also plan to travel around their children’s sleep schedule to minimize disruption.
During your flight or road trip, staying hydrated is key to preventing travel fatigue. The Sleep Foundation also suggests packing healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables and avoiding sweetened drinks while traveling to your destination. The CDC recommends having smaller meals before and during the flight to decrease the risk of gastrointestinal disturbances that are associated with jet lag.
While on vacation, recreating you and your child’s bedtime routine to the best of your ability throughout your entire trip will help them get the most out of their sleep. This means trying to recreate the same temperature, noise and external lights that you and your child are used to experiencing when at home.
Upon returning home, try to resume a normal sleep routine as soon as possible. Though it might sound intriguing to keep the vacation going after a trip, the best way to avoid travel fatigue is to get back on track with both a nightly routine and nap time for children.
Traveling with Sleep Disorders
While struggling with maintaining normal sleep during vacations is a common occurrence, families with members who suffer from a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, have to tackle a few extra hoops to ensure their sleep health stays intact. Sleep apnea can cause serious health concerns if left untreated while traveling.
For children or parents traveling with a sleep disorder, be sure to invest in travel-sized equipment needed to ensure you stay safe while on vacation and minimize the hassle of transporting it. If a family member who suffers from sleep apnea does not bring the appropriate equipment for their sleep routine, the consequences can affect an entire family during nighttime, especially if a family is sharing a hotel room.
Children and parents who also suffer from insomnia should make sure they bring any accessories from home that help them sleep at night, such as a supportive pillow, weighted blanket, etc. Practicing relaxation techniques before bed while in a new environment can also improve sleep quality and are a common practice used to treat insomnia. Some of these techniques can include meditation, taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book or listening to relaxing music.
Overall, the quality of sleep both parents and children receive while on vacation directly correlates to how well the entire trip will play out. Planning ahead to ensure adequate sleep and less stress occurs during vacations this summer will allow families to relax and make wonderful memories!
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Michelle Worley is a registered nurse and director of clinical operations at Aeroflow Healthcare’s Sleep division.
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