Handling baby jet lag

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In the mere five months I've been a mum, I've discovered that everyone's favourite question is about sleep: "How does she sleep? Is she sleeping through the night yet?" So it was no surprise that after a 24-hour door-to-door journey from Scotland to Singapore the question became "did she sleep on the flight?"

But it turns out everyone had this wrong. They should have really been asking "how is she coping with jet lag?"

I decided very early on that I wasn't going to get hung up on baby sleep. I've tried learning her sleepy cues (and I can laugh at the times when I got this totally wrong – little arms and legs uncontrollably flapping means exhaustion, not "play with me!"), and we use a combination of the cot, pram and baby carrier. The process is pretty relaxed and mostly tear-free (hers and mine). We developed a manageable sleep pattern where she would sleep for much of the night, waking twice for quick feeds, and with a catnap during the day.

Then the jet lag kicked in.

My daughter has already been to Melbourne to meet my side of the family, so it was time to meet my husband's family in Scotland. We spent three wonderful weeks there, much of which I spent basking in the continual comments of how contented she is. And yes, she did sleep on the flight. Really well.

And since returning, she is still happy, energetic and smiley. All night long. And here I was, thinking that seeing every hour of the night/morning had ended with the newborn phase.

In order to try to make sense of the baby jet lag, here are my notes on this exhausting time – and how we eventually got the hang of it all, with a few tips from the experts.

Day/night 1: Land early evening. Strive to keep routine, but sleepy cues are too overwhelming. Asleep by 9pm. Wakes twice. Up at 9am. Jet lag doesn't enter my mind.

This is my first mistake. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, the author of The Gentle Sleep Book, says, "If you expect sleep disturbances [after travel], it doesn't come as such a nasty shock and is therefore easier to deal with".  I naively start my next day.


Day/night 2: Baby has a two-hour morning nap. Abnormal. Then a three-hour afternoon nap, ending at 6pm. Again abnormal, but I couldn't resist joining her (sleep when your baby sleeps and all that). Bed at 9pm. Awake from 1.30am until 5am. Mentally calculate time difference. Poor thing thinks it's afternoon.

Nicole Booth, an Australian registered nurse and founder of Calmer Kids Sleep Consulting, Singapore, says: "If your baby needs an extra catch up nap, try limiting it to 45 minutes and try not to let her nap too close to bedtime. If it's a choice between a strangely timed later nap or an earlier bedtime, we always suggest the slightly earlier bedtime." Oops – another Fail.

Day/night 3: As advised, we keep naps short, but it's difficult to ignore sleepy cues. Eyes puffy, face red, fidgety. We shove a crazy toy in her face as she nods off. We sing songs, play aeroplane … anything to keep naps as short as they were in the pre-jet lag days. Bed at 7pm. She wakes at 9.30pm, 12am, 1.30am, 2.30am, 4.30am,  sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes an hour. Each time she wants her "afternoon" play. I give up.

Day/night 4: 5am. We have a happy and energetic baby on the play mat. An hour passes. Breathe deeply, shoulders out, make coffee.

My husband leaves for work and I'm feeling exasperated, exhausted and alone. I question our decision to raise a baby away from my strong Melbourne-based support network, and thinking of the day ahead leads to tears. I've adjusted to the fatigue that comes with being a new mum, but adding jet-lagged sleep deprivation compromises my ability to think rationally.

Ockwell-Smith adds words of encouragement in my senseless state: "Jet lag is a killer for adults, and it's really bad for babies. Try to empathise with what they are feeling and don't take it personally."

Another hour passes and I realise I need instructions, some practical tips to get me through this day.

Booth swears by getting plenty of sunlight to help adjust to new time zones. "Light is the most powerful time cue our bodies have," she advises – and of course, the opposite for evenings. "Keep light to a minimum for a couple of hours before baby's bedtime. We always use blackout blinds – this will help stimulate melatonin production, making your baby sleepier."

At 10am we go for a walk. My baby falls asleep in the sunshine. Must. Keep. Naps. Short. I wake her with an over-stimulating supermarket environment, and she's tired but still smiley. We return to bright and sunlit home. It's difficult keeping my own eyes open and even more so keeping hers open. We're both bored with our entertainment options and just want to sleep. Baby catnaps the afternoon away.

The day drags and her sleepy cues are literally screaming at me. Down at 7pm and she does not stir until … 4am!

I am feeling relieved, optimistic and temporarily energised.

As with anything baby-related, the plethora of advice out there can be overwhelming and I had to keep reminding myself that while I'm not a parenting or sleep expert, I am the expert of my own baby.

Finally, after many trials and just a few errors, what worked for us was keeping the days light and active, making sure naps were short, and sticking with a bedtime routine. It took a week to adjust completely, but it was definitely bearable after night four.

Best tip I have? Hang in there. It will pass. And if you feel like you just need a hug to get you through those hours, your baby will be more than happy to oblige.