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I'm flying to Europe with my family this spring, which is my wife and I and two children (will be 2 and almost 4). We're flying Lufthansa, with flights like so:

  • To Europe: 9:30pm (UTC-6) -> 2:30pm (UTC+1) transatlantic, stopover, hop 5:00pm->5:30pm to final destination

  • (stay 1 week)

  • From Europe: 8:00am -> 8:30am (UTC+1) hop, then 10:00am (UTC+1) -> 12:00pm (UTC-6) transatlantic.

Our children are moderate to poor sleepers, but on domestic flights have done okay with sleeping during 'night' times. Should we attempt to alter their sleep schedule so that they sleep in a different time than normal (such as a bit later or earlier), or allow them to sleep the first part of the (to Europe) transatlantic flight as they normally would? And for the return flight, which is on a saturday (so we have a day of rest before going back to preschool/etc.), same - should they sleep as normal the night before, or should we try to get them to bed 'late' (which is very easy for us) so to be closer to a US sleep schedule (and sleep part of the flight?)

We're partially concerned not only about sleep schedule and timezone adjustment, but sleeping on the plane itself - they're at a difficult age for long flights, and 10 hours on the plane seems difficult. They're both boys, and both very very active, so they'll want to move around a lot. Is that a problem (this is on an A-340, and probably a middle row given there are 4 of us)? On domestic flights moving around isn't usually encouraged (even long-ish 3-4 hour ones) from our past experience.

For ourselves we'll probably try to skimp on sleep on the flight there, so to be in a closer to European pattern when we arrive.

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    related: travel.stackexchange.com/q/35501/46 (closed, but has a helpful answer) – Kate Gregory Jan 30 '15 at 19:21
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    @pnuts I posted here because I was mostly interested in the jet-lag side of things, while taking into account the activity/etc.; I may post in Parenting also for activities/etc., but jet-lag is my primary concern. – Joe Jan 30 '15 at 19:58
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Flying east usually is more problematic, since you are virtually skipping a night, whereas flying west can be more or less compared with going to sleep later then normal.

A week is a bit short, but I would recommend to consider the day after arrival a complete loss. Don't plan anything but use the day to recover. This is essential. If you don't do this, you have a good chance that your complete holiday is spoiled. We traveled a lot with our 5 yo twins and this has become default in any trip. Usually we don't even get out of our holiday accommodation. We just let the kids do their thing, typically simply drawing in a sketchbook or enjoy foreign child tv.

There is no generic advice regarding altering sleep schedules. For some kids that works well, others will just be grumpy, because they need to stick to their own schedule. My method is usually to just sit and take it as it is. With my kids forcing them to sleep is counterproductive. Again sketchbooks and tv can do a lot. What worked really well for me is to make the whole trip exciting. So I bought children books on planes and airports. They were in german, which also adds the foreign aspect of the trip for them. German is not my native language, and I have poor understanding of that language. So it also explains that I as a parent don't know all languages. Next to reading books we watched a lot of youtube films on airplanes. Of course don't watch National geographic's aircrash investigation ;). The effect was that my kids were saying "50, 40, 30, 20, retard, retard" just before touch down.

So I guess the best advise I could give you is take your first day on arrival as a total loss and make the flights an exciting adventure.

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A late-ish answer with some random thoughts after a 30+ hr transit with 2 3 year-old boys (LAX - Dubai - Johannesburg).

Use potty breaks to take a walk around, although my boys didn't want to run around as much as I had feared.

If the kids are asleep, try to sleep yourself and not "catch up" on movies/tv/books/etc.

Quickly learn how to access the kids movies/tv/games on the inflight entertainment system. My kids hadn't had much access to computer games prior to the trip and they really liked some of the simple games available.

We gave up on trying to get them to nap once we arrived in J'burg, to try to encourage better sleeping habits at night.

You will probably have more success getting them to sleep on the night-based flights than the day-based ones. Everyone slept better on the former than the latter. On the day flights (JNB-Dubai-LAX), the kids slept about 5 hrs total on the 16 hr flight, maybe a few hrs more on the 8 hr one. They were miserable by the time we started home from LAX.

The kids seemed to adjust relatively well, but we took it pretty easy. Go out somewhere one day, stay home the next. The jet lag hit me on days 3 and 4 when the sleep deprivation finally caught up to me.

Be ready to handle the kids separately while the other parent crashes for an hour or two.

Updated Edit: You might also think about bringing children's Tylenol or the equivalent. Lack of sleep certainly makes me headachy. I don't know where he found it, but my partner found individual liquid doses that were weight-based. The individual packs are from Pediacare. Technically for 4-5 year olds, the listed weight range are approximately 36-47 pounds. It also helped when both kids got earaches until we could get antibiotics started.

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As @andra mentions, it is commonly accepted that flying East is more complicated.

I am the exact opposite. When I was flying routinely from Europe to the US (for about 10 years) I usually landed about 15:00 or 16:00 local time (which was about 22:00 at home / body time) and tried many times to follow the advice "stay up until the night". This ended up me waking up at 4, completely exhausted.

I then decided to go to bed at 18:00 local (US) time and sleep until my body was telling me to wake up - at 4. That gave me 8+ hours of sleep and I could function normally.

The return was always easy: I landed at 6 or 7 in the morning in Europe and I was good to go.

I followed the same schedule for flights to/from Asia.

This is to say that you could consider rather having the right amount of sleep hours than to have them at the "right" moment.

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