Health and Science News for Parents

Preparing for the Worst Day of the Year: Daylight Saving Spring Forward

written by Tara Haelle

The worst day of the year is upon us: this weekend, we “spring forward” for Daylight Saving Time this Sunday, March 13. It’s a double whammy because we lose an hour of sleep AND still must deal with the havoc that one hour of sleep shift creates for our kids. (I regard autumn’s “fall back” as the second worst day of the year, ameliorated only by the extra hour of sleep we get.) I write quite a bit about sleep and have read hundreds of research studies about sleep, but I have yet to come across the secret sauce that makes DST time-shifting more painless for parents.

This year, I interviewed Andy Rink, MD, a pediatric sleep expert and creator of the Lully Sleep Guardian*. I tend to be a fan of Q&As because they often make for easier reading and skimming, so here’s my Q&A with Dr. Rink on what to do about Daylight Saving Time. In addition, families who travel across time zones will find some tips on dealing with the threat of jet lag as well.

The spring forward DST time change is often a headache for parents trying to keep their children on a consistent sleep schedule. Photo by Anissa Thompson

The spring forward DST time change is often a headache for parents trying to keep their children on a consistent sleep schedule. Photo by Anissa Thompson

Many parents dread the arrival of DST time changes. Is it really that bad, or are we making it worse on ourselves?

For many of us, the loss of one hour’s sleep can sometimes feel like a household crisis because of the havoc it wreaks on your family’s schedule. Kids who have been sleeping on firm schedules for years can suddenly start waking up at odd hours of the night, tearful and confused. Parents who really need that extra hour of sleep can feel sluggish and groggy all day at work. As a physician and pediatric sleep expert with a background in childhood sleep disorders, I’ve seen countless families suffer from the cumulative effects of having too little sleep.

In what ways can the time change to DST in spring affect the sleep and sleep schedules of infants, young children and families in general?

Whether it’s jet lag from traveling across time zones or a one-hour change due to Daylight Saving Time, the abrupt loss of an hour’s sleep affects the internal body clock. Infants and children will be fighting to stay on their schedule according to their internal clocks, so naturally ALL of their daily activities (not just sleep) will tend to be pushed back one hour. If you do nothing to adjust the schedule around DST (which is actually a good option for early risers), your child will wake up an hour later, nap an hour later, may eat an hour later, etc. This can be similar in adults, although typically you can expect your reaction to DST to be similar to taking flight and having a one-hour time change.

What, if anything, can parents do leading up to the time changes (in the days or weeks before) that can mitigate this effect, particularly for toddlers and preschoolers?

You can adjust them gradually, by tapering daily schedules (including naps, meals and bedtimes) in 10-minute increments the entire week leading up to the Daylight Saving Time “spring forward” on Sunday, March 13. Or you can get around Mother Nature by installing room-darkening or black-out shades in the child’s nursery or bedroom. Make sure the entire family is well-rested leading up to the time change, so that everybody is up to dealing patiently with earlier than usual risers, and grumpier than usual little ones. The best thing that all families should do is make sure their children are getting good naps and are well rested going into the weekend.

For parents who have a child that is an early riser, spring DST can be a great time to do nothing and allow your child to naturally start sleeping in an hour later. For these families, they can follow the above nap tips, but they should refrain from adjusting bed or nap times. After Sunday, they should then move all daily activities (nap times, meal times, bath times, etc.) forward an hour to keep the child on the later schedule. They can slowly start moving daily activities around, but to keep their child sleeping later, they should try to maintain the later nap, bed, and wake times.

The other method is to slowly adjust the child’s schedule if you want to keep them on the same sleep/wake schedule they are currently on. Parents can start about a week before DST with moving the bedtime (and all of the child’s activities as much as possible) up 15 to 20 minutes. Then every couple of days, move things back another 15 to 20 mins. Around the switch to DST, or at least within the week after, they child should be back on their normal schedule. Trying to switch all their schedule a full hour on Sunday can be tough for kids.

If parents do not do anything to prepare for the time change to DST, how long does it typically take for young children to adjust to a slightly new schedule?

It generally takes a few days to a week to naturally adjust to the one-hour time difference.

To what extent can the tips you’re providing here help parents deal with jet lag when they’re traveling across time zones with young children?

Whether it’s jet lag from traveling across time zones or a one-hour change due to DST, the same principles can apply. However, if it just a short trip (a week or less), then it may be easier to just “do nothing” and move the child’s schedule forward or back an hour while on the vacation.

How much sleep should toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary-age children each be getting each night, and what are the consequences if they get too little sleep?

Here are the latest sleep recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation Interestingly, the results of their comprehensive 2014 poll showed that parents on average report their children are sleeping on average one hour less than they should be getting. The best word of advice is consistency. Try to keep as close to the same bedtime routine as possible each day, on weekdays and weekends, at home and on vacation.

Is it possible for children to get “too much” sleep? If so, what would that look like, and what would the consequences of it be?

It’s not possible for a newborn to get too much sleep. If a young child is sleeping too much during the day, a consequence might be not sleeping through the night. If a teenager is sleeping too much, it could be due to a growth spurt, too much late night activity, or a sign of depression.

What if my child suffers from nightmares or sleep terrors or other sleep disorders? First of all, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that sleep disorders like sleepwalking and night terrors affect nearly 25% of American children. The problem is, when one family member suffers from a sleep disorder, studies show the entire family tends to suffer from increased stress and lack of sleep. Luckily there are some new technologies designed to help re-adjust children’s sleep patterns so they can avoid the problem all together. If it occurs during DST, the best thing to do is let the episode run its course and try to get to bed earlier the following night.

My family and I have a hard enough time falling asleep. What are some ways to get the family to settle in more easily?

Start the process of winding down an hour or two before the family goes to bed. Give children a relaxing bath. Dim their bedroom lights. Read a calming story. For adults, this means easing up on the alcohol or caffeine during the two hours prior to your bedtime. Be sure to limit your water intake in the evening to avoid bathroom breaks in the middle of the night.

I’ve used videos on my smartphone or an iPad to help my son settle down at bedtime occasionally in the past. How might the light from those devices affect him or me?

A 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that the use of electronic devices such as e-readers and tablets right before bed can prolong the time it takes to fall asleep, suppress the natural levels of melatonin present in the body, delay the circadian clock, and reduce alertness in the morning. All of this will decrease chances of having a good night’s sleep during Daylight Saving Time, when it’s needed most.


*I have not used, tested, or researched the Lully Sleep Guardian, its mention is not an endorsement of this blog, and I do not receive any payment or in-kind compensation for mentioning the product. I link to it only as a courtesy to Dr. Rink for answering my questions.

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