Helping kids cope with daylight saving time and other bedtime challenges

Everyone can appreciate an extra hour of sunshine each evening, but losing an hour of sleep when you’re a parent with young children or teens can be tough.

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The start of daylight saving time (DST) is essentially like traveling across time zones—though your alarm clock says it’s time to get up, your internal body clock is on a different schedule—and it’s not uncommon to feel extra exhausted in the days that follow.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help you and your family better handle the time change, as is pointed out by pediatric psychologist, sleep specialist and licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Daniel S. Lewin, Ph.D., DABSM.

For future reference, do I need to make adjustments in my child’s sleep/wake times prior to the start of Daylight Saving Time?

For this small, hour change, I typically don’t recommend it. It’s more important that children are on a regular sleep schedule and are getting quality sleep in the nights leading up to DST. As always, there is individual variability in terms of which kids will adjust more or less easily. If you know your child is having some trouble sleeping, you can wake your child 15-20 minutes earlier on a few mornings and put them to bed 15-30 minutes earlier ahead of the time change. Adding extra sleep time, 15-30 minutes, can also help with adjustments.

Are kids of certain ages affected more by the time change than others?

Yes, it’s often much more difficult for adolescents to adjust to a “spring forward” time change than younger children because it conflicts with their internal body clocks that prefer later bed and wake times. Because DST begins on a weekend, most children can catch up relatively quickly. But, for an adolescent, 7 a.m. on Monday morning is going to feel like a very early 6 a.m. It’s likely that they’re going to have more difficulty getting up early for the first few days of school—not only from the loss of sleep, but the timing of their internal body clock. With extracurricular activities and after school jobs, it can be hard for teens to catch up after the time change too.

What can I do to help my teen more easily adjust to the time change?  

One of the most helpful things you can do is encourage them to get good, quality sleep in the nights leading up to the time change. This will help make losing an hour feel less severe. Beyond DST, it’s important that teens maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. If they have to wake up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. for school, but snooze until 11 a.m. on weekends, they experience something called “social jetlag.” This means that when Monday morning arrives, they are essentially living on a time zone that is delayed 3-4 hours. Making that kind of swing is problematic and can lead to larger issues with sleep disruption and mood issues. I generally recommend that bedtime and wake time on weekends should not differ from school nights by more than 1.5-2 hours.

Keeping to a regular sleep schedule for younger children is also very important. Sometimes parents think they don’t need to give their children a bedtime on weekends, but the constant change in a sleep-wake schedule can lead to negative effects for younger children too.

Is it really bad to look at a screen before bedtime?

It’s no secret that looking at your smartphone or tablet 30 minutes before you head to bed can have negative consequences for adults, but new research indicates that bright lights before bedtime can have an even harsher effect on children, lowering their melatonin levels (hormone that cues sleep cycle) for a prolonged period of time. Parents should decrease light use before a child’s bedtime—no tablets or phones for at least 60 minutes—and, if possible, keep lights lower throughout the home once their child goes to sleep. That way, if your child decides to make another appearance for that second glass of water they need, only a limited amount of light will be present to disrupt their progression back to sleep.

Photo courtesy of Children’s National Health System

Daniel S. Lewin, Ph.D., DABSM, is a pediatric psychologist, sleep specialist and licensed clinical psychologist. He is the associate director of the Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program and director of the Pulmonary Behavioral Medicine Program at Children’s National Health System, and he is an associate professor of Pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. In his free time, Dr. Lewin enjoys biking to work every day. While currently a D.C. resident, he grew up in Northern Virginia.