How to Help Children Adjust to Daylight Saving Time

The right plan can ease the change.

Credit...Giacomo Bagnara

The start of spring brings many milestones: warming weather, budding trees and the promise of summer. Perhaps even more welcome, it brings the start of daylight saving time, commonly known as “springing forward,” when much of the Northern Hemisphere will set their clocks forward one hour. In the United States this year, daylight saving time will start at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 13.

Despite gaining an hour of daylight, parents often dread these shifts, which can upend nap and bedtime routines. But with an understanding of how the time change affects sleep, and a bit of planning, you can help ease the transition for your family.

Daylight saving time was first observed in Germany in 1916, in an effort to reduce wartime energy costs by better synchronizing daytime activities with natural daylight hours. It was adopted universally in the United States following the passage of the Uniform Time Act of 1966; though states were allowed to opt out, only Arizona and Hawaii elected to do so. Today, about 70 countries observe daylight saving time during the summer months.

These shifts in schedule are analogous to an hour of jet lag. But while there’s a rule of thumb that it takes one day to adjust to one hour of jet lag, it can take longer, and side effects such as night wakings may occur with even modest time shifts

Anxious parents often wonder how these time changes will affect their children’s sleep (and thus their own). There is little research on this topic in children. In general, teenagers — or anyone who needs an alarm clock to wake up in the morning — will struggle with springing ahead, while small children (and their parents) will struggle more with falling back.

The beginning of daylight saving time is going to be hard on anyone who struggles to get out of bed in the morning because of the loss of an hour of sleep. If you need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning already, this one is painful.

For teenagers, it is especially difficult to make this adjustment. First, because they lose an hour of sleep. Second, and even more important, is because it requires them to shift their sleep period one hour earlier. It is always harder to go to bed earlier than it is to stay up a little bit later. One way to address this is to wake your child up an hour earlier on Sunday morning, which will increase their sleep debt slightly and help them fall asleep more easily that night.

If you have younger kids who rise early, “springing ahead” can be a net positive in that their apparent wake time will be an hour later. So, if your child typically gets up at 5:30 a.m. and you are not happy about it, just wait until after the clocks “spring ahead” and she begins magically getting up at 6:30 a.m. Of course, she may also be going to bed at a later clock time as well.

The beginning of daylight saving time can cause sleep problems for parents and children alike.Making some modest changes to your child’s sleep schedule beforehand can help cushion the blow.

This story was originally published on March 6, 2020 in NYT Parenting.

Craig Canapari, M.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Yale University, director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the author of “It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train.” He blogs about childhood sleep issues on his website.