It’s a nuisance for any parent: As daylight saving time ushers in an extra hour of sunlight, the time change also wreaks havoc on children’s sleep schedules. Kids have a harder time falling asleep when it’s still light outside. And dark mornings can make for groggy, and even unsafe, trips to the bus stop.
All that sleep deprivation can upend a family’s regular routine. Studies have shown that children who fail to get adequate sleep have a difficult time concentrating in the classroom and tend to earn poorer grades than their peers. But with a little advanced planning, parents can help prepare their little ones to adjust to the new schedule so they stay rested, happy and healthy.
“As the clock springs forward an hour, kids have more than a temptation to sleep in,” said Richard J. Castriotta, MD, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “Their biorhythms have been thrown off. By moving the clock forward, we’re artificially changing their natural sleep/wake cycle. Ideally, schools would accommodate this by starting later, but since that’s not a possibility, we have to train kids into a new circadian rhythm.”
As daylight saving time approaches this weekend, Dr. Castriotta offers a few, easy tips to help children ease into a new routine of longer days:
- Gradually readjust schedules. Don’t expect your child to adapt to the new time immediately. The clock may have moved ahead an hour, but that doesn’t mean your child’s internal body clock is ready to accept the shift. In the days leading up to the time change, try to wake your child a few minutes later each day.
- Skip lazy Saturday (and Sunday) mornings. While it may be tempting to take advantage of the darker mornings by snagging a few extra zzz’s on the weekends, allowing children to sleep later on Saturdays and Sundays can make it tougher for them to stick to a routine on weekdays. “If you want to avoid the Monday morning ‘blahs’ we all get when we burn the midnight oil, it’s critical for kids to try to get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends,” Dr. Castriotta said.
- Power down electronics. Darkness naturally triggers the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep and wake cycles. But bright light and blue light emitted from cell phones, tablets, televisions and computers has an opposite effect. “Melatonin signals to the brain that it’s dark and it’s time to rest,” Dr. Castriotta said. “Blue light tells us it’s time to wake up and function, making it harder to fall asleep.” While it’s best to avoid electronic devices an hour before bedtime, that’s not always a practical solution, particularly for schoolchildren finishing up homework on a computer. Dr. Castriotta recommends altering the background on screens to black and setting the brightness to the lowest setting, in an effort to limit the amount of blue light emitted.
- Relax. Set aside time before bed to allow your child to wind down. Offer a calming bath. Read a book together. Limit the amount of noise and physical activity to allow for the child’s body to get ready for rest. “It should be quiet, without a lot of exciting stuff going on,” Dr. Castriotta said. Sunlight leaking in through windows can also make it difficult for a child to fall asleep. Room darkening curtains can help create the right atmosphere for bedtime.
- Cut back the caffeine. Children often consume much more caffeine than parents realize. A can of soda can contain as much caffeine as half a cup of coffee. Energy drinks are worse. “Caffeine is the enemy of sleep for everybody, but for kids, it’s even worse because the rate of metabolism is variable,” Dr. Castriotta said. “Teenagers drink these energy drinks because they’re trying to combat fatigue from being so sleep-deprived. But it just creates a vicious cycle.”
- Rise and shine. Exposure to lots of bright light in the morning can set the right tone and help children shake off sleepiness. Once a child is awake for the day, make sure lights are turned on and curtains are flung open to let in the sunshine.
Children need much more sleep than adults realize. Teenagers in high school should be logging at least nine hours per night. A junior high student needs about 10 hours while younger children need 11 hours or more.
And the consequences for children who aren’t well-rested can be serious and long-lasting. “Studies show that the difference between kids who get A’s and B’s and those that C’s, D’s and F’s can be as little as 30 minutes of sleep per night,” Dr. Castriotta said. “If your kid isn’t getting enough rest, you’re sending him to school in a fog. He’s not able to pay attention to what’s being said and what’s going on. That’s like sending a near-sighted child to school without glasses, or a hearing-impaired child without a hearing aid.”