Ahh, autumn. Halloween costumes, fall foliage, carving Jack-O-Lanterns and enjoying the crisp bite of a fresh apple. Those of use who live in New England often cite this season as the finest of the year, prior to the long nights and cold days of winter. There is one part of it that I don’t look forward to as a parent of small children, and a sleep doctor: the end of Daylight Savings Time (DST) when the clock falls back by one hour. This year, clocks in the United States will fall back by one hour at 2 AM on Sunday, November 4th. There is some evidence that DST is associated with adverse health and safety effects, but this is controversial; Ezra Klein nicely outlined this in the Washington Post.
“Daylight Saving Time” is Pretty Confusing
I always have to pause and think about these terms because they are pretty confusing. Here’s a brief primer:
- When is daylight saving time? “Daylight Saving Time” (or DST) refers to the practice of advancing the clock an hour later for the summer months for an extra hour of daylight. In 2016, it occurs between March 13th and November sixth.
- What happens when daylight saving time ends? The end of DST occurs when the clock is dialed back an hour, which we call “falling back”.
- Why do you keep calling it daylight SAVING time? Although it sounds weird, “daylight savings time” is incorrect; it is correct to say daylight saving time. But don’t be pedantic about correcting people.
Falling Back is a Bummer if You Have Small Kids
If you don’t have children and don’t work nights (medical residents on call that night– I feel for you as you will be on call for another hour), congratulations! You get an extra hour of sleep. For those of us with little children who get up earlier, however, this can be painful. The reason is that little children tend to get up earlier than their parents would like them to. (Teenagers are a different story as they usually have problems with getting up late– thus they struggle with the beginning of DST, or “springing ahead.“) Thus, a child who is sleeping from 8 PM to 6 AM will now be on a 7 PM to 5 AM schedule. The sleep period has not moved, but the clock has.
Your Teenager Will Dig This
Unlike little kids, teenagers naturally tend to stay up later and struggle to get up in the morning. Thus, “falling back” tends to feel pretty great for your teenager as the world essentially moves closer to his or her natural sleep schedule. If you want to capitalize on this, I encourage teens to try to stay on the clock time and not use this as an excuse to stay up later. Practically speaking, this means continuing to going to bed a bit earlier based on clock time. For example, if your teen struggles to fall asleep before 11:30 PM, this is a good opportunity to have her go to sleep at 10:30 PM as it will “feel” the same.
How to Make This Less Annoying
Fortunately this is pretty easy to address. Move your child’s sleep period later by 30 minutes for three days before “falling back” and then back to their old schedule on the “new time”, effectively moving their sleep period an hour later. In this example, you will have your child go to sleep at 8:30 PM to 6:30 AM for three days before falling back, then move them back to the old schedule at the new time (8 PM to 6 AM).
Not everyone’s child will sleep in 30 minutes later but the important thing is to move bedtime. This approach will hopefully cushion the landing from “falling back” and help you get a little more shuteye. I have found this to be useful in my household and my clinic, where the ramifications of DST seem to extend beyond a simple shift; many children seem to have disrupted sleep at night as well around this transitional period. In my experience, these difficulties may be exaggerated in children with autism, so it may be worth a more gradual transition in sleep periods. If early morning awakenings remain an issue, here are some more strategies for addressing them.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with this. Has this been a problem for you in the past?