If you are anything like me, you’re probably counting down the days to Daylight Saving Time. Tired of the dreary winter weather, I can’t wait to “spring forward” and capture that extra hour of daylight in the evening and the warmer temperatures of Summer Time, as it is also called. But I know many parents dread this time of the year, when the seemingly small adjustment of moving the clock one hour ahead threatens their children’s hard-won sleep routine.
As it happens, my two kids are very good sleepers, so I find myself being the one who is tired and unfocused for a few days after we turn the clock forward. While losing an hour of sleep might not seem like a lot, several studies have shown that adults are more prone to accidents and injuries on the job on the Monday after the time adjustment, due to their reduced alertness. In less hazardous work environments, it has been documented that productivity drops on this first Monday.
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If you needed further evidence that Daylight Saving Time has profound adverse effects on your health, another study by the University of Alabama has discovered a 10% increased risk of heart attacks on the Monday and Tuesday after we move the clock one hour ahead. Returning to Standard Time in the fall has the opposite effect, however, with a 10% decrease in the risk of heart attacks. This also confirms previous evidence that “falling back” one hour in October has less of an impact on our health.
OUR INTERNAL CLOCK Researchers cite a number of factors that come into play to explain the detrimental effect of this arbitrary time change on our health, including disrupted circadian rhythm, weakened immune system and sleep deprivation. Is there a parent who doesn’t know sleep deprivation? Lack of sleep, a common condition of our society, is aggravated further by this extra hour lost upon entering Summer Time. As for the immune system, apparently it responds differently depending on the time of day, so changing the clocks will also alter this internal timing.
The circadian biological clock, along with sleep/wake homeostasis, regulates our sleeping patterns. Homeostasis is the body’s regulatory process for an adequate balance of sleep and wakefulness, a mechanism linked to sleep intensity. The circadian clock regulates the timing of sleep, with a cycle that determines when we feel sleepier or more alert. This is controlled by a group of cells in the brain that respond to light and dark, as the National Sleep Foundation explains.
In the morning, our exposure to light is the signal for the brain to raise body temperature and produce cortisol; in the evening the level of melatonin, another hormone, starts to increase to promote sleep. Shifting the time, for Daylight Savings or when traveling, forces the body to adapt and disrupts the circadian rhythm. Fortunately our body’s internal clock doesn’t take long adapting to the new time and we can ease this process following a few simple steps.
THE GRADUAL APPROACH Most of us just stick by the clock the Sunday after Daylight Saving Time begins, and we follow our daily routines with the same meal times and bedtimes. It takes a little extra patience dealing with kids who are likely to feel sleepy, cranky and generally out of sync for a week or so after we start Daylight Savings Time. And we probably feel no better! To minimize this discomfort, make sure your family is fully rested when the time comes, having slept well the nights preceding the hour adjustment.
Children with solid sleep routines are better able to cope with these changes. But if that is not your case, sleep experts recommend a different strategy to help adjust to summer time. Every kid is different, but as a general rule they need between 9 and 11 hours of shuteye, and their sleeping patterns are more easily disrupted. This alternative strategy is a gradual approach that requires some planning.
Starting on the Thursday before we change the time, put your kids to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual; on Friday 30 minutes before their normal time (15 minutes earlier than the previous day); and on Saturday 45 minutes earlier than their regular bedtime (15 minutes earlier than the previous day). While they may not fall asleep, you are helping them relax a little earlier each day. On Sunday, you are ready to put them to bed at what would be their new regular bedtime.
This strategy has better results if you strictly follow their bedtime routines daily; if you make sure their room is as dark as usual, and don’t allow them to sleep late in the morning to make up for any lost sleep. Don’t attempt to tire out your kids, since this is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. On the contrary, younger children should have a good nap.
On Sunday morning, make sure your family gets some sunlight as soon as possible. Exposure to sunlight, a good breakfast and fun outdoor activities will help reset everyone’s biological clocks.