5 Tips for Breezing Through DST (and Other Time Shifts)

Next weekend is the equally beloved and despised daylight savings time. 

Beloved, because it’s the time of year for FALL BACK, which translates to a highly coveted extra hour of sleep (hooray)! Despised, because if you’re a parent, it translates to early morning wake ups (it’s almost a cruel joke), scheduling chaos, and a general behavioural frenzy in your children for at least a few days.

Oh yeah, and darkness by 4pm, meaning those working regular business hours won’t see the sun again until April. Not to mention the global dis-regulation it causes. Only 36% of countries worldwide observe the biannual time changes, and often not completely. Much of Arizona and Hawaii ignore the shifts, as do the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. And nobody seems to agree on when it should occur. If you’re in Europe, I am a week behind the times. In fact, most of the southern hemisphere has disregarded the practice or never participated in it to begin with. Many governments are proposing that it may be time to say goodbye to DST forever – I only wish they would hurry up so I could escape the twice yearly parent panic that ensues while my kids are still young.

But in the meantime, it remains a disdained, yet necessary transition that us parents must help our children cope with. Children seem to have missed the memo on the glory of an extended Sunday sleep in. So here I offer a few tips to breeze your way through the upcoming DST, grounded in the internal shifts that your little’s body clock experiences and the challenges that arise as a result. The good news is that this advice also applies to small time changes experienced during travel – up to about 3 or 4 hours. With an informed approach and a bit of preparation, you can attempt to remain attuned to your child’s internal rhythms when the clock reads inconsistent, and get them synced up in no time.

Tip 1: Get your toes wet before you jump in

Children are notoriously ill-suited for abrupt change. They are resilient, yes. They will adjust, eventually. But how well you fair greatly fluctuates with your approach. How many times have you attempted to get a toddler out the door in under 10 minutes? How many times has it utterly and completely backfired? It can be done, but we may end up a little worse for ware in the process.

On the flip side, have you ever tried to verbalize upcoming transitions clearly and with enough time to spare, only to be floored when your child puts down his toys, puts on his shoes, and follows you to the car without a word of protest?

You can observe time changes in much the same way. Rather than attempting to tackle the whole shift at once, be it an hour or two or three, try to gradually work up to it in 15 minute increments over the span of a few days to a week. If Daylight Savings is approaching, start the shift mid-week instead of waiting until the weekend. Push bedtime later (earlier if in Spring) by 15 minutes on day 1, 30 minutes on day 2, 45 on day 3. If you are heading on a big trip, don’t wait until you get there to deal with the jet lag. Work towards the destination time zone slowly, so you can enjoy your visit upon arrival.

This gradual shift is likely to be a lot less disruptive to your child’s natural sleep rhythms than an abrupt change. Remember, he moves through life based on his internal motivations and external cues, not what the clock says.

Tip 2: Acknowledge all daily rhythms, not just sleep

We tend to immediately focus on aligning sleep with the number that displays on the clock. If time moves forward, then biological bedtime and wake time (those to which the body was previously accustomed) need to shift later; if time moves back, early to bed, early to rise. But the body’s internal clock governs more than just sleep. Much of our cellular function is timed according to a circadian cycle. Our digestion is optimal at set times during the day. Our body temperature fluctuates in accordance with light/dark patterns. Our immune systems are regulated by internal pacemakers. Virtually every physiological system in our bodies respond to the 24-hour clock. As a result, effectively syncing the body up to time changes requires all body systems acknowledge the shift.

The more our systems are in agreement, the more streamlined the transition will be. What this means with respect to our children is that if we can orchestrate equal and gradual time shifts in all rhythms throughout the day, our kids will respond with less push back. And that’s what it’s all about, right? So if you approach a time change by shifting bedtime gradually in, for example, 15 minutes increments (as suggested above), match this with 15 minute shifts in mealtimes, quiet times, nap times, and busy times. Greater internal alignment will provide that oh-so-important predictability that kids thrive on.  

Tip 3: Don’t let the sun shine in (or do) – promote a sleep-positive environment

When adjusting to a new time zone, environmental cues can flip us on our heads. A bright, sunny room can send the signal to your child that it is time to be awake, even if her internal clock disagrees. This can either help or hinder your efforts depending on how you use it.

Essentially, if you are trying to make gradual shifts in sleep times despite an abrupt change in physical time (and the environmental cues that come along with it), try to recreate the environment that will promote the sleep you seek. This may mean keeping a nice dark room longer or later than you normally would.

Following the same principle, when we took our baby camping this summer, I wrapped her travel crib in dark material to dampen the early morning, daytime, and late evening light. Conversely, you can also use light (and other environmental cues) to your advantage if you are trying to establish wake times that correspond to the physical time shift. Open those shades, let in the light, and allow for a stimulating environment if you are attempting to keep your child awake when her body tells her she should be sleeping.

Keep in mind, environmental cues entrain the circadian clock, so use them wisely and to your advantage.

Tip #4: Tank up

In the days to weeks leading up to a major time shift, try to place special focus on your child’s sleep schedules and promote full restorative sleeps. This may mean declining that dinner party invite, or sticking a bit closer to home for daytime naps. A well rested baby is much better equipped to handle scheduling changes than one that is already indebted and overtired. Think of it like taking immune boosting probiotics during cold and flu season. Fill up her sleep tank in advance and her body will be primed to take on whatever comes her way. 

Tip #5: Don’t stress

When all is said and done, your child’s internal clock will entrain to the physical time zone eventually. Our circadian rhythms are highly attuned to environmental cues and will shift accordingly. Offer opportunities for sleep to your child so that she remains as well rested as possible through the shift and know that the disruption won’t last forever. At least until those dang clocks jump forward once again.   

Have you struggled with time changes in the past? Pulled out all the stops to regulate? Are you an avid round-the-world traveller, children in tow? Tell me your experiences and how you make it through – unscathed or otherwise…