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Avoid a cranky kid: How to help children deal with the fall time change

TODAY logo TODAY 10/30/2020 Meghan Holohan and Lisa Flam
a young boy holding a baby © Provided by TODAY

Daylight saving time ends this Sunday at 2 a.m., and many people welcome the change when we set the clocks back one hour because it means an extra hour of sleep. But for parents, the time change means nothing. Children still wake at the same time, stealing that extra hour of sleep.

a baby wearing a hat: Sleeping baby girl (Shutterstock) © Shutterstock Sleeping baby girl (Shutterstock)

Here are tips by age from Dr. Carol Ash, director of sleep medicine at Meridian Health in New Jersey, to help everyone get the sleep they need:

Newborns through age 6 months

Their circadian rhythms are not quite developed yet, so they're going to sleep and wake when they want to. You don't have to do anything differently during the time change.

Six months to 3 years old

Make sure you're sticking to a bedtime routine and putting your kids to bed when drowsy. Avoid starting any bad habits to get them to sleep. Nap times can be shifted ahead of the time change as well.

4 to 6 years old

Avoid electronics shortly before bed. Try getting them a watch and get them involved with the time-change process.

7 to 12 years old

These kids (and older ones too) should stash their cellphones an hour before bedtime. "Really make sure you're getting electronics out of their hands," she said. "That light will interfere with the ability to make the shift."

Teens

Teenagers tend to already have a delayed internal clock, so it won't be hard to ask them to stay up later. But the light from screens and phones can push their bedtime too late, so make sure they put them away. After the time change, there will be more light early in the morning (until the days start getting even shorter), and getting teenagers outside into the light will help them adjust.

The change this time of year is generally easier than in the spring because it's not hard to get kids to stay up. It's a good time, Ash says, to revisit the routines of kids of all ages, to make sure they are getting the sleep they need. If you don't have a chance to prepare before the time change, be patient. It usually takes several days to adjust.

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Here is more expert advice for handling "fall back" with kids:

Fall back

The real work occurs the day before the time change. Delay breakfast by an hour. If it seems impossible, try having the kids watch TV for an hour or taking them on a walk. Then make sure that lunch and dinner occur an hour later than usual. By gradually moving their meals back, you’re helping them slowly adjust to a later sleep time.

“You’re preparing them with activity levels, light exposure and meal planning,” said Dr. W. Christopher Winter, a sleep expert and author of the book "The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It."

Nap schedules and the time change

He also recommended modifying nap schedules for younger children.

“Skip the nap or truncate it. Do your grocery shopping or something active and busy. Just really plow through that sleepy time,” he said.

While the idea of missing a nap might make you cringe, it will make it easier for children to sleep in after the time change. What’s more, let them stay up.

“Put them in bed late,” he said. “It creates a drive to sleep."

Room climates for the time change

Keeping the room dark the entire time a child is sleeping and maintaining a temperature between 65 and 72 degrees will help, too, said Dr. Shalini Paruthi, co-director of the St. Luke's Sleep Medicine and Research Center in Chesterfield, Missouri.

"Cooler temperatures do help people fall asleep faster," she said. "Make sure the room is nice and dark, quiet, cool and comfortable."

Also, remove clocks from the room. If children can see on a clock that it's their normal wake time, they might be compelled to leave their beds too soon.

Shhhhh, mommy and daddy are sleepy

If all the preparations fail, Winter said there are a few things parents can do the morning of to encourage their children to stay sleepy.

“Keep the activity level low. Make sure you are not opening up the blinds and turning on the lights. Keep things dark for an extra hour,” he said.

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