Avoid a cranky kid: How to prepare children for the fall time change

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/ Source: TODAY Contributor
By Lisa Flam

With Halloween falling on a Saturday this year, you may not be thinking much about your kids' bedtimes this weekend.

But don't forget this is also the weekend of the semi-annual time change. When daylight saving time ends Sunday at 2 a.m., most Americans will turn the clock back one hour.

While we often think of "falling back" as the time to grab an extra hour of shuteye, many of us — kids included — don't really benefit because we're already sleep-deprived and tend to stay up an extra hour or sleep in on the weekends, says Dr. Carol Ash, director of sleep medicine at Meridian Health in New Jersey.

What's important to know about the time change, though, is that it can disrupt normal internal sleep rhythms and bodily systems like metabolism because we are no longer in sync with our external environment — when it gets light and dark out — and can end up feeling jet-lagged.

That's because the body can't adjust to the hour change just like that, Ash says. It takes time.

Even a one-hour time change can affect our bodies.Shutterstock

"Your internal clock will not shift as rapidly as you can turn the dial on your alarm clock," she says. "It doesn't move that fast. It's like a turtle, and this one hour is much more than the internal clock is designed to handle. It's too abrupt."

The failure to adjust the internal clock can hurt mood, emotions, the immune system, stress levels, memory, learning and coping ability, among other things.

"The timing of wake and sleep is very important for our overall physical health and mental health," Ash said. "It affects every mechanism in our body."

Nobody wants a cranky kid. To prepare your household for the time change, Ash recommends gradually shifting bedtimes later for everyone but the youngest infants in the days leading up to Sunday. Try putting the kids — and yourself — to bed 15 minutes later each night starting Wednesday, and up to an hour later than their regular bedtime on Friday and Saturday.

Aim to keep everyone in bed an hour later than their weekday wake-up time on Saturday morning and until the equivalent of that time Sunday morning, but no longer. The exposure to sunlight at the right time is the most important thing in resetting your internal clock. If kids or adults are sleep-deprived, it's better to take an afternoon nap than to sleep in too late.

By Sunday, kids should hopefully feel tired enough to fall asleep at their regular bedtime and get enough sleep before school Monday morning. It shouldn't be too hard to ask kids to stay up a bit. After all, what kid doesn't want a later bedtime?

Here are Ash's tips by age to help everyone get the sleep they need to stay healthy and alert:

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 — like rocking them or rubbing their backs — to get them to sleep. Nap times can be shifted ahead of the time change as well.

Four to 6: Avoid electronics shortly before bed. Try getting them a watch and get them involved with the time-change process.

Seven to 12: 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.

"The first week, if you haven't made any changes just recognize this may be a challenging week ahead," Ash said. "It is going to throw everybody off kilter."

TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.