A white alarm clock is shown in a pile of red-colored leaves.
The time to start adjusting your internal clock is now. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Spring forward.

Fall back.

Sounds easy enough, but anyone who lives with children knows that dealing with daylight saving time can be far from easy.

The upcoming time change (the first weekend in November) can wreak havoc on the sleep schedules parents work so hard to establish.

“It’s only an hour, so you wouldn’t think it would be of much significance, but it is when it comes to sleep/wake cycles,” said John Schuen, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist who specializes in sleep medicine at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

There’s a good reason for that: an internal body clock that ticks strong in youngsters and adults alike.

“It makes the Swiss watchmakers look like amateurs,” Dr. Schuen said.

Controlled by the brain, that internal system is designed to regulate one’s sleepiness and wakefulness during a 24-hour period.

“You literally have a master clock in your head, and it runs close to 24 hours,” he said.

In one study, participants lived in dimly lit caves for several weeks (with no access to sunny days or dark nights). Researchers observed when they went to sleep, and results revealed their internal clock was 24.2 hours, on average. Larks, or morning people, have shorter internal clock times and night owls are a little more than 24 hours, Dr. Schuen said.

When changes like daylight saving time or traveling to new time zones intervene, there’s no way to rapidly advance that clock, he said. It just takes time for our bodies to adjust.

“We can only ‘move’ our body clock 15 to 30 minutes a night,” Dr. Schuen said.

That means parents should anticipate needing an extra dose of patience during the time changes in the fall and spring.

“When it comes to daylight saving time, Saturday going into Sunday is better than Sunday going into Monday. That would make for a very rough Monday for people,” Dr. Schuen said. “If a sleep doctor was in charge of daylight saving times, he or she would say you need to change it to Friday.”

He recommends adjusting kids’ bedtimes by 15 to 30 minutes starting the Thursday or Friday prior to the time change, so that by Monday morning when school starts, kids are back on schedule.

Dr. Schuen also urges parents to pay close attention to the five environmental factors that affect our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep—important both around the time change and year-round.

5 factors to consider

1. Light

Light is the one thing that can slowly shift internal body clocks, because it affects the body’s production of melatonin, Dr. Schuen said. Turn on bright lights in the house in the morning, or throw open the shades if the sun is out. Then, dim the lights in the evening.

Also, adults and kids alike should avoid screen time an hour before bed, he said. The blue and blue-green light from screens (including tablets, smartphones and laptops) can keep you awake well after the device is powered down.

2. Activity

Avoid vigorous activity right before bedtime. While in general, active kids sleep better at night, the activity is best done well before bedtime. Try to build down-time into the evenings so kids can wind down before going to bed, Dr. Schuen said.

3. Environment

Make children’s beds and bedrooms a comfortable temperature—not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

“We don’t sleep well as humans at extreme temperatures,” Dr. Schuen said.

4. Food

Avoid large meals right before bedtime. Eating wakes up our gastrointestinal tracts, which may keep kids awake. A small bedtime snack is fine, just not a large meal.

“Some organ systems go to sleep when we go to sleep, like the gastrointestinal tract. When you eat a large meal at bedtime or have a 2 a.m. snack, it wakes up organ systems that ought to be asleep,” he said.

Interestingly, there are other systems that are very active when we sleep, such as our brains.

“Our brains are busy rewiring all the information it acquired during the day and tucking it away for later use. There’s a lot going on,” he said.

5. Sound

Sound can be a tremendous help or hindrance to sleep, he said. Subtle, constant noise such as a white noise machine can be helpful to drown out normal household noises. But loud, stimulating noises can keep kids awake, or worse, wake them up.

Dr. Schuen urges parents to have patience and persistence to keep kids’ sleep routines on track while falling back—and soon the whole family will be back in their routine.