kid yawning in bed with stuffed bunny

Help Kids Recover from the Time Change

March 4, 2024

Although a lot of people need to adjust when the clocks spring forward, the transition can be especially tough on children. 

“Kids need more sleep than adults, so when they don’t get enough, it impacts everything from behavior and mood to school performance,” says Lauren Levine, MD, a ColumbiaDoctors pediatrician, who is also a mother of three. “Depending on the child, it could take a couple of days to a couple of weeks to recover from the time change.” 

How Being Sleepy Affects Kids’ Bodies 

Dr. Levine says there are many reasons that kids struggle when they don’t get enough rest: 

  • Developing brains can’t cope: Because young kids are still developing a prefrontal cortex (a region that regulates emotion and behavior), they don’t yet have the same mechanisms as adults to handle being tired. “Younger kids get irritable and easily overwhelmed, so they start falling apart over spilled Cheerios,” says Dr. Levine.
  • Stress hormones rise: The stress hormone cortisol can increase due to lack of sleep, which has a negative impact on functioning and behavior. 
  • Kids get too tired to sleep: “There’s a saying in pediatrics: ‘Sleep begets sleep,’” says Dr. Levine, explaining that well-rested kids tend to sleep better, but overtired kids can have a hard time settling down in the evening.

How to Help Kids Recover from the Time Change 

In a perfect world, all parents had the time before springing forward to slowly shift their kids’ evening routines. But in reality, plenty of kids are heading to school after the time change still struggling from the transition.

In addition to extending a little extra understanding and patience, here’s how Dr. Levine recommends helping kids cope:

  • Shift sleep schedules in increments: Instead of shifting bedtime by an entire hour at once—which your child’s body won’t be ready for—move it earlier in 10- or 15-minute increments. So if your child usually goes to bed at 7:00, start by making it 6:45. Then, each night, or every other night, shift it another 10-15 minutes earlier. On the other end, try waking your child up 10-15 minutes earlier, as well.
  • Avoid overscheduling: Because kids’ developing brains are less able to manage stress and fatigue, keep their schedules light after springing forward, says Dr. Levine. If possible, ease off of unnecessary activities, errands, or playdates while they adjust.
  • Turn off the screens: “Screens are a huge issue,” says Dr. Levine, who recommends turning them off a minimum of one hour before bedtime, but ideally two hours. A child who’s been physically active throughout the day will fall asleep easier than a child who comes home from school and plays video games for five hours. Although managing screens can get harder with older kids, Dr. Levine encourages parents to feel empowered either to take the phone away or adjust its settings so teens sign off with friends and get their rest. 
  • Stick to a routine: “The better sleepers have consistent bedtime routines,” says Dr. Levine. “When my three kids were younger, the routine was huge with bath, stories, and bed always at the same time, including weekends. I once talked to a sleep expert who recommended reading the exact same book at bedtime and naptime, so the child has a strong association with a certain story and sleep.” Teenagers, however, are often so sleep-deprived during the week that a little catch-up on weekends is okay.
  • Set one sleep location: Although some parents let kids nap in the stroller or on a grandparent, it can create problems at night when their child fights sleep in their own space. “It’s helpful to teach kids there is a consistent location—a bed or crib—where they go to sleep,” says Dr. Levine.
  • Ask your doctor about limited melatonin use: Levine considers melatonin only in limited circumstances, such as time changes or travel. “In general, for kids without diagnosed sleep disorders, or for kids who are not taking medications that interfere with sleep onset, I don’t think parents should use melatonin on a regular basis,” she says. “But if you’ve tried the usual sleep strategies and nothing works, using melatonin for a short period, such as less than a week, would be okay. Give it 30 minutes before the time you’d want your child to be asleep. If sleep problems persist, you should definitely bring it up with your pediatrician.”