Editors note: This article originally ran Nov. 4, 2022 and was updated Feb. 17, 2023.
Most of us have come to expect having to change our clocks twice a year for daylight saving time, whether that be to “spring forward” or “fall back.”
But try explaining the time change to your young child. Or to your pet. Or to your own body and bladder, says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD. It’s not as simple as adjusting a clock.
“Our circadian rhythms get off a little whenever we change times,” she says. Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour internal clock that helps us fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning. “They change naturally with differences in daylight in the spring and fall. If it gets dark at 6 p.m., we’re going to get sleepy earlier than if it gets dark at 9. The end of daylight saving time can be especially abrupt to that body clock.”
How Changing the Time Can Change Your Body
Our internal clocks respond to light and dark, which can throw our sleep patterns out of sync with the clock on the wall (or on our arms, phones or dashboards). People can adjust to changes in light—for example, people who work at night and sleep during the day—but it’s not natural or easy for most of us. It can take, well, time.
When it gets dark, our bodies produce melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. When it gets dark earlier, you may get sleepy earlier. In the early days of a time change, you might wake up earlier than you want to—and your kids or pets almost definitely will.
These sleep disruptions can affect mood, concentration, productivity, energy and the body’s ability to fight off illness. Fatigue and stress increase the risk of unhealthy eating habits, which can result in weight gain. Sleep disturbances tend to worsen anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Everyone is different when it comes to sleep, but everyone needs an adequate amount for them, Dr. Ruff says.
“There’s no magic number of hours you need to sleep,” she says. “Some people need six hours. Others need 10.”
How to Get Yourself and Your Family Through the Time Change
There are ways to ease the adjustment to a time change, Dr. Ruff says.
“One strategy with kids is to gradually adjust their bedtime, the same tactic a lot of parents use for getting on a schedule for back-to-school,” she says. “You get them to go to bed 10 minutes earlier each night until they are on track.”
If a child still wakes up earlier than everyone else, give them an activity to do until others are awake, she says. Choose something they can do quietly and safely, such as reading or coloring.
For older children and teens, consider removing the clocks from their rooms and letting their bodies wake up when they need to on Sunday morning—unless they have to be somewhere, of course.
No matter what tactic you try, keep expectations low.
“The truth is, nothing is going to work all that well,” Dr. Ruff says. “Your body is just going to wake up when you’re ready. Have grace with the family for the week or so after the time change.”
The Last Time We Change Our Clocks?
On March 15, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Sunshine Protection Act of 2021, making daylight saving time the new, permanent standard time, effective Nov. 5, 2023.
However, the U.S. House of Representatives has not approved the bill—it hasn’t even discussed it—so it’s unlikely that our clocks will stop “springing” and “falling” seasonally by November.
Many, including the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, advocate for halting time changes, but they want to keep our clocks on standard time rather than daylight, arguing that standard time more closely matches the body’s internal clock.
No matter what time the clock says it is, though, the important thing is to get enough good-quality sleep, Dr. Ruff says.
“Falling back can lead to a few tough days for people and families, but you’ll get through it,” she says. “What matters is that families prioritize sleep, for everyone’s good health.”
If you or your child are having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.