How to help kids cope with the time change

Plus three tips for ensuring children get a good night's sleep

As fall and winter days darken the horizon, it's more important than ever for kids to stick to good rise-and-shine habits as they adjust to less daylight, says a University of Alberta sleep expert.

"The fall time shift that happens Nov. 5 is a good reminder to parents that the days are shorter and so the issue of children getting enough daytime light is more of a problem," said Cary Brown, an occupational therapy professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Sunlight contains blue spectrum light, key to producing chemicals in the body like serotonin, which promote alertness. "As the days get shorter, it's harder for children to get exposure to natural blue spectrum light, since they tend to be inside," Brown said.

The issue is complicated by exposure to the light at the wrong time of the day, when children use electronic gadgets like video games and laptops in the evening. Their blue light mimics sunlight, stimulates alertness and interferes with sleep, Brown said.

"They get that blue light at night when their bodies instead need to be producing melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that is needed to get to sleep. Children need to be getting their light from sunshine during the day and not electronic devices at night," she said.

By the same token, a child who doesn't get enough light during the day can struggle with staying awake in class.

"They need eight to 10 hours of restorative sleep. If they wake up groggy and can't get going, that's a sign of sleep deficiency," she said.

Teenagers more vulnerable

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to poor sleep habits, Brown noted. "They are often at a stage in life where they have new demands of part-time jobs, socializing, schoolwork and sports, but at the same time they're going through hormonal changes."

At a time when many of them are also experimenting with alcohol and other substances, sleep plays a crucial role, she added. "Sleep deficiency impairs insight and problem-solving ability, so that adds to risk-taking behaviour."

Sleep issues can be part of a family's lifestyle; parents don't always realize they're sleep-deprived themselves, she added.

"As a society, we don't know much about sleep; adults need to educate themselves, too. Once you understand the physiology of sleep, you can often problem-solve for yourself." She recommends visiting the Canadian Sleep Society website to learn more.

The importance of sticking to a routine

To keep kids on an even keel, the best way is to stick to the same wake-up time every day, regardless of bedtime.

"If you let children sleep in, they aren't going to be tired to go to bed at night. That might sound fine for the weekend, but what happens Monday morning? The best thing parents can do is to have a set time to get up, seven days a week."

With any time change-including the spring adjustment-start a few weeks beforehand, Brown advised.

"In the fall that means adjusting bedtime. Let them stay up an extra 10, then 15, then 20 minutes and so on for the two weeks before the time change. That way they aren't as likely to wake up too early and should be able to adjust more easily to the shift in time."

A few weeks before the clock springs ahead on March 11, 2018, switch the routine: start getting the kids up a few minutes earlier in the morning so they are ready to lose that extra hour of snooze time.

Brown offers additional tips for giving children a good night's rest:

Power down nighttime screens. Turn off all blue screen devices 90 minutes before bedtime. That means no electronic bedtime stories, games or television. "Try to make bedtime special with printed books, puzzles and quiet time toys shared with a parent or sibling. Bedtime activities need to be treats that are reserved for going to bed."

People shouldn't feel badly about the dilemma posed by their family's attachment to e-gadgets, Brown added.

"It's important that parents not feel guilty about it; we are still learning about the importance of enough sleep and 10 years ago, people didn't have as much exposure to devices as we do now. Parents shouldn't feel they have failed in some way. We just didn't know any better."

Build a sleep-happy environment. A child's bedroom can be set up to promote good sleep, Brown said. "It makes sense to have a solid foundation of basic environmental features." Include kids in the process of assessing their bedrooms, and pay attention to four factors: light, temperature, sound and bedding. The rule of thumb is to try and keep light in the bedroom under 30 lux (a measurement of light), sound under 40 decibels and the temperature between 18 and 22 C. The Children's Best Bedroom Environment for Sleep (CBBES), developed by Brown and some of her students, explains the science of children's sleep and provides research-tested ways to tweak a child's bedroom for a good night's rest.

Use technology. There are a few ways technology can be used to minimize poor sleep risk. If a child has screen homework before bedtime, Brown suggests trying goggles that filter blue light. Some devices also have built-in light filters that either dim the screen or switch to different, less disruptive colours. Parents can buy light bulbs that minimize blue spectrum light, and there are apps available to test the amount of light exposure and sound in a child's bedroom. Check out the options listed on page 24 of the CBBES handbook.