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FAQ: The Time Change Conundrum

What do I do about the time change?

The easy answer to this is “nothing.”  Let your kids do what they are going to do.

But since you are probably looking for more than that, and you know I have more to say on the topic, I’ll elaborate.

First of all, when your kids are still in the infant year, in that crazy time when night sleep still looks depressingly like day sleep – short and infrequent – I really do mean it when I say let the kid do what they are going to do.  Expose your baby to as much daylight as possible when they are supposed to be awake – light is powerful.  Expect to be awake for the most part on your home schedule, especially for the first few days.  Be patient – with yourself, your baby, and your partner.  Cut yourself some slack.  Don’t schedule a whole bunch of activities at times when they expect to be sleeping.  They will probably slowly adjust over the course of 2 or 3 days.

So let’s talk about kids older than a year.  For the most part, night sleep has probably stabilized by this time (I know there are a few of you rolling your eyes at me right now), and you probably have some semblance of control.

For domestic trips, or trips with only a few hours of time change (i.e. perhaps to the southern hemisphere), consider not adjusting your kids.  If they normally go to bed at 8, and a two hour time change makes them go to bed at 10 and get up at 9, maybe just roll with that.  If they start to adjust on their own, due to factors like daylight, more power to them, and you can roll with that as well.

If the time difference is more than 2-3 hours, you’ll probably want the kids to adjust, either by a little or a lot.  My best tips for large time differences are these:

1) Wake them up early.

This is the easiest way to change the kids’ schedule.  You wake them up early and they should be in a fairly good mood because they’ve just slept, even if it’s not enough.  When they get tired, you can put them down, which should be earlier… and you are well on your way to sliding their schedule around.

2) Let them stay up late.

This is the second easiest way to change the kids’ schedule, only slightly less preferred because as they get more tired late in the evening (or what they feel is the evening), they could get cranky.

3) Avoid “putting to bed early” or “sleeping in.”

But if you find a way to force your kids to sleep when they aren’t tired, could you please put some of it in a bottle and send it to me?

4) Be prepared for a meltdown.

I don’t want to scare you here, and make it sound like a meltdown is inevitable.  But tired kids are cranky kids, and it could happen.  Remain calm, remind yourself that this too shall pass, and everything will be all right.  The positive side of the meltdown stage is that by that point their sleep schedule is probably so messed up that it’s really malleable, and they will probably easily adjust quite readily after it’s over.

5) Beware of electronics.

On various trips we have given TV or movies and thought, “Well, he’ll just fall asleep watching this.”  Yeah, no, that doesn’t happen.  The blue light from electronics sends all sorts of “it’s actually daytime” signals.  The action and story are stimulating.  I know it seems harder, but turn off the electronics when it’s time to get some sleep.

6) Consider not adjusting.

Even if the time difference is large.  One time in Bangkok we operated on a schedule of 1:30am to 2:00pm.  The fortunate thing is that in Bangkok, a schedule like that actually works to a certain extent.  It perhaps wasn’t the trip we had envisioned, but we still had fun.  And we appreciated the cooler temperatures that being active at night afforded.

In the interest of science (and hoping to save our sanity on an early redeye from Newark to Milan), we did a little time change experiment on our last big trip.  We successfully shifted the kids about 2 hours in the direction we were about to travel by putting them to bed a little early and waking them up a little early for several days before the trip.  The result?  It didn’t really seem to help.  Our 2.5 year old son didn’t sleep on the red-eye at all, watching too much TV, and our 1.5 year old  daughter fell asleep at about the “normal” unshifted time.  They ended up adjusting pretty well once we got there – my son because he got completely, meltdown-level messed up and needed a reset, and my daughter because we kept her exposed to daylight and woke her up “early.”  But I don’t think that the purposeful pre-shift had anything to do with their eventual adjustment.

Unfortunately, I know that “they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do” is a frustratingly vague answer.  But hopefully it helps you feel comfortable in the uncertainty and can help you go in to your trip with an air of confident flexibility and faith that everything will be all right, no matter when you end up sleeping.

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