With spring comes warmer temperatures, more hours of daylight, and the switch to daylight savings time. Every second Sunday in March, the clocks “spring” forward 1 hour, giving us lighter evenings for the summer months until the clocks “fall” back the first Sunday of November. Those lighter evenings come at a cost, however. We all lose an extra hour of sleep, which is why the spring time change is harder to adjust to than the fall time change.
For teenagers with packed schedules and an early school start time, the transition can be especially hard. In some cases, it can cause sleep disorders. Mirena Pavlova, MD, Mass General Brigham neurologist and medical director of the Clinical Sleep Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, advises parents on how they can best support teens adjusting to the time change. Learn how to prevent or manage sleep disorders in teens.
The circadian rhythm is your internal body clock. It controls the cycles for different physical, mental, and behavioral functions in your body, including when you sleep. A person’s internal clock is a period about 24 hours long, matching the number of hours in the day.
Your circadian rhythm affects whether you identify as either a “night owl” or an “early bird.” If you tend to wake up early and feel energized and productive in the morning, you might be an early bird. If you prefer to sleep in, and have more energy later in the evening, you might be a night owl. Doctors still have a lot to learn about sleep, but your sleep “chronotype” may be genetic or related to age and environmental factors (things like your job and where you live).
“More than half of teenagers tend to be night owls,” Dr. Pavlova says. “Studies have shown that as children mature sexually, their natural circadian rhythms tend to shift and the sleep phase occurs later than in younger years, hence they could feel more productive in the later hours.”
A circadian rhythm disorder happens when your body’s internal clock doesn’t align with a normal schedule. A person with this disorder doesn’t get enough sleep or they have poor sleep quality. One way to think of circadian rhythm disorders is that people become “extreme early birds” or “extreme night owls,” Dr. Pavlova explains, and teens are more likely to develop the latter due to their natural tendency to be night owls. Also known as delayed sleep-wake disorder, teens who have this condition fall asleep too late in the evening and find it very difficult to wake up in the morning.
Teens are more affected by the switch to daylight savings time than others, and they’re more vulnerable to circadian rhythm disorders. This can cause issues because, as Dr. Pavlova notes, “Teens have packed schedules, athletic activities, competition to get into college. In most places, school start times are way earlier than children normally sleep at that age. Moving their schedules forward by an hour means they miss out on really valuable sleep. That’s why children and especially teenagers are at a disadvantage.”
Sleep deprivation can contribute to other health issues, including stress, mental health problems, obesity, and heart health. “For children and teens it’s especially concerning because their brains are still developing,” says Dr. Pavlova.
Parents of affected teens might notice the following symptoms in their kids:
Difficulty waking up for school in the morning
Sleepiness during the day
Struggling to keep up in school or participate in activities due to fatigue
Trouble with memory
Finding it hard to fall asleep until the early hours of the morning
Sleeping very late on the weekends
When should parents be concerned? “What makes it a disorder is that the person is suffering,” explains Dr. Pavlova. “They can’t function at work or in social activities, and they can’t live a regular life.” If your teen’s school performance, relationships, or mood is impacted, you should contact their primary care provider (PCP).
The time changes in the spring and fall can trigger circadian rhythm disorders. For that reason, there have been recent discussions about changing the system. The U.S. Senate even passed a law last year called the Sunshine Protection Act, which would make daylight savings time permanent, but it hasn’t been signed into law yet.
According to Dr. Pavlova, “this is moving in the wrong direction.” Permanent daylight savings time would mean less daylight for winter mornings, which would further affect circadian rhythms—and make it even harder for teens to wake up and go to school. It could also exacerbate seasonal depression. Other sleep experts, including the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms, agree and advocate for a permanent standard time instead.
Circadian rhythm disorders also can be caused by sleep habits and lifestyle factors, work, or travel that results in severe jetlag. Other things like aging, genes, or certain medical conditions also can be a factor.
Circadian rhythm disorders can be difficult to resolve. These tips may help your teen prevent or manage a sleep disorder:
Melatonin supplements: Melatonin is a hormone your body produces to control circadian rhythms. A doctor can determine the right schedule and dosage to adjust the alignment of your sleep cycle.
Light therapy: Light exposure can help re-set your circadian rhythm. If you’re not able to get exposure to bright daylight, then using a light box in the morning can help.
Good sleep hygiene: Limiting caffeine and alcohol, getting regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet can help improve sleep.
Dark mode for electronic devices: For teens who use computers or devices for school work and social media, consider adjusting their settings. Electronic devices emit light on the blue spectrum, which has been shown to affect sleep phases the most. “A lot of technology companies are recognizing the importance of controlling the spectrum of light. Many of these devices now have dark modes, which decreases the amount of blue light emitted. It doesn’t eliminate it completely, but it can help,” says Dr. Pavlova.
Consistent sleep schedule: Having a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, without much variation between weekdays and weekends, can help maintain a good circadian rhythm.
The above techniques can also help with the change to daylight savings time. The week before the clocks go forward, you can also try shifting your sleep and wake schedule by 15-20 minutes each day.