Dave Gibson


Clocks change

Family sleep tips for the clocks change this March

I am often asked for recommendations about navigating the clock change, particularly during the spring-forward transition in March, when we lose an hour of sleep.

The challenge with abruptly altering our sleep pattern is that our body clock isn’t naturally attuned to a sudden one-hour shift in a single night. This abrupt change disrupts our circadian rhythm, the internal clock governing our sleep-wake cycle and coordinating various internal systems. This intricate process regulates our sleep-wake cycle and orchestrates the timing of hormone secretions, including those controlling the digestive system and enzymes. Consequently, forcing such a rapid adjustment throws these essential bodily functions out of sync. As a result, we often get symptoms similar to mild jet lag as we effectively ask our body to shift time zones. Research suggests that it can then take up to a week for our system to fully adjust afterwards. But with a little planning, it is possible to navigate the change without disrupting your sleep.

When do the clocks change?

The clocks in the UK spring forward on the last Sunday of the year. In 2024 this will be at 1 am on Sunday 31st March, changing our clocks from Greenwich Mean Time to British Summer Time. This year, we have a bonus in that the change falls on the Easter Weekend, so most won’t face getting up earlier for work on Easter Monday. Whilst this makes the whole process less stressful, the challenge of adjusting the body clock without losing sleep still remains.

Here are 5 tips to help you and your family smoothly adjust to the new ‘summertime’ zone with brighter mornings and evenings. If you have any of your own, I would love to hear them too at dave@thesleepsite.co.uk

1. Split the lost hour into smaller steps

Start by splitting the hour into small steps. This will make it easier for the body clock to adjust.

For babies and toddlers who aren’t at school, I recommend using 10-minute increments over 6 days, bringing the bedtimes, naptimes, and wake times forward by 10 minutes daily. The adjustment would start on the Monday before the change. This is Monday 25th March this year. This means by the time it gets to the clocks change your little ones will have adjusted to British Summer Time.

For the rest of the family, you could start the change on Wednesday night and bring the bed and wake times forward by 15-minute increments on Wednesday Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This would mean that by Easter Sunday morning you would be in sync with the new time zone. Equally, if you find it more convenient to make the steps over three days you could even make 20-minute adjustments to sleep times on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

All these changes are designed to allow the family to wake up on the ‘Clocks Change Sunday’ having had the full amount of sleep on Saturday night. As a rule, the shorter the steps, the easier the body clock will find adjusting, so try to make the change as gradual as possible.

2. Use light to move your body clock

Our body clock uses light as the main environmental cue to time our sleep pattern. Morning light and darker evenings make your body want to get up and go to bed earlier, whereas darker mornings and lighter evenings do the opposite. When the clocks change, we get less morning light. This makes it more difficult to sleep in the evenings. To combat this, start your morning by opening the curtains and blinds as soon as you wake. Sunlight first thing signals your body that it’s daytime and makes you more alert. Then, get outside as early as you can, getting as much morning light as possible. This simple hack will help move your circadian rhythm forward into British Summertime.

In the evening, dim the lights and draw the curtains an hour before bedtime, or, if you already follow this routine, consider doing it an hour earlier than usual. This signals to the body the transition from wakefulness to sleep, prompting the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. Also, incorporate nighttime filters on your devices to block blue light emissions. The blue light wavelength within the spectrum, released by tech screens, prevents melatonin release and delays the natural onset of sleepiness. In addition, to help you wind down and relax, stop using technology for at least an hour, preferably two hours before bedtime. The only exception should be when you use tech to relax or to watch a film or TV programme.

3. Adjust mealtimes and bedtime routines forward too

Whilst the master clock in the hypothalamus in the brain controls our overall circadian rhythm, it is also influenced by peripheral clocks in various organs and tissues throughout the body. Here, the timing of meals is one of the cues that synchronize the peripheral system in the body with the master clock. This means that when you move bedtimes forward, you can help the body clock adjust by moving all mealtimes earlier too.

You can also shift everyone’s nightly sleep routines forward too. It’s important to keep to the same routine so make sure you allow the full time. Engaging in the same activities before bedtime conditions the mind and body to recognize these cues as signals for sleep. This Pavlovian response helps initiate the sleep process more efficiently.

4. Exercise for tiredness and deeper sleep

Exercise is proven to help us get to and stay asleep. If you are trying to get yourself and your children more tired in the evening to get to sleep earlier than usual exercise is always a good plan. Getting outside in the morning to increase daylight would be ideal but any physical activity will help you adjust bedtimes earlier. With an increased need for sleep after exercising our bodies naturally tell us we need more sleep.

5. Explain what’s going on

For parents with children, especially young ones, the challenge of getting them to bed an hour earlier is difficult. The younger children are the more sensitive the body clock is to change so the clock change affects them more. Younger children often don’t fully understand the concept of time. This can then cause anxiety by all of this change which in turn makes it even harder for them to nod off.

If your child is old enough, fully explain what is happening and why you are staggering the changes. Tell them it will ensure that they will wake up refreshed for a fun-packed Easter Holiday. If your child is younger try clocks with a sun and a moon. Here your child is asked to stay in bed as long as the moon is out.

Remember, even if it all goes wrong your child will soon adjust to the new regime so there is no need to be overly concerned at any stage if things don’t fall into place straight away.