Mass General's chief of Sleep Medicine offers expert advice about how to make a smooth transition to daylight saving time.

In honor of National Sleep Awareness Week (March 6-13, 2016), Matt Bianchi, MD, PhD, chief of Sleep Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital,  provides tips for maintaining good sleep and beating the clock just in time for daylight saving time, which begins March 13, 2016.

What is the most difficult part about daylight saving time?

Daylight saving time feels like sleep is being “stolen” from us. That puts the whole transition in an adversarial context.

Daylight saving time feels like sleep is being “stolen” from us. That puts the whole transition in an adversarial context. It may not be as simple as going to sleep an hour earlier the night before. We do know that some people find the shift in time difficult because they don’t, or can’t, manage to get to sleep any earlier, yet they have to wake up an hour earlier the next day because the clock moves forward. To add to that, for some people the anxiety or frustration about losing the hour of sleep might actually compound the hour shift and lead to an even tougher night of sleep.

What are some frequent complaints or issues people have pertaining to sleep after setting the clock forward?

People may feel more fatigue or sleepiness on the first day of forward clock shift, or might have trouble waking up at the earlier hour to begin with (i.e., sleeping through their alarm). This can lead to attention, concentration or mood problems during the day for some people. In the spring when we “spring forward,” we may lose access to morning light, which is a strong circadian signal that anchors the clock to the time zone as well as an “alerting” signal. People who are night-owl types, which is not uncommon among teens and young adults, may find this transition particularly difficult.

Matt Bianchi, MD, PhD
Matt Bianchi, MD, PhD

How long does it take to adjust and get back to normal sleep?

One way to answer this is to think about how someone may have responded to time zone travel in the past. Many people can tolerate one, two or even three time zone shifts easily, and seem to adjust without problem. Daylight saving time is like having a one-hour time zone shift. In general, for longer shifts, it is thought that the body can adjust one hour per day. But there is a wide range of individual differences in all aspects of sleep, and response to clock shifts is no different.

What tips can you offer to ease the transition and maintain normal sleeping habits?

If someone is sensitive to time changes, or concerned about waking up early after daylight saving time, one idea is to make the change more gradual in the days leading up to the time shift. For example, one could try going to bed 20 minutes earlier two days before the daylight saving shift, then 20 minutes earlier than that on the day before the shift, so that by the night of daylight saving time your final 20 minutes will place you a full hour earlier, and you will be aligned with the new clock schedule.

In other words, one should follow good sleep practices leading up to the time shift, to give the body the best chance of a smooth transition.

For some people who are highly sensitive to sleep shifts, an even more gradual shift might be best. Another important point is that one will want to minimize challenges to sleep around this time if possible. In other words, one should follow good sleep practices leading up to the time shift, to give the body the best chance of a smooth transition.

What should people not do during daylight saving time pertaining to sleep?

I simply say don’t take sleep for granted and don’t assume that you can just fight through it. The day or two after daylight saving time might take more of a toll than it feels like. Sometimes friends and family notice that one might seem more tired or less focused or more easily irritated, even if they don’t notice it themselves. In much of life, various experiences that disturb sleep may come unexpectedly and we can only react to them; daylight saving is an example where a person can take control and take steps to make the transition smooth with a little bit of planning.

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