Most people understand that jet lag happens when you travel across time zones. We've worked with many parents who avoid travel in the first few years of their child's life just so they don't have to deal with jet lag. However, exciting weekend trips and late nights in the backyard can lead to a phenomenon called Social Jet Lag, which can make keeping sleep on track difficult and unpredictable.
What is Social Jet Lag?
Social Jet Lag is a shift in the circadian rhythm (the body's internal clock) that happens after a few nights of later bedtimes or wake times and weekend changes in light exposure patterns. This can lead to difficulty going back to normal bed/wake times during the week.
We each have an internal clock that's a little longer or a little shorter than 24 hours. In order to stay aligned with the day-night cycle, the circadian rhythm must be adjusted. The way that the circadian rhythm is reset is through our exposure to light each day. Exposure to light at different times of day does different things; light in the evening shifts the drive to sleep and wake later, while light in the morning shifts the drive to sleep and wake earlier. The influence of light is strongest during normal sleep times, when the body would otherwise be exposed to darkness. This varying response to light exposure allows our bodies flexibility and allows us to respond to variations in seasons and travel across time zones.
The circadian rhythm is one of two sleep drives (here's more info on sleep basics), but it also controls the drive to be awake and many other aspects of biological function. The strongest drive to be awake happens right before your child's normal bedtime (a time called the wake maintenance zone). This is why some children seem wide awake or even a little bit hyper right before bed.
These features of the circadian rhythm mean that staying up late for a few days in a row will be interpreted by the body as a change that requires a sleep shift. Practically speaking, this means that if you stay out late at a barbecue or street festival on Saturday and Sunday, then when Monday rolls around, your child won't be ready for sleep at her normal bedtime. In fact, she might be wide awake and hyper at that time, because her circadian rhythm has shifted her strongest drive to be awake to be aligned with her week day bedtime.
What can be done to prevent Social Jet Lag?
First, it's best to keep a stable schedule as much as possible. You don't have to be rigid, but keeping bedtime and wake time within about 30 minutes every day of the week should prevent Social Jet Lag from happening.
All that said, we totally understand that keeping a perfect bedtime routine every night isn't always practical. The value that your child gets out of a late bedtime in exchange for extra time with cousins or new experiences is important. With planning you can minimize the likelihood of one late night causing your child's sleep to unravel. Here are some best practices for minimizing the impact of Social Jet Lag:
Limit the number of days with late bed or wake times. The circadian rhythm shifts slowly, so one late bedtime or late wake time shouldn't have a major influence on the next night's sleep.
Wake your child within 30 minutes of his/her normal wake time. We know, this feels wrong if your child stayed up late, but our circadian rhythm is always looking for the dawn signal and if you let your child sleep late in the morning, even after a late night, then that will make the circadian rhythm shift even more.
Put your child down a little later on the first day or two after a series of late bedtimes. If you stayed out late every night over a holiday weekend, then your child's circadian rhythm may have shifted to a later bedtime. This means that trying to put him/her down at his/her normal bedtime may lead to bedtime battles (especially for toddlers). If you didn't get your child down until 8:30 PM for three days, but bedtime is normally 7:30 PM, then you should aim for an 8:00 PM bedtime for a night, then shift back to 7:45 PM, then 7:30 PM. This advice assumes that your child was napping well and going to bed without struggle before the series of late nights.
If your child has other sleep issues, like frequent night waking or nap trouble, then you may need to address those issues before you can determine the impact of Social Jet Lag. Check out our Resource Blog and webinar series for more help or book a consultation with us for personalized support.