Remember when you were younger....maybe high school or college? And you really disliked the "Spring Ahead" time change because it meant you had to wake up an hour earlier in order to get to work or class on time? You'll still feel the same as a parent, but ironically, it is this particular time change that can help resolve persistent early waking in your baby. It's also the time change that can lead to bedtime battles, split nights, and some pretty overtired babies in the evening, too, so be sure you read this post carefully. By following a few easy steps, you and your baby will make it through this just fine!
***This is the first in a series of blogs that will help you prep for daylight savings. This post focuses on how to help babies adjust. We have separate posts on how to help your toddler adjust and on how to use the daylight savings transition to maintain a later wake time.
The Science of the Problem
An hour shift seems so insignificant; how could it have the potential to cause so much trouble? The answer is that this transition involves the loss of an hour of sleep, but it also causes circadian rhythm disruption that can persist for several days after the clocks change. Without proper preparation, this can lead to adults feeling un-rested for a few days after the transition and it can lead to an unraveling of good habits in babies.
The problem boils down to this: The circadian rhythm strongly promotes wakefulness right before bed, promotes sleep at a regular time each evening, and promotes waking at a regular time each morning. We'll say that first part again: the strongest drive to be awake is at the end of the day right before your baby normally goes to bed.
Under normal circumstances this is a good thing—it allows for a regular bedtime even on days when napping is a little screwy. If humans didn’t have this promotion of sleep happening at night bookended by drives to be awake, then sleep would be fragmented instead of happening in a consolidated bout of overnight sleep.
Light exposure is what keeps the circadian rhythm locked into this routine and it’s only through altering light exposure that you can truly reset the circadian rhythm.
So, when daylight savings happens it is the same as what happens with jet-lag (the clocks change), but without the benefit of a change in lighting that would come with traveling across time zones.
The figure below illustrates the problem (the shaded gray bar represents sleep).
So here’s what that means...
If you do nothing to facilitate the change and you put your baby to bed at the usual time on the night after the clocks reset, then you will be putting your baby down an hour earlier than his body is ready to go to sleep, at a time when wakefulness is being strongly promoted.
The obvious problem here is that your baby will have a really difficult time falling asleep at that earlier time. He will probably try to sleep, because your routine is cuing him for sleep, but his body will be telling him to stay awake. As illustrated in the figure above, you may find that sleep “doesn’t stick,” with lots of pop-ups within the first hour after putting him down. Or, you may experience lots of crying, frustration, night wakings, and perhaps see some unwanted behaviors like climbing.
Fast forward to the morning and the circadian rhythm will continue to promote sleep until his former wake time (which will be an hour later by the clock), unless you wake him up. If you kept this routine up then eventually your baby would adjust, but it can be deceptively difficult to wing it.
Basically, you will be asking your baby to sleep at a time when his body is not ready for sleep. Often, this ‘forcing’ of sleep leads to crying, crib aversion, and subsequent night wakings, so it’s worth it to proactively adjust your baby, so that he doesn’t spend any time unnecessarily frustrated at bedtime.
*This time change can also lead to babies developing a “split night” due to having an extra hour in bed at night.
The Sleep Plan
The steps above will work to help adjust sleep for babies who currently have a stable bedtime and wake time and who are generally getting enough sleep at night. The above recommendations also assume that you want to keep your baby’s sleep pattern as it is now. We’ll post another blog to give you advice for the transition if your child’s pattern is not what you would like it to be or if your baby isn’t currently getting enough sleep at night.