We posted our blog on Daylight Savings Time and babies yesterday. Today we focus on toddlers! The spring DST shift can be a particular problem for toddlers who have increased stamina to RESIST sleep when they want to. Said another way, toddlers need to feel some amount of sleep pressure (tiredness) in order to fall asleep quickly and remain asleep throughout the night.
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.
So here’s what that means...
If you do nothing to facilitate the change and put your child to bed at the usual clock time on Sunday night, then you will be putting your toddler down an hour earlier than his body is ready to go to sleep, at a time when wakefulness is strongly being promoted. In a baby this is challenging. In a toddler, this is a recipe for disaster.
Toddlers have a very narrow window of time for bedtime—aim too early and you’ll probably end up with a lot of crying, getting out of bed, a million requests for things, often some subsequent anxiety about going to bed, night wakings, and if you are REALLY unlucky your child will undress him/herself and smear poop around the crib (it's happened to many-a-parent who thought they could power through DST with no prep......)
To complicate matters further, it usually only takes one or two off nights for a toddler to embrace “bad habits”. Here’s an example of the type of problem that can happen at daylight savings if you don't prepare in advance:
Imagine you have a toddler who goes to bed pretty easily at bedtime:
Night 1 (Sunday): At the ‘spring ahead’ DST transition, you put your toddler to bed at his/her usual time (which amounts to one hour early relative to when his body wants him to sleep).
Your child isn’t feeling sleepy at bedtime and starts asking for things; water, another hug, another story, etc. These are all innocent and very cute requests, so you oblige.
Night 2 (Monday): Your toddler still isn’t feeling sleepy at bedtime and since asking for things on night 1 led to an interesting outcome he decides to ask for some more stuff on night 2.
Night 3 (Tuesday) your toddler still isn’t adjusted and continues to make requests at bedtime (or get out of bed, or kick and scream, or take his/her diaper off, etc.).
This pattern continues for 4–5 days until your toddler HAS adjusted to the new time, but unfortunately the new behaviors have stuck—now that your toddler is capable of falling asleep at bedtime he doesn’t want to, because it’s more interesting to see how you react to a variety of requests or to him getting out of bed. This leads to bedtime battles and sleep loss, which increases daytime behavior problems—not fun!
There are ways to solve the new behavioral problems that arise, but they are generally unpleasant and/or very time consuming. It’s much better to avoid having the problem happen at all by proactively planning for the time change, so that your toddler doesn’t get into bedtime battle mode. It’s not really very fair to your child if you are asking him to sleep at a time he just isn’t ready for sleep.
The Sleep Plan
The steps above will work to help adjust sleep for toddlers who currently have a stable bedtime and wake time and who are generally getting enough sleep at night. As always, for personalized help, schedule a phone consult today!