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SPRING 2021: Daylight Saving Time Transition for Toddlers and Young Children

We posted our blog on Daylight Saving 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 child 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 (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 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 she 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 her to sleep at a time she just isn’t ready for sleep.

The DST Plan

Control your child’s exposure to light and darkness

  • If you want to keep your child’s bedtime ‘by the clock,’ then darken your house an hour before bedtime starting at least four days prior to the time change. Exposure to light before bed will prevent your toddler from being able to go to sleep earlier. For example: if your toddler typically goes to bed at 8 pm, then several days before DST, at 7pm turn off all of your bright lights, close your curtains, and use only a few night lights for safety to move around your house. You and your toddler can roll around the floor and be silly, roll a ball back and forth, do some puzzles or color by nightlight, drink milk, and sing or dance. Avoid screens and toys with lights. You will still get your toddler ready for bed at the usual time and tuck him/her in at the usual time. You will just be doing these typical steps in very low lighting - as low as you can and still be safe.

  • Although we ‘spring ahead,’ this transition is really like putting your toddler to bed an hour earlier, because 6:00 pm becomes 7:00 pm after the time change.

  • You don’t have to worry much about light exposure in the morning for this transition, because 5:00 AM will become 6:00 AM. As long as you are not flipping on the lights unusually early, everything should be fine in the morning —just keep it dark until your baby’s target wake time.

Adjust bedtime and manipulate naps

  • For toddlers under age 3 who regularly nap, move bedtime earlier in 20-30 minute increments each night leading up to the transition. Wake your child from his nap, so that there are at least five hours from the time he gets up from the nap and the new target bedtime. For example, if you are shifting bedtime from 8:00 PM to 7:40 PM, then make sure your toddler is up from his nap by 2:40 PM (more or less).

  • For toddlers over age 3 who sometimes skip naps, if your child doesn’t nap every day, then it is ok to strategically skip a few naps on the weekend of the DST transition in order to increase your child’s sleep pressure at bedtime. In this case, you can move bedtime earlier in 30-minute increments. Please note, that it will take more than two days for your toddler to truly shift his biological clock, but strategic nap skipping can get him on track to start. When he does nap, make sure he has at least a five-hour period of wakefulness between waking from his nap and bedtime (note that children over age 2.5 will often need six hours awake before bed).

Adjust wake time

  • I know, I know. Why would you want to wake your toddler in the morning? The great thing about this transition is that 5:00 AM becomes 6:00 AM and you don’t have to do a thing but change the clock to make that happen. Unfortunately, you really should wake your toddler in the morning in order to maintain an appropriate duration of sleep at night. For example, if your toddler normally sleeps from 8:30 PM to 6:30 AM and only needs 10 hours of sleep at night (which is a perfectly normal duration if your toddler is napping well) and you want to keep bedtime at 8:30 PM, then you’ll need to wake your toddler up 15 minutes earlier each morning when you are shifting bedtime in order to avoid having your toddler spend a stretch of time awake in the middle of the night from spending too long in bed. By waking your toddler a little earlier each morning, you’ll also be giving him extra morning light exposure, which will also help him shift faster at bedtime.

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. If you aren't sure whether or not your child is getting enough sleep, then check out our age-by-stage blog. If you want to use the time change to maintain a later morning wake time, then check out this blog. As always, for personalized help, schedule a phone consult with us. If your child is between 6-15 months old and has deeper sleep issues, then check out our self-paced class here.


LeBourgeois, M.K., Carskadon, M.A., Akacem, L.D., Simpkin, C.T., Wright Jr, K.P., Achermann, P. and Jenni, O.G., 2013. Circadian phase and its relationship to nighttime sleep in toddlers. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 28(5), pp.322-331.

"Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children." Sleep 29, no. 10 (2006): 1263-1276.