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Don't miss our DST blog for babies, but here, we focus on toddlers! Although we ‘spring ahead,’ this transition is really like putting your toddler to bed an hour earlier because 7:00 pm becomes 8:00 pm after the time change. The spring DST shift can be a particular problem for toddlers who have increased stamina to resist sleep. Said another way, toddlers need to feel some amount of sleep pressure (sleepiness) 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 sluggish for a few days after the transition and it can lead to an unraveling of routines in babies and toddlers.
The problem boils down to this: The circadian rhythm controls the drive to be awake. It strongly promotes wakefulness right before one's habitual bedtime, allows sleep to happen at a regular time each evening, and promotes waking at one's habitual wake time. It's the circadian drive to be awake before bed that can be problematic for the transition to DST: 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 off. If humans didn’t have this drive to 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. When Daylight Saving Time transitions happen, it is the same type of circadian rhythm shift as happens with traveling one time zone eastward, but without the benefit of a change in lighting that would come with traveling across time zones.
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What if I do nothing to prepare my toddler for DST?
If your child is chronically sleep-deprived, if your child's circadian rhythm is already shifted early, or if you have a very compliant child who is happy to lie in bed awake for an hour, then you might not really feel the effects of DST. We would still recommend doing a small amount of preparation, even if you aren't very worried. For most families, if you do nothing and put your child to bed at the usual clock time on Sunday night after DST, then you will be putting your toddler down an hour earlier than his/her 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, and possibly even night wakings. To complicate matters further, it usually only takes one or two off nights for a toddler to embrace unhelpful 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). 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 s/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 gets out of bed, requests that you stay in the room, or takes 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 s/he fights sleep because it’s more interesting to see how you react to a variety of requests. 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.
How do you plan for the transition to Daylight Saving Time?
Step 1: Control your child’s exposure to light and darkness
Dim the lights an hour before bed
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 make it difficult for your toddler to go to sleep earlier. For example: if your toddler typically goes to bed at 8 pm, then several days before DST, close your curtains and turn off all of your bright lights at 7 pm. Use only dimmed lights, table lamps, or night lights during the hour before your child's typical bedtime. This is probably obvious, but please use common sense and don't use so little light that it is dangerous to move about your house. Keep the lights as low as you can and still be safe.
Engage in quiet play before bed
You're probably wondering what to do for an hour in dim light. You can roll around the floor and be silly, roll a ball back and forth, do some puzzles or color by nightlight, read books with a flashlight, find toys in the dark with a flashlight (e.g., "Now, where is your teddy bear? (search with the flashlight) There he is! Now, where is your duck?" etc.), and sing or dance. Avoid screens and toys with lights.
Bright lights in the morning
Light in the morning will tell your child's circadian rhythm to shift bedtime earlier. However, 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 or letting your child sleep unusually late, you should be able to follow your normal routine and allow your child to be exposed to bright light shortly after waking.
Step 2: Adjust bedtime and naps
Slowly shift bedtime earlier
Move bedtime earlier in 10-30 minute increments each night or every few nights leading up to the transition.
Shift naps earlier or wake your child from naps earlier
Either move nap time earlier at the same rate as bedtime (i.e., 10-30 minutes/day) or wake your child from his/her nap, so that there are at least five hours from the time s/he gets up from the nap and the new target bedtime (note that children over age 2.5 will often need six hours awake before bed). For example, if you are shifting bedtime from 8:00 pm to 7:40 pm, then make sure your toddler is up from his/her nap by 2:40 pm (more or less).
For children who can tolerate skipped 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, just keep your child active and don't offer the nap for a few days in a row. Please note that it will take more than two days for your toddler to truly shift his/her circadian rhythm, but strategic nap skipping can get him/her on track to start. When s/he does nap, make sure s/he has at least a five-hour period of wakefulness between waking from his/her nap and bedtime (note that children over age 2.5 will often need six hours awake before bed).
Step 3: Adjust wake time
Move wake time earlier
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/her extra morning light exposure, which will also help him/her shift faster at bedtime.
But wait! My child wakes up too early in the morning and I want to keep a later wake time after the time change.
We have a blog for that! If you want to use the time change to try to keep your child waking later in the morning, then check out this blog for step-by-step advice on how to make that happen.
Help! We are having sleep trouble and the time change is the least of our problems!
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.