* This blog includes a day by day, real-life example of one baby's schedule shift which you can model for your own family, as well as FAQs and lots of links to more helpful information. Please read every word!
It's that time again! Very soon, we will “fall back” and set our clocks back by one hour. This means 2:00 am will become 1:00 am by the clock, but perhaps more importantly, 6:00 am will become 5:00 am! For adults without children or for teenagers, this time change is pretty awesome (one hour of extra sleep!), but for parents of little ones, this time change may mean your child gets stuck in a pattern of early waking. Here's why:
On Sunday morning after DST, the sun will rise 1 hour earlier (by the clock) than it did the day before. There will be more light in the morning.
On Sunday evening after DST, the sun will set 1 hour earlier (by the clock) than it did the day before. There will be less light in the evening.
On Sunday morning after DST, if you have taken no steps to adjust for DST, your child who was waking at 6:00 am will now wake at 5:00 am by the clock. Your child’s body clock has stayed the same—he or she is not actually waking up any earlier than normal—but the clock time now says something different.
On Sunday evening after DST, if you have taken no steps to adjust for DST, your child who typically goes to bed at 7:00 pm will want to go to bed at 6:00 pm. Your child’s body clock is still driving for sleep at the usual time; it’s only the clocks—or social time—that has changed.
If you would like to keep your child on the same schedule (by the clock) after DST, you will need to shift your child’s circadian rhythm one hour LATER in the days leading up to or in the days following the time change.
The Science Behind the Effect of Time Changes on Babies
Adjusting your child to the time change means that you need to adjust your child's circadian rhythm (AKA your child's body clock; learn more about how the circadian rhythm regulates sleep). The circadian rhythm determines when your child's bed and wake time should be based on the timing of daily light exposure. This is because our sleep-wake cycle is tied to the light-dark cycle that occurs as the Earth rotates. If you've traveled across time zones, then you've experienced how the circadian rhythm adjusts to a new light-dark cycle.
The circadian rhythm is slow to shift to abrupt changes in sleep timing, which is why we experience jet lag; the "lag" in jet lag is the time that it takes for your circadian rhythm to adjust to a new time zone. Adjusting to the 'fall back' time change is like traveling one time zone westward. However, unlike with real jet lag, when you adjust to the time change, there is no change in the timing of light--it's just a change in the clock. In order to shift your child's sleep timing later, you will need to expose your child to bright light in the evening and darkness in the morning. Importantly, a later bedtime without bright light in the evening and darkness in the morning will not shift your child’s morning sleep any later. A later bedtime for only one day will not shift your child's morning sleep any later. You likely won't see a change in your little one’s morning wake time until at least three days after you start this shift (remember, the circadian rhythm is slow to shift, which is why jet lag happens).
How do you shift your child's sleep an hour later to adjust for the time change?
In the evening
Beginning about a week before the DST transition, keep the lights bright in the evening and put your child to bed 10–15 minutes later every 2-3 nights. This works best if naps have been adequate and are shifted a tad later in the day. If your baby is not a great napper, it may be helpful to offer a little extra soothing or nap support to increase afternoon sleep. This might mean doing something you would not normally do, like running an errand in the late afternoon so that your child falls asleep in the car seat or stroller. It is also helpful to stretch your child's awake windows between naps. For example, if your child normally has 2-2.5 h between naps, then stretch awake time to 2.5-2.75 h. Remember, the circadian rhythm will not shift without a bright light stimulus in the evening. Be sure to keep house lights on bright in the evening. This might mean keeping your lights on full brightness after dinner and even adding supplemental bright lighting (like an extra table lamp with a 'cool' light bulb). This is very important because it will now be dark outside quite early.
Note: Older preschoolers (ages 3–4) and school-aged children (> 4) will be able to handle larger shifts, up to 30 minutes at once.
In the morning
As you shift your child's bedtime later, begin to extend your child’s darkness exposure in the morning and delay morning feedings, if applicable. Your child is allowed/expected to get up at the usual time, but keep lights/screens off for an additional hour, or as much of an hour as you can. Start to delay morning feedings slowly (10 minutes a day is fine), and keep activity level low during the hour waiting period. This can be extremely challenging if you have a busy work schedule or multiple children, so if you cannot manage a full hour, do as much of an hour as you can.