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 circadian rhythm 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?
Ideally, begin 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. See hour blog on shifting older children here.
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 close to 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 as you can.
Need More Help?
We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:
SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)
PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)
THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)
On the Sunday before the time change (one week early), Olivia (age 8 months) woke just 45 minutes into her afternoon nap (which started at 1:45) but her mama (nanny, caregiver, grandparent, etc) was able to respond right away and rock/feed/soothe her back into another sleep cycle, and the nap ended up lasting 90 minutes with this assistance. Bedtime is usually around 7:00 pm for Olivia, but that evening her parents kept the house lights on nice and bright and started their bedtime routine about 15 minutes later than usual, putting Olivia down closer to 7:15 pm. (Dim the lights for only the last 15–20 minutes or so before your child’s bedtime).
The next morning, baby Olivia wakes as usual at 6:00 am, hungry and ready to be fed. Her dad responds to her, but keeps the lights off and sits next to the crib to pat/shhhh her. After a few minutes, Olivia cries, so her dad picks her up and rocks her, sitting in the chair in the room or pacing/bouncing. After 10 minutes, her dad feeds her at 6:10 am (or perhaps mom comes in to nurse), but they continue to keep the lights off. Dad changes Olivia's diaper and gets her dressed (in the dark or by very dim nightlight) and lets her roll on the floor while supervised. At 6:40 dad has to get ready for work, so he turns on the lights, takes Olivia out of the room, and starts the day.
On Monday, Olivia has two short naps at daycare, but mommy lets her fall asleep in the car on the way home at 4:30 pm. After dinner, Olivia's parents take her into the living room where they have the overhead lights on and they have also turned on two extra lamps. They take Olivia into her room to get ready for bed at 6:50 and they dim the lights at 7:00 pm, putting her in bed at 7:15 pm again.
On Tuesday, Olivia wakes at 5:50 am which is within the normal range of her typical 6:00 am wake time, hungry and fussing a little. Once again, her dad responds, keeping the lights off. This time dad tries to delay the morning feeding until 6:20 am, soothing and rocking Olivia, who is a little more fussy today, in the dark to help pass this time. At 6:20 pm, dad feeds Olivia and continues to keep the lights off until 6:40 am, when he has to get ready for work. At this point, mommy comes in to sit with Olivia in the dark for an additional 10 minutes until she, too, has to get ready for the day.
During the day, Olivia has two short naps and dad lets her fall asleep in the car seat on the way home again. Mom and dad keep Olivia in a bright room until her bedtime routine, which they start at 7:05. Tonight they put her down at 7:30 pm.
On Wednesday, morning Olivia slept until 6:20 am. Mom responds to her, rocking and soothing her in the dark. Mom offers a feeding at 6:30 am and then gets her ready to start the day, keeping it dark until 6:50 am when she hands Olivia off to dad.
Olivia is home with dad on Wednesday. She normally takes a nap after being awake for two hours, but dad stretches her to go down for her nap at 9:00 am. She takes a 90-minute nap. She normally takes her second nap three hours after waking from her first, but today dad keeps her up for three hours and 15 minutes, putting her down at 1:45 pm. She only sleeps for 45 minutes, so dad takes her out of the crib and rocks/bounces until she falls back to sleep in his arms. She then sleeps another 45 minutes from 2:45 pm until 3:30 pm. Her parents keep her in bright light and put her down at 7:30 pm again. It takes a lot more effort to keep her distracted and awake in the evening than it did on prior nights.
On Thursday, Olivia slept until 6:15 am. Her dad responds to her and rocks/soothes her in the dark until 6:40 am. Mom comes in and feeds her and then gets her dressed to start the day. They stay playing in her dark room, playing on a mat by the light of the nightlight until 7:00 am.
Olivia is back at daycare again. She takes one 45-minute nap and one 90-minute nap. Her mom lets her fall asleep in the car again at 4:30 pm.
That night, her parents keep her in bright light until 7:15. They start her routine in her room and put her down at 7:45 pm.
On Friday morning, Olivia actually slept in until 6:30 am. The shift is happening! This allowed her naps to shift even later, so Oliva's parents had no problem keeping her up until 7:45 pm. As on the earlier nights, they kept her in bright light until about 7:20 pm.
On Saturday morning Olivia sleeps in until 6:40 am. Her parents are both home with her on Saturday. She takes a 90-minute nap on her own in the morning at 9:20 and her parents take her for a nice long walk in the stroller at 2:00 pm and she sleeps until 4:00 pm. This allows them to keep her in bright until 7:30 pm and then they put her in bed at 8:00 pm.
On Sunday morning, the clocks have changed. Oliva wakes at 5:45 am new time (6:45 am old time). Her parents put her down for her morning nap at 8:30 am and she wakes at 10:00 am. They put her down for her afternoon nap at 1:15 pm and she sleeps until 2:30 pm. Her parents take her for a quick walk in the stroller at 4:30 pm. She wakes at 4:50 pm. They keep her in bright light until 6:40 pm and put her in bed at 7:00 pm (new time).
On Monday morning, Oliva wakes at 6:00 am. She is back to her normal wake time. Her parents continue to help her get enough nap sleep to go to bed at 7:00 pm for the next few nights. They continue to keep the lights bright in the evening for the next week until her schedule is locked into the new time.
Important Notes Regarding Time Shifts
If your sleep shift went as planned, your baby will actually be going to bed 45–60 minutes later than usual on the night before the time change, but on Sunday after the time change, your child will be back to his/her usual sleep by the clock.
As bedtime shifts later slowly each night, remember that your child's morning wake time will lag behind. Allow for several days for your child's morning wake time to shift later. If morning wake time has not improved by the Sunday of the time change (and feeding and light cues have been delayed), some sleep training may be required. Our sleep class is a great resource for helping you pick a strategy to sleep train your baby (there's more than one way and we offer several options in the class).
If your child goes to sleep too late (e.g., a toddler who pops out of bed 10 times in an hour), then you don't need to adjust your child's schedule. If you do nothing the clock change will shift your child's schedule one hour earlier. For example, a preschooler who no longer naps but also doesn’t fall asleep until 8 pm and has to be awakened (with protest) for school at 6:30 am is chronically a tad sleep deprived. His natural morning wake time on the weekends appears to be more like 7:15 am. On Saturday this child will go to bed as usual at 8:00 pm, and his parents should allow him to wake at his natural wake time on Sunday morning (new 6:15 am, old 7:15 am). He did not lose an hour of sleep; the clocks simply changed. On Sunday evening, his parents should put him to bed at the new 7:00 pm (8:00 pm old time) and he will wake on Monday morning for school at 6:15 am, well rested with 11+ hours of sleep.
Older children can handle a bigger shift in bedtime, so you can make the adjustments for the time change in fewer days. In addition, a toddler or older child who has an extra-long nap in the late afternoon may be able to go to bed as much as an hour later than usual all at once. If you think your child can handle a big jump, then go ahead and do it. Just remember that it is unlikely your child will sleep in the next morning. It will still take about three days for your child’s body to start to signal sleep later in the morning. When considering making a big jump, it’s important to weigh the impact of whether your child will be able to handle the temporary sleep loss that will come with it for a few days.
The example we provided showed how to shift your child's sleep before the time change. You can use the same approach after the time change if you are ok with a slightly early wake time for a few mornings. You can also do part of the shift before and part of the shift after the time change. Just adjust the example times to account for the time change.
Finally, please don’t overthink this! We like to give real-life examples and lots of details for some reference, but it doesn’t have to be super complicated or meticulously regimented. Sometimes things just aren't as easy as you would like. If your child is already waking early, waking during the night, in the midst of a sleep regression, unable to nap well, or if your child is sick, then you may not be able to follow the example perfectly. Just do your best and check out our other blogs to help you navigate the other issues. If you can do nothing else, just remember this: Darkness in the morning will help allow your baby to sleep in later, but equally important is extra LIGHT in the evening! If you need more help, feel free to schedule a sleep consult for more personalized information. We are happy to help!