Daylight Savings Time Transition for Toddlers

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At Baby Sleep Science, we firmly believe that the only reason the daylight savings time transition still exists is to torment parents of young children. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard from parents who finally got their children into a good routine only to have daylight savings come and mess it all up. This is particularly a problem for toddlers who need to feel some amount of sleep pressure in order to fall asleep.

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 not only does this ridiculous transition involve the loss of an hour of sleep; it also causes circadian rhythm disruption that can persist for several days after the clocks change. This can lead to adults feeling unrested for a few days after the transition and it can lead to an unraveling of good habits in toddlers. 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. The strongest drive to be awake is at the end of the day right before your toddler 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. 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 savings happens it is the same as what happens with jet-lag, but without the benefit of a change in lighting that would come with traveling across time zones.

If you do nothing to facilitate the change, 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. This is a recipe for disaster. Toddlers have a very narrow window of time for bedtime – aim too early you’ll probably end up with a lot of crying, getting out of bed, or a million requests for things to drag out the bedtime. To complicate matters further, it usually only takes one off night for a toddler to embrace bad habits. Here’s an example of the type of problem that can happen at daylight savings:

  • 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 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).
  • This pattern continues until your toddler is adjusted, 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. 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 Plan:

  • Control your toddler’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. 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 toddler’s target wake time.
  • Adjust bedtime and manipulate naps.
    • For toddlers under age 2.5 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 is 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.
    • For toddlers over age 2.5 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 a five hour period of wakefulness between waking from his nap and bedtime.
  • 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 7:00 PM to 6:00 AM and only needs 11 hours of sleep at night (which is a perfectly normal duration) and you want to keep bedtime at 7:00 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. The above recommendations also assume that you want to keep your toddler’s sleep pattern as it is now. We’ll post another blog to give you advice for the transition if your child’s pattern is not what you would like it to be or if your toddler isn’t currently getting enough sleep at night.

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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center

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3 responses to Daylight Savings Time Transition for Toddlers

  1. Dina

    I have a question regarding this part of the article “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.”
    Our toddler already wakes up when it is dark (between 5am-6am) so he will not gain any extra morning light exposure if we wake him up early. So should we still wake him up early each night we put him to bed early?

    • sleepdoctorevans Post Author

      Hi Dina,

      Even room lights have the capacity to shift the circadian rhythm, so even though it isn’t light outside, if you are turning on lights when he wakes up, then he’ll shift faster. That said, if you would prefer that he sleep later check out our blog post today about using this transition to fix an early wake time. In this case you wouldn’t want to wake him early. I hope that helps!

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