Daylight Savings Time Transition for Babies


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 the first in a series of blogs that will help you prep for daylight savings. This post focuses on how to help babies adjust. Wehave separate posts on how to help your toddler adjust and on how to use the daylight savings transition to maintain a later wake time.

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 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. The strongest drive to be awake is at the end of the day right before your baby 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. The figure below illustrates the problem (the shaded gray bar represents sleep).

dst figure

If you do nothing to facilitate the change, then you will be putting your baby down an hour earlier than his body is ready to go to sleep, at a time when wakefulness is strongly being promoted. The obvious problem here is that your baby will have a really difficult time falling asleep at that earlier time. He will probably try to sleep, because your routine is cuing him for sleep, but his body will be telling him to stay awake. As illustrated in the figure, you may find that sleep “doesn’t stick,” with lots of pop ups within the first hour after putting him down.

In the morning the circadian rhythm will continue to promote sleep until his former wake time (which will be an hour later by the clock), unless you wake him up. If you kept this routine up then eventually your baby would adjust, but it can be deceptively difficult to wing it. Basically, you will be asking your baby to sleep at a time when his body is not ready for sleep. Sometimes this ‘forcing’ of sleep leads to crying and crib aversion, so it’s worth it to proactively adjust your baby, so that he doesn’t spend any time unnecessarily frustrated at bedtime. This time change can also lead to babies developing a “split night” due to having an extra hour in bed at night.

The Plan:

  • Control your baby’s exposure to light and darkness. If you want to keep your baby’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 baby from being able to go to sleep earlier. Although we ‘spring ahead,’ this transition is really like putting your baby 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.
  • Gradually adjust bedtime.
    • If your baby is over 6 months old, then move bedtime earlier in 10-15 minute increments each night leading up to the transition.
    • If your baby is under 6 months old, then it’s better to take two days for each 15 minute shift. For example, if you are moving bedtime from 8:00 PM to 7:00 PM, then day 1 move bedtime to 7:45, day 2 keep bedtime 7:45, day 3 move bedtime to 7:30, day 4 keep bedtime at 7:30, day 5 move bedtime to 7:15, day 6 keep bedtime at 7:15, day 7 move bedtime to 7:00  and keep it there and 7:00 will become 8:00 again after the time change.
    • If needed, adjust wake time. I know, I know. Why would you want to wake your baby 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 may need to wake your baby in the morning in order to maintain an appropriate duration of sleep at night. For example, if your baby 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 baby up 15 minutes earlier each morning when you are shifting bedtime in order to avoid having your baby spend a stretch of time awake in the middle of the night from spending too long in bed. By waking your baby a little earlier each morning, you’ll also be giving him extra morning light exposure, which will also help him shift faster at bedtime.
    • Gradually adjust naps. Naps are driven by sleep pressure, not by the circadian rhythm, so you have much more flexibility when it comes to when your baby naps during the daylight savings time transition.
      • If your baby is over 6 months old or if your baby has a predictable nap pattern, then the easiest way to make the shift happen is to move naps incrementally earlier at the same pace that you move bedtime earlier.
      • If your baby is younger than 6 months old and doesn’t yet have a predictable nap pattern, then the only time to consider a nap change is for the last nap of the day. If you are putting your baby to bed incrementally earlier each night you don’t want a late nap interfering with your baby’s ability to fall asleep at the earlier bedtime. In this case consider waking your baby up from the last nap of the day in order to ensure that there is at least two hours of awake time between the end of the nap and your baby’s target bedtime for that night.

The steps above will work to help adjust sleep for babies 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 baby’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 baby isn’t currently getting enough sleep at night.

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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center

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5 Comments

  1. Rreed says:

    This post was a lifesaver. I wouldn’t have even thought about daylight saving impacting our 6.5 month old. We followed all of the steps and her transition was seamless. Thank you, thank you!

  2. sleepdoctorevans says:

    Reblogged this on Baby Sleep Science and commented:

    It’s that time of year again! Get ready for “spring ahead!”

  1. […] you want to keep it through the DST switch, then see our guides on how to manage the transition for babies and toddlers. If your child has other sleep problems, then check out our sleep basics and nap blogs […]

  2. […] use ‘spring ahead’ to fix an early wake-up routine for babies and toddlers (via Baby Sleep […]

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