Springing forward baby sleep

It’s that dreaded time of year – springing forward – when a shift of the hands on a clock means one less hour of sleep for all. Babies older than 16 weeks of age have experienced the permanent sleep milestone when their master clock comes into maturity – and with a mature biological clock, they will feel the impact of the time change, just as mum and dad will.

On Sunday, March 10th (2019) we will be springing forward our clocks, moving the small hand on the clock one hour ahead – and while this may positively correct early rising, there is the potential for that lost hour of sleep to lead to night wakings and/or an abundance of overtiredness at the end of the day for your baby or toddler.

Shifting the Clocks from a Sleep Science Perspective

Daylight Savings Time begins on Sunday, March 10th at 2:00 am, meaning we will move the clocks forward by one hour.  Which effectively means you will be asking your child to go to bed one hour earlier than what they are accustomed to.

In real life (following the time change) it means that on Sunday – 6:00 am is now 7:00 am and 6:00 pm is now 7:00 pm. 

To better understand what happens during a time change, we need to look at the circadian rhythm – often referred to as the “body clock” – which operates over a 24-hour cycle telling our bodies when to sleep, rise, and eat.

This internal clock is affected by environmental cues, like sunlight and temperature, and determines whether we feel alert and energized or tired and depleted at different times of the day. When circadian rhythms are disrupted, sleeping and eating patterns can unravel.

The circadian rhythm strongly promotes wakefulness; particularly in the hour leading up to bedtime and in the morning following your child’s natural wake time.

So when we shift the clocks “forward” and offer bedtime on the “new time” (remember what feels like 6 pm to your baby is now 7 pm) your child will be fighting wakefulness, as opposed to sleepiness. Yesterday a 7 pm bedtime would have felt just right, it would have complimented their body’s readiness for sleep. Today it is being offered at a time when their body is promoting wakefulness, resulting in a pull against their readiness for sleep.

Navigating the Clocks Springing Forward

Since your baby’s body is wired to be waking and readying for sleep at a time that differs from the new clock, there will be a period of adjustment as their master clock sets to the new time.

Some families feel the best strategy for their child would be to encourage the shift gradually, others are willing to just jump right onto the new clock and not look back, and some are hoping to reset their baby’s schedule entirely using the time change as a springboard. Each of the strategies are viable and depend more on how sensitive you feel your baby might be to the hour shift (younger babies tend to be more sensitive), how cumbersome taking a gradual approach might be, and whether you are motivated to stay on the old time or reset your child’s sleep onto a new schedule.

Gradual Approach – Start 4 days in advance of the time change:

Spread the time change across 4 days by shifting your child’s eat, sleep and wake schedule earlier by 15 minutes each day.

If your their current schedule is sleeping 7:00 pm to 6:00 am, start by shifting the schedule to 6:45 pm – 5:45 am. Continue shifting sleep and awake times 15 minutes earlier each day over the course of 4 days, so that on Sunday their “new” schedule reflects the “new” time on the “new” clock accurately. By doing this you would be back to a 7:00 pm – 6:00 am clock time schedule come Sunday.

Those of you who have read this carefully realize I am implying that you would be waking baby 15 minutes earlier each day as well 🙂  This is where I might suggest a bit of leeway – you might test the waters with a bit of a later wake time and see if you are able to keep the remainder of baby’s schedule where you want it to be and their night sleep intact.

All-In Approach – Convert to the “new” time on Sunday:

No advance preparation or shifting for this strategy, simply wake up on Sunday morning with the clocks in your house set to the new time, wake your baby when they typically would have woken prior to springing forward the clocks, and then allow their sleep, feeding and awake schedule to follow the new clock, using the same by-the-clock times that they are used to.

Change the Clocks, Keep Your Child’s Schedule Where it Was:

This strategy can be effective for babies who are currently waking on the very early side (4-5:00 am). So rather than adjust with the “new” time on the clock and attempt to sync their old schedule onto the new clock, in this case you would change the clocks forward but keep your child’s sleep schedule where it previously was.

So a baby who previously slept from 7:00 pm to 5:00 am continues to capture 10 hours of night sleep, however those 10 hours are falling on the post-DST clock time of 8:00 pm – 6:00 am.  So you would be putting baby to bed down on the “new” clock an hour later than what their previous schedule was.

Alternately, some babies currently have an earlier bedtime (6-6:30 pm) which means that working parents don’t have as much time to spend with their baby in the evening or a family may just wish to have a longer stretch at the end of the day with baby/toddler, especially once the days start getting longer. So keeping baby on their current time while changing the clocks can carve out an additional hour of togetherness at the end of the day.

Springing Forward Success

While the above strategies are aimed at “how” to make the shift with minimal impact on baby’s sleep, there are a couple of supporting pieces that are critical for ensuring they assimilate to the new clock time, whatever that might look like.

Exposure to Light & Darkness

  • In the 4 days leading up to the time change and certainly in the week following, darken your house in the hour leading up to bedtime. Depending on the timing, light can advance or delay circadian rhythm, and by sending the body clock a message that it’s approaching sleep time you can really help to tug your child’s readiness for sleep along to align with the new clock.
  • After breakfast, take baby outside to cue to their body clock that the day has begun.
  • Eliminate screen-time towards the end of the day. Blue light is disastrous to the processes that ready your child for sleep and will lead to a further delay in falling asleep and then sleeping solidly through the night.

Morning and Bedtime Routine

  • A well defined and recognizable bedtime routine allows your baby to understand what is coming next. Despite the fact that their body may not quite be ready for night sleep, your consistent offering of cues suggests otherwise.
  • Now is an ideal time to refine a pre-sleep routine that allows baby to independently settle down for sleep. As in falling asleep from a 100% awake state. If they are currently going into the crib already asleep, they are missing out on the opportunity to wind down and succumb to sleepiness – both scenarios which are so valuable for baby to experience.
  • Start your day off with a “good morning routine” – a dramatic wake up that looks completely different from any kind of response or assistance that you might have offered to baby over the course of the night or at bedtime. In this way, they will know that blinds opening and mum/dad singing “Good morning, my love!” looks very different than your boring and business-like response at night.

In Summary…

Regardless of the approach you decide to take, within a week, most babies and toddlers are settling in and feeling more like their well-rested selves once again. If your child currently has a predictable wake and bedtime, sleeps solidly though the night, and is capturing rest throughout the day that satisfies their sleep needs, they’ll be through the tangled mess of the time change in no time.

If your child’s sleep patterns are not as well established, the time change actually offers a fabulous opportunity to reset, rework your toolkit and start afresh. If you need any help making the leap, don’t hesitate to reach out.