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Daylight Savings Time Sleep Survival Strategies

For many parents, daylight savings time feels like the Kobayashi Maru* of sleep. Scientists have essentially ruled out the idea that daylight savings reduces energy use, and it may in fact lead to greater incidence of heart attacks and car accidents. The only undeniable outcome of daylight savings time is that it will muck up your child’s sleep and the fact that we still have it is unquestionable evidence that we’re all being punished for some transgression in a previous life.

(*Please forgive my uber-nerd reference there, my book editor has also reprimanded my use of nerdy references but I’m incorrigible.)

As we’re forced to slog through this bi-annual madness, I’ve put together some guidelines to help you navigate the daylight savings time (DST) gauntlet.

Spring Daylight Savings Time

Spring daylight savings means setting the clocks forward 1 hour, which effectively means you’re asking your child to go to sleep 1 hour earlier than they are used to.
spring daylight savings time

Falling asleep 1 hour earlier than the norm is an almost impossible task. Our bodies are physically wired for wakefulness during the time leading up to sleep (it’s sometimes referred to as the forbidden sleep zone). Asking your child to fall asleep during this time is like asking them to cut your hair: guaranteed to end badly.

Luckily you can take 2 easy steps to avoid problems:

  • Spread the time change across 4 days, shifting your child’s sleep earlier by 15 minutes a day. If your current schedule is sleeping 7:00 PM – 6:00 AM, start with 6:45 PM – 5:45 AM. This may mean waking your child up in the morning (I know, I KNOW!), as you need them waking up at the new target time, not their old normal time. Continue shifting sleep 15 minutes a day for 4 days, at which point your child’s post-DST sleep schedule should be the same as their pre-DST sleep schedule (ex. 7:00 PM – 6:00 AM clock time).
  • Keep the lights dim in the hour prior to bedtime. This means no outside playtime, exposure to bright screens (TV, iPad, etc.), or bright indoor light for the hour leading into bedtime. Dim lights prior to bedtime will help your child’s hormonal regulatory system adjust to a more sleepy state.

For 90% of kids, spreading the change out and keeping the lighting low will downgrade Spring daylight savings from “terrible” to “mildly annoying.”

For the remaining 10%, Spring DST can actually be pretty great.

Some babies wake up at an uncivilized hour, say 4:00/5:00 AM. Parents of these early-risers can use Spring daylight savings to shift their child’s sleep out to a slightly less horrible time of 5:00/6:00 AM. Essentially you 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 – 5:00 AM continues to sleep 10 hours a night, however those 10 hours are falling on the post-DST clock time of 8:00 PM – 6:00 AM.

Alternately some babies go to bed quite early (say 6:00 PM) which prevents working parents from spending time with them in the evening. So keeping baby on their current schedule while changing the clocks can carve out an additional hour of baby play time at night!

The key to this strategy is to ensure that your child’s sleep environment is dark (especially in the morning). Light is a very powerful “time to wake” cue and even small amounts of light can keep your child waking up unreasonably early (leading to a 8:00 PM – 5:00 AM night which is the opposite of what you’re going for). Blackout blinds are a worthy investment. If that’s infeasible or insufficient, use masking tape to put aluminum foil up over your child’s windows. Yes this looks trashy but it is guaranteed to keep your child’s bedroom bat-cave dark (woo – more nerdliness!) and prevent sliding back to the previous too-early wake time.

Fall Daylight Savings Time

Fall back is the “good” daylight savings time because everything shifts later, and it is far easier to fall asleep 1 hour after your normal bedtime, than 1 hour prior. So while your child might be slightly overtired or fussy heading into bedtime, they shouldn’t have any major difficulties falling asleep.

Thus some of you may not need to do anything special to adjust to the time change – change the clocks, adjust your child’s bedtime/nap schedule according to the new clock time, and go about your business.

fall daylight savings time

Most older babies (~8+ months) will do just fine adjusting to the new clock time without much hubub. Some kids might wake up early for a few days (essentially waking up at their “normal” morning time) leading to a 1 hour loss of sleep. So if your baby previously slept from 7:00 PM – 6:00 AM, they’re now going to bed at 7:00 PM (clock time, 8:00 PM body time) and sleeping till 5:00 AM (clock time, 6:00 AM body time) for a net loss of 1 hour. It can take a few days to adjust to this shift but most do fairly readily within a week.

If you’ve got a younger baby who can’t handle the extra hour of awake time prior to bedtime OR you’re concerned about the loss of 1 hour of sleep in the AM, you can make the time change more gradual (much as you do in the Spring, but in reverse). Move your child’s sleep schedule ahead 15 minutes a day across 4 days. So bedtime becomes 7:00, 7:15, 7:30, 8:00 PM, which by the post-DST clock is the “new” 7:00 PM. The same happens in the morning – 6:00, 6:15, 6:30, 7:00 AM (try to leave them in bed until your target wake-time if at all possible). In four days, your child has adjusted to the new daylight savings time.

Daylight Savings Time and Naps

Naps are generally more amenable to change so shuffling naps up/back is often less disruptive than the issues with falling asleep at bedtime. But here are some general guidelines that may help:

daylight savings time naps

Child is < 6 months or nap is unpredictable

If your child is still napping based on how long they’ve been awake, because naps are generally unpredictable, then you continue to nap as normal (based on time since last sleep). Your child’s wake time will move based on the time change, and naps will organically shift up/back as a result.

Child is > 6 months or napping predictably

If your child is napping at set times (aka “by the clock) and you’ve decided upon simply changing the clocks and shifting your child’s sleep accordingly at night, then you would do the same thing for naps. Alternatively if you’ve elected to go the “15-minute a day” route, you would apply the same 15-minute shift to your child’s nap schedule.

In either scenario, all sleep (day and night) needs to shift in unison in order to avoid too long/too short periods of wakefulness during the day or prior to bedtime. So whichever strategy you use at bedtime (shifting sleep by 15 minutes or 1 hour) needs to happen for naps also.

Let’s consider an example, suppose it’s Fall daylight savings time and you’ve changed the clocks back 1 hour. Your 10-month-old child used to sleep from 7:00 PM – 6:00 AM and then nap at 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM. You decide to just change the clocks 1 hour to avoid the 4 day/15-minute shenanigans. So you’re putting your child to bed at 7:00 PM clock time (8:00 PM body time), with the hope that she’ll sleep till 6:00 AM clock time (7:00 AM body time). However kids often struggle to shift out their morning wake time so instead she wakes up at 5:15 AM clock time (6:15 AM body time, which may not feel awesome but is a positive step in the right direction).

You might be tempted to put her down for a nap early (say 8:15 AM vs. the target 9:00 AM), as she’ll likely be giving sleepy signs then as it’s close to the time her body is used to sleeping. So let’s assume that you do put her down for a nap at 8:15 AM, this will generally lead to her needing an earlier PM nap as well so the 1:00 PM nap shifts back to 12:15 PM. But now you’re back to her being awake too long prior to bedtime (because naps happened early), which is likely to lead to another early morning (overtired babies sleep poorly), which will lead to another day of too-early-naps, and the cycle continues.

While her body is used to napping at these times (remember we’ve changed the clocks ahead 1 hour), your goal is to help her body adjust to the new time, which means pushing for naps on the post-DST schedule of 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM.

Got any thoughts or questions about daylight savings time? Does anybody know how to change the dashboard clock in my car? Feel free to chime in below!