Ah fall, the time of year to rake leaves, pick apples, and see which sweaters still fit. Fall is also known as “the time we set our clocks back despite the fact that there is zero evidence it does anything positive for anybody.” This is commonly known as Daylight Savings Time or DST. In the fall, DST means setting your clock back 1-hour. Somewhat confusingly this results in keeping your child awake 1-hour longer than they’re used to at bedtime, then hoping that a combination of happy thoughts and pixie dust will result in them sleeping in an additional hour in the morning so that their night sleep lines up with the daylight savings time clock-time.
Unsurprisingly most babies don’t adapt to schedule changes easily thus most parents approach fall daylight savings time (DST) feeling a bit like this:
But fear not, new research on sleep is going to give you a powerful tool to overcome DST so you should be feeling more like this:
How Fall Daylight Savings Time Mucks Up Your Child’s Sleep
In some ways Fall Daylight Savings is “the good” one because it’s far easier to postpone bedtime 1-hour than it is to fall asleep 1-hour earlier than you’re used to. The kicker for Fall DST is that it almost always leads to earlier wake times because most kids will wake at their “normal” time, which, due to the clock change, is now even earlier than the oh-dark-my-butt hour woke up at previously.
Since you want to help your child adjust to the new clock time you might reasonably consider ignoring them until your target wake time (1-hour later). But ignoring them is unlikely to do anything beyond making you all feel sad and grumpy. Starting the day at an unreasonably early hour results in all naps shifting up 1-hour, leading to a being awake too long in the evening so you can make the new post-DST clock bedtime. So your child continues to be an overtired blob at bedtime, and the cycle continues.
While most kids will stretch their night sleep out eventually, it can take weeks leaving everybody feeling a bit crusty.
Why Kiddo Doesn’t Sleep In
Babies don’t wake up at uncivilized hours in the morning just to mess with you, they’re biologically wired to do so. We all have a sleep circadian rhythm that organizes our hormonal regulatory system so that we have our longest period of uninterrupted sleep at night and are awake primarily during the day. Newborns don’t have a well-developed circadian rhythm (which is why they’re often awake for long periods of time during the night) but it comes online somewhere between 1-3 months. Once this happens you train your body for sleep by going to bed at the same time every night (this is why I’m endlessly harping on about the importance of a consistent bedtime). This consistency is what leads to having predictable bedtime times, wake times, and (eventually) nap times.
DST forces you to forgo your consistent schedule and while you can push back bedtime, your child’s circadian rhythm is entrenched at their pre-DST wake time. It’s easy to stall out with early morning wakings which muck up your nap schedule, locking you into a prolonged cycle of sleeplessness.
Breaking out of this requires that you retrain your child’s circadian rhythm so that their wake time lines up with the new post-DST clock time.
Your Secret Weapon for Fall Daylight Savings
It’s…SHARKS WITH LASER-BEAMS ON THEIR HEADS!
Wait, no, that’s not it.
Yes, bright light exposure has a powerful and immediate effect on the circadian rhythm. Truthfully this is an emerging research area, as scientists are trying to figure out how to use light to help solve sleep issues related to:
- Jet lag
- Shift work
- Circadian rhythm sleep disorders
But we can apply this growing body of research to help our kids adjust their sleep schedule up/back in accordance with fall/spring daylight savings.
I’ve previously written about bedtime and nap strategies for daylight savings and those still apply. Additionally, for Fall DST you need to help your child sleep later in the morning by shifting their circadian rhythm. To do this, expose your child to bright light for ~1 hour in the evening. Ideally you play outside in the sun but for those of us in northern climates, this may not be an option. Luckily there is strong evidence that bright indoor light can work just as well.
Concurrently, in the morning, keep the lights dark, activity low, and hold off (try you’re best, I know it’s hard) feeding your child until after your target wake-time. So for example, if your child is waking at 5:00 AM and you are trying to shift their wake-time to 6:00 AM, avoid screens, bright lights, and don’t offer any food until after 6:00 AM.
Continue to incorporate evening bright light exposure (typically a few days) until your child is successfully sleeping till their previous wake time on the new post-DST schedule. At that point you would cease the bright light exposure because you don’t want to shift the circadian rhythm out too far, resulting in the inability to easily fall asleep at your new bedtime. Interestingly, this is why scientists are calling for adults to stop using screens after 9:00 PM in the evening because the same thing happens to us (we stay up later and are more tired in the morning because reading on the Kindle has shifted our circadian rhythm out).
Even if you do everything perfectly, it may take a few days before your kiddo is reliably waking at a reasonable hour. So no, there is no magic elixir to avoid all sleep disruption (note: the only known magic elixir is coffee and I’m assuming you’re already using that). But your secret sleep weapon will definitely help.
Good luck and leave a comment to let me know what you think!