The Time Change: Tips For Adjusting Your Kid’s Sleep Schedule

Standard time is upon us again! In most of the United States, we’ll be setting our clocks back one hour at 2 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 6.

Pre-kids, standard time might have sprung up every year without warning, resulting in a welcome extra hour of sleep in the fall and an extra groggy morning or two when daylight saving time returned in the spring.

Babies and toddlers, as you may have noticed, don’t think about time the way we do. If it feels like time to get up, they’ll be ready to play bright and early — without regard to where the clock’s hands are pointing or your desire to catch those extra z’s.

We spoke to several child sleep experts about ways to handle this transition that can make it a little easier for the whole family.

Plan ahead by adjusting their schedule in small increments.

“If parents are willing and able to do the work, ideally they would start working on shifting the children’s schedule . . . around one week before the time changes,” Lola Sanchez Liste of Rockin’ Blinks told HuffPost.

Try shifting your child’s entire routine by 15 minutes every day or two in the days leading up to the time change. So, for the fall, if they usually nap at noon and go to bed at 7, put them down at 11:45 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. for a day or two, then 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and so on, until you’ve adjusted the full hour. If you prefer, you could complete the same process in 10-minute increments over six days. Either way, the process won’t take longer than a week.

The prospect of the time change can be intimidating for parents, Cara Dumaplin, of the sleep consulting business Taking Cara Babies, told HuffPost. But, she added, “there’s no need to make any changes until the week prior to the time change and, in some cases, even just a few days prior is plenty.”

Shifting wake-up times is another matter. If your baby wakes up earlier than the desired time, Dumaplin suggested “simply holding your baby in the dark nursery for that additional 10 minutes.” They won’t necessarily go back to sleep, but staying in the nursery with the lights off sends them the message that it’s still sleeping time.

Don’t forget to also shift mealtimes, bath time and any other components of your child’s routine that fall under your control.

If your schedule won’t allow you to follow an incremental transition plan — perhaps you have to wake your child at a certain time in order to get to work —it’s also possible to work on the shift over the weekend of the time change.

On Saturday, add an extra five to 15 minutes of awake time before each nap and before bedtime. The goal is to get in an extra 30 minutes of awake time over the course of the day. This will naturally push bedtime 30 minutes later,” Dumaplin explained. The Sunday after the clocks change, squeeze another 30 minutes of awake time into the schedule to reach your baby’s “normal” bedtime on Sunday evening.

And if by the time you’re reading this, standard time is fast approaching and you haven’t done any incremental adjusting, don’t panic. Some kids will do just fine if you simply put them down at their “new” bedtime, and if they do struggle to adjust, it shouldn’t last for more than a week.

Adjust your expectations along with your clocks.

Clock time doesn’t account for your child’s internal rhythms. If they’re usually up at 6 a.m., they’ll be up at 5 a.m. on the morning of the change — meaning you will, too. If you start preparing the week before, you may be able to avoid this, but regardless of whether or not you’re proactive about it, you’ll need a week to help them adjust to the shift.

Babies may get overtired while you’re moving their schedule, so be attentive to whether baby is becoming “fussy, cranky, clingy and prone to meltdowns,” Dumaplin said. If they’re showing these signs, you should go ahead and let them rest.

The time change may affect all of their physiological processes, not just sleep. Hunger, energy levels and even bowel movements may be affected, Liste said.

A toddler who is no longer napping, she said, will probably “feel tired and hungry by midmorning, and they will be a mess early in the afternoon.”

But note that changing the clocks won’t affect your child’s general sleep profile.

“If your child is a relatively good sleeper, you shouldn’t expect too many bumps along the way,” said Alanna McGinn of the Good Night Sleep Site.

If, on the other hand, your child struggles to fall or remain asleep, this adjustment will be an added challenge.

“We might experience a little bit more bedtime battles, especially with our toddlers,” McGinn said.

Experts suggest sticking to your bedtime routine, which “cues the brain that sleep is coming,” Dumaplin said. This might include a bath, reading stories or other quiet activities. The key is consistency. If the routine is the same as every other evening, you child won’t feel a shift in the timing as much.

You might try a toddler alarm clock, which “helps visually cue them at night to go to bed [and when it’s] time to wake up,” McGinn said. These clocks use colors, like red and green, or pictures, like a moon and stars, to signal whether it’s time to be in bed or up for kids too little to read numbers.

With babies younger than 6 months, “I would advise parents not to worry about the time change,” Liste said.

“Younger babies have not developed a strong circadian rhythm yet, so we cannot expect regular schedules happening,” she added, suggesting that parents look to baby for signs of sleepiness and keep in mind how long they are able to stay awake.

Use gentle tactics, not screens, to keep them awake a little longer.

Aim not to push your baby more than 10 to 15 minutes past their usual bedtime each night. If you see them begin to rub their eyes or show other sleepy cues, try to engage them in their favorite activity. Dumaplin suggested splashing in the sink, walking around the house, making faces in the mirror, singing songs, taking a quick walk out to the mailbox or allowing them to empty the bottom dresser drawer.

Any of these simple distractions can probably buy you at least a few minutes.

“Avoid relying on screens to keep them up, as lights from screens have been proven to impact sleep quality,” Liste said.

Take advantage of the natural sunlight.

“We are strongly influenced by light,” Liste said. “Keep the baby outside and exposed to natural light as late as possible before bed.”

Exposure to light early in the day helps produce melatonin, the sleepy hormone, later that night,” Dumaplin explained. Our pineal gland produces melatonin in response to darkness, and it helps us regulate our circadian rhythms.

“Light in the afternoon and evening can help with staying awake until bedtime,” she added.

Dim the lights at naptime and bedtime, and aim for total darkness in the nursery during the hours that you want your child to be asleep.

Dumaplin suggested using a red night light if your toddler needs one.

“Red light is less likely to interfere with melatonin production,” she said.

Be gentle with yourself, too, and make sure to get enough rest.

Try to go with the flow,” Dumaplin said. “Remember, she’s a human, not a robot; he’s a baby, not a clock. They will adjust in their own time.”

Liste suggested going easy on new activities while you adjust to the change and to remember that you also need to adjust and make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

“If possible, plan a week of early bedtime and quiet activities until everybody is back to feeling better rested,” she said.

While you may hear some parents complain that the change to standard time is ruining their schedules, McGinn pointed out that the fall shift can also work in our favor.

“This time change really does help create that conducive environment,” she said, bringing darkness to the hours that we want to encourage kids to sleep.