The trees are disrobing their color, the air has a brisk feel to it, and the nights are getting longer.

The fall time change is approaching. Daylight Saving Time ends at 2am on Sunday, November 1st.

Prior to your parenting days, this is the time change you loved. The clocks fall back, and you get to sleep in for an extra hour. (That is, assuming you went to bed at your usual time!)

Now, your kids get to enjoy this lovely change, as they join you in their Sunday morning snooze.

Ha! No. As any seasoned parent knows, your kids will be up bright and early at the same old time. Unfortunately, if “same old time” meant 6am before the time change, it now means 5am. If you’re anything like me, you want to get this time change sorted out, pronto.


How your body clock works

Apart from the mechanical clocks we rely on to order our days, our bodies have an internal clock. This internal clock guides the timing of everything happening in your body: it controls when hormones and certain neurotransmitters are released. That means your internal clock is prompting you when you feel hungry, when you need the restroom, when you feel more alert, and when you feel more sleepy.

This is why you can travel across the globe, arrive completely exhausted, and yet be unable to sleep. If you’re trying to sleep when your body is in its biological “day” period, all of your body systems are busily at work, and sleep will be hard to come by no matter how tired you are.

So how does your body know whether you’re in Chicago or London? Or more to the point, how does your body know that we have artificially shifted our clocks by an hour? Both are cases of jet lag–your body feeling out of sync with social time. What tells all those internal rhythms to move?

Mostly, light.

The presence of light in the morning is what signals your body to wake up. It’s not just that it’s hard to sleep when it’s light: early sunlight signals a reset on your body’s internal clock. It’s your circadian rhythm’s strongest cue, aligning internal time each day to the external time.

As sunlight disappears in the evening, your body begins production of the sleep hormone melatonin. This hormone is sometimes called the “vampire hormone,” because it is only produced in darkness. As the sun rises, melatonin levels drop.

Aside from light, your body also uses input such as meal timing, exercise, and social interactions as cues to set your internal clock. For example, if you pick up your child from daycare every day at 4:30pm, that’s a consistent social interaction that can aid your internal clock to keep in sync with the day. The term for these is “zeitgeber,” meaning time-giver. Think of them as little push-pins holding your body rhythms in place.


Shifting your clock

For infants 0-6 months, your job is relatively easy. (Well, other than the whole caring for a newborn thing, which is decidedly not easy.) Circadian rhythms are still in the process of getting established at this time, so there’s less going on internally that needs to shift. Your baby might be awake a bit earlier than usual after the change, but mornings are already pretty dark at this time of year. That makes it easier to shift things later.

Maximize baby’s sunlight exposure during the day: there is some evidence that babies who are exposed to more outdoor light, particularly in the early afternoon when daylight is the brightest, develop more consolidated nighttime sleep.[1]Harrison, Y. (2004). The relationship between daytime exposure to light and night-time sleep in 6-12-week-old infants. Journal of Sleep Research, 13(4), 345–352.

For babies 6-18 months, this is where things are a little tougher. Your baby is likely on 2 or 3 naps in this age range, plus your baby should be on a more predictable schedule at this point. Shifting baby’s schedule requires moving all the pieces. Starting on Thursday, shift each nap, meal time, and bedtime later by 15 minutes. Honestly, it may be easiest to physically change all the clocks in your house earlier by 15 minutes to help you do this with minimal confusion! (Yeah. I see you there, double checking that moving the clocks earlier means you’re doing everything later.)

On Friday, shift your schedule so that you’re now 30 minutes later than your old schedule. If your naps were happening at 9am and 1pm, they’re now at 9:30 and 1:30. A 6pm bedtime is now 6:30.

On Saturday, you’re at 45 minutes. Your clock says 9am when it’s actually 9:45, you’ve missed two things on your calendar because you’re never sure exactly what time it is, and you’re planning a campaign to support whoever wants to end this Daylight Saving stuff because it’s making your brain hurt. One more day and you’re done though, so you press on.

On Sunday, you can now enjoy a synchronized home clock with everywhere-else-falling-back clock with baby’s internal-time-has-shifted clock. Everything is in harmony once again.

For toddlers 18 months-3 years, your child is likely on one nap, and your job is virtually the same as for the younger crowd, just with less math. An afternoon nap around 12-1pm is the sweet spot for keeping your child well-rested at this age, so slowly shift that nap and bedtime later by 15 minutes each day from Thursday-Sunday, and you’re good to go.

For preschoolers, if your child is now without a regular afternoon nap, your main focus is going to be on moving bedtime later in those little 15-minute increments, and shifting your meal times.

At this age I strongly recommend using some version of a toddler alarm clock (there are many to choose from, or you can use a light on a timer). Your child isn’t quite comprehending the time on the clock yet, so you want some sort of visual cue for your child to know when it’s okay to get up in the morning. The toddler alarm clock lights up at a time you set, letting your child know that it’s now morning.

Key to making this work is to gently and consistently keep your child in his/her room until that light comes on in the morning–and keep that time boring before your child is supposed to get up. I totally get that handing your child an iPad or letting him watch TV is a quick fix that buys you a little more snooze time.

But two problems: 1, that’s light, and it’s a cue to be up; 2, it’s enticing. Do kids sleep in on Christmas morning when there are gifts waiting under the tree? Heck no! They’re not going to sleep as long as their body needs if there’s an electronic device available first thing in the morning, either.


Um, is there a fast-track option?

Can’t we just skip all this gradual adjustment and move everything an hour later on Sunday like civilized grown-ups-without-kids?

You can. And your body will fall back in sync with the clock time in a few days. The only caution I give is that if your child does not have a regular schedule to begin with, or if you know that your child is already not getting enough sleep, you run the risk of seeing things get worse. An overtired child is more likely to have trouble falling asleep, wake at night, and have a difficult mood during the day.

Alternatively, some kids are just highly sensitive to any kind of change to their schedule. Chances are that if your child is one of these, you’re aware of this already, and you know that you have to adjust gradually.

Is your child generally well-rested? Does he/she adapt without too much trouble when you’re traveling or have to miss a nap? You might be able to shift everything at once without much of a blip.

If you want a middle ground between all-at-once or the gradual shift, try moving naps and bedtime later by half an hour for a few days before the change. That should cushion the adjustment come Sunday morning.


Final tips

If the time change is going to involve the sun coming up earlier than your child is used to waking (i.e., your child normally wakes at 7am, the sun is rising at 7:30am on Daylight Saving Time, but now it will be rising at 6:30am on Standard Time), then you want to make sure you have a good blackout blind installed.

Remember, we are biologically wired to wake with the rising sun. Keep it dark until it’s time to be up, then aim to get outside for a bit, or sit in a sunny spot for breakfast. It’ll give your internal time that strong cue that this is the start of day.

Also, recognize that the time we wake in the morning is biologically wired. This makes it challenging to shift that morning wake time later. Most infants wake between 6:30-8am. By the time babies reach toddler age, 75% are waking between about 6:30-7:30am.[2]Mindell, J. A., Composto, J., Lee, C., Bhullar, B., & Walters, R. (2014). Development of infant and toddler sleep patterns from real world data on a mobile app. Sleep, 37(June), A312. To have a well-rested child, it is critically important to have a consistent, reasonably early (6-8pm) bedtime. Once you get through the time change, aim keep your child’s bedtime locked within the same 30-minute window each night.

Sweet dreams!

Interested in learning more? If you’re the scholarly sort, you may enjoy:
Bedtime and Evening Light Exposure Influence Circadian Timing in Preschool-Age Children: A field study
Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light- Dark Cycle

Graphic from:

Tomo Nogi

I'm ready for a good night's sleep

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A good night’s sleep isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales. It’s the spine that holds the book of life together.

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