Surviving the time change with a toddler
How parents can help their little ones sleep well
Twice a year, we change the clocks to adjust for daylight saving time. Though an hour might not make a big difference to adults, to toddlers the hour change can mean the difference between enough sleep and a child who is too tired to be happy.
Michelle Caraballo, M.D., a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine physician at Children's Health℠, says that the time change in the fall can be especially hard on children.
"Many kids wake when the sun comes up, and all of a sudden the sun rises an hour earlier," Dr. Caraballo explains. "If they are not also going to sleep an hour earlier to accommodate that, then they are getting an hour less sleep per night, which can result in a variety of daytime behavioral disturbances including irritability, hyperactivity, difficulty with attention and focus."
Dr. Caraballo says parents can help their children handle the time change by using practices that result in good sleep year-round. She suggests the following tactics for helping children sleep.
Start a bedtime routine
A good bedtime routine can help your child's mind, and body, anticipate and prepare for sleep.
"A bedtime routine helps get kids on a regular sleep schedule and ensures that they get an adequate amount of sleep every night," says Dr. Caraballo. "Shifting the routine can throw off their circadian rhythm and sleep schedule."
Your child's bedtime routine may start right after dinner by turning off all electronics, including television, phones and tablets, that can keep their minds too awake. If your child is still awake for a while, they can do wind-down activities like reading, doing puzzles or playing a calm game.
Your child's bedtime routine might include a bath after dinner, putting on pajamas, brushing their teeth and then reading a bedtime story. If you are potty training, your child might also need one last trip to the bathroom before you hug them and turn out the lights.
Stick to the bedtime routine
Once you have your bedtime routine, it is essential to keep it.
"Toddlers are masters of stalling behaviors and know how to push boundaries to get their way," says Dr. Caraballo. "Parents often give into their stalling techniques for a variety of reasons: they want to give extra hugs and snuggles; they may allow as many trips to the bathroom as a child requests because they are potty training; or they give in simply because they are exhausted."
Dr. Caraballo says making a bedtime chart can help children stick to the plan. The chart should have pictures of each step in the routine, from bath time to lights out. If your child starts to stall or asks to repeat a step in the routine, you can point to the chart to help keep them on track.
No matter what stalling tactics your child uses or how many times they get up out of bed, it's important that you lead them back to bed immediately. Be gentle but firm, and do not get into a conversation about it. Giving in to stalling tactics delays bedtime and encourages children to keep using these behaviors in the future.
"Though the child may cry and kick and scream, know that you are doing the right thing by helping them establish healthy sleep behaviors so they can be their best, happiest self the next day," says Dr. Caraballo.
Create a healthy sleep environment
A dark, cool and quiet bedroom is essential to helping your little one get quality sleep. You can help keep their room this way year-round by putting a small fan in their room and using blackout curtains to keep out the morning sun.
You should also keep all electronics out of your child's room since they can encourage play and distraction during bedtime.
Carefully adjust the bedtime routine
When daylight saving time changes come around, or you need to adjust your child's sleep schedule for other reasons, you should take careful steps to change the bedtime routine.
"Daylight saving obviously requires that we shift sleep schedules by an hour one way or the other," says Dr. Caraballo. "We suggest that these adjustments be made gradually over the course of one or two weeks leading up to the time change, rather than expecting your toddler to make the switch in one night."
At least one week before the time change, Dr. Caraballo suggests moving your child's bedtime forward or back by 15 minutes every other day, depending on if it is fall or spring. You can move naptime, too, to help your child get the sleep they need throughout the day.
A healthy bedtime routine and sleep environment can help you make these small adjustments more easily. With preparation and patience, you and your toddler can handle time changes like pros and start the day rested.
Learn more about the importance of sleep for kids and how much sleep they should be getting at each age. For information about the pediatric sleep medicine experts at Children's Health, visit our Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.