Spring Forward, Stay Sane: A Sleep Expert’s Guide to DST

Malia Jacobson

If you have little ones at home, chances are, you’re not a fan of “spring forward,” the annual Daylight Saving Time ritual that throws off bedtime for kids from coast to coast.

This year, clocks jump ahead on Sunday, March 10. When the clock moves forward in the spring, the most common complaint from parents is that kids won’t go to bed “on time.” It’s not hard to understand why: When the clock reads 8 p.m., your child’s body thinks that it’s 7. When 9 or 10 p.m. rolls around and kids still aren’t tired, parents get understandably grumpy.

It’s not just bedtime that gets wonky: Many parents find that DST throws off kids’ wake times and naptimes, too. An hour’s worth of time change is a lot for little bodies to handle, akin to jet lag for a baby or toddler. Some particularly sensitive kids (or those who are already overtired to begin with) can take days—or weeks—to adapt to the new time shown on the clock.

Want to help your little one take the time change in stride? Here’s how to “spring forward” without missing a beat. (For simplicity, this example uses a 7 a.m. wake-up and a 7 p.m. bedtime. Kids wake and go to bed at different times, so adjust as needed for your family’s needs.)

Rise and shine

The key to helping your child fall asleep at his normal bedtime on clock-change day is waking him up earlier that morning, and for a few mornings preceding the change. Here’s why: If he sleeps until his body’s regular wake-up time (say, 7 a.m.) on clock-change day, the clock will read 8. If you try to put him to bed that night at 7 p.m., his regular bedtime, only 11 hours have elapsed since he woke up, and he’s not likely to be tired enough to go to sleep.

This is especially true if he slept a bit later than normal that morning. DST occurs on a weekend, so many parents allow children to sleep later than normal. During the rest of the year, sleeping in up to an hour on weekends isn’t a big problem, but when you add the time change, things can quickly go awry.

Planning ahead

The best way to avoid any sleep disruption: plan in advance. Beginning two to three days before the change, begin waking your child 30 minutes earlier in the morning, and putting her to bed 30 minutes earlier at night. For babies and young children who still nap, make corresponding adjustments to naps by moving them 30 minutes earlier as well. In this example, that would mean waking your child at 6:30 a.m. and putting her to bed at 6:30 p.m. (This may sound like an extremely early bedtime, but remember, it’s only for a couple of days.)

On the morning of DST, wake your child at his normal wakeup time. If he normally wakes at 7 a.m. standard time, wake him at 7 Daylight time. (This will actually be 6 a.m., according to his body clock, but you’ve prepped him for this change already with a couple days of early wake-ups.) Offer nap(s) at the normal times. No need to make adjustments here. Having woken up at 7 a.m., he’ll be ready for sleep at his normal bedtime.

Last-minute help

Starting last-minute? No time to prep your child a couple of days before the time change? No problem. Just remember to wake your child at her normal wake-up time (not the adjusted time) on clock-change day. If she normally wakes at 7, get her up at 7—her body will still think it’s 6 a.m., so she’ll probably still be snoozing, and she’ll be tired, because she “lost” an hour of sleep. But she will be ready to snooze at her regular bedtime that night. And you won’t have a wide-awake kid bouncing off the walls while you’re trying to watch Weekend Update on DVR.

Daylight Saving Time, done!

Malia Jacobson is a sleep coach, an award-winning journalist specializing in health and family topics, and a mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.