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Main | Sleep Training at 8 Weeks? Absolutely Not! Why This Recommendation is Wrong and Other Myths About Infant Sleep »

Q and A About Sleep, Daylight, and Time Changes Too!

1. What is the connection between daylight and sleep? Why is it important to put young children to sleep shortly after dark?

 Most folks are not aware that sleep is governed by biological processes in our brains, just like our respiratory, cardiovascular, and hormonal systems.  One of those processes is our circadian rhythms, also known as our biological clock.  This “clock” follows the natural rhythms of the day, which were easy to recognize before electric light because, as diurnal creatures, we simply went to sleep when it got dark and woke up when it got light. 

The hormone melatonin has much to do with this process.  The brain is programmed to secrete melatonin as daylight decreases to bring on sleep.  During the day, sunlight suppresses the release of melatonin.  Unfortunately, room light and, even more, so the blue light from electronic devices) also suppress it. Having a regular sleep schedule goes a long ways toward helping the brain know to release melatonin just before your bedtime.

 For young children, whose need for sleep is great, it is essential that parents help them get in sync with their natural circadian rhythms.  Darkness is a true asset.  Staying up later after dark isn’t wrong per se, if a child would just sleep late in the morning.  But generally our biological clocks (and this is more true for children) do still run on our natural rhythms (responding to light and dark), so when daylight arrives, children typically wake up.  Not until circadian rhythms shift in adolescence do children start sleeping later in the morning.  As a result, bedtime routines and regular bedtimes in conjunction with the arrival of night are very important to “cue” the brain to release melatonin to bring on sleep.  In other words, going to bed when darkness comes gives children the best opportunity to get the amount of sleep they need. 

2. Should parents shift bed time and nap time back an hour to reflect the time change? What happens if they don't shift bed time with the time change?

In the fall, shifting daily schedules can help a baby or child adjust to the time change.  There are a number of ways to approach this:      

   a) One technique is to start naps ½ hour earlier.  Because naps will probably end earlier, you can make bedtime ½ hour earlier as well.  A young baby who naps twice a day may even need a 5 p.m. bedtime in the transition.  For children who don’t nap, simply adjust the bedtime earlier (perhaps by ¼ or ½ hour increments during the transition).

   b) Another strategy is to be proactive: begin moving the bedtime earlier by 15 minutes a night for the 3 or 4 nights prior to the time change.

  c) Yet another approach is to just go with the new time and don’t put your child to sleep earlier.  In this case, you may have to stretch her to the normal naptime and bedtime.  You can do this by giving her a bath or playing active games such as “The Hokey Pokey.”  For older children, you may need to bear with the crankiness as you try to stretch them to the new bedtime (which is actually, by the hours of the clock an hour after their usual bedtime).

Remember, however, that no matter how you approach it, everyone will adjust within a week or two!

3. Which age groups are most affected by the time change? 

 Everyone is affected, adults and children alike.  Yet the younger you are, the more sleep you need (newborns: 16 to 18 hours in 24 hours; infants and toddlers: 11 to 15 hours in 24 hours), and the more you will be affected by lack of sleep associated with the time change.

4. What are 5 tips for helping children adjust to the schedule changes?

   1)   If the child is very sensitive to changes and doesn’t “roll” easily with lack of sleep, adjust her schedule earlier to help her with the transition.

  2)   If the child generally does well with change and isn’t much affected by a little sleep loss, try to keep her involved and entertained to make it to the “new” nap and bedtimes.

  3)   Early waking as a result of the time change can be hard, so be sure to darken, darken the room!

  4)   Expect behavior to be affected.  Make your life and theirs easier by not overscheduling the days around the transition.  Give lots of down time!

  5)   Remember it will take a little while, but not forever!  For older children, it can take about a week.  For younger, it can take a week and a half or two.  So parents need to go to bed earlier too.  Best advice is to relax; this too shall pass!

5. How would you explain to a child who's old enough to know that 8 p.m. means bed time that they now have to go to sleep at 7 p.m.?

Using ¼ or ½ hour increments to make bedtime earlier may not seem as harsh in the transition.  Be proactive and let them know your plan.  Giving a little information about sleep and the brain can be wonderful too!  Contact me for handouts that give basic information about sleep for children.  Let them know that getting enough sleep means they are able to learn better, think more clearly and do better at sports and other activities.

6. Is there anything else about daylight savings and sleep schedule changes that is important to know?

The spring time change is easier and no real adjustments need to be made.  It does, however, provide some great opportunities.  If you were looking to set bedtime earlier, this is a perfect time to make that change.  And if you are dealing with an early riser, they most likely will begin to sleep later naturally.  Hurrah!

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