There are two events each year that cause many parents stress and upset when it comes to child sleep – clock changes! I’m not going to de-rail this blog with my thoughts on this archaic practice (I’ve detailed them at some length in The Gentle Sleep Book). I will however focus on ways that you can best help your children, and you, cope with the change.
Here’s my four step guide to dealing with clock changes:
- Start Preparing 6 Weeks in Advance.
By the far the easiest way, and indeed the gentlest way, to cope with clock changes is to gradually inch bedtime forward or back (depending on which way the change is happening) a little at a time.
Starting 6 weeks before hand change bedtime to either 10 minutes earlier (for spring) or 10 minutes later (for autumn) each week. I recommend breaking this down further if possible to a couple of minutes per day.
Here’s a worked example:
If your child’s bedtime (time they go to sleep) is 8pm and you are preparing for the autumn change, you would do the following:
Week 1: by the end of this week you have moved bedtime to 8:10pm
Week 2: by the end of this week you have moved bedtime to 8:20pm
Week 3: by the end of this week you have moved bedtime to 8:30pm
Week 4: by the end of this week you have moved bedtime to 8:40pm
Week 5: by the end of this week you have moved bedtime to 8:50pm
Week 6: by the end of this week you have moved bedtime to 9pm
The clock will then ‘fall back’ and the new bedtime becomes 8pm again.
For spring changes obviously bedtime will be gradually moving earlier, not back.
You may think “well why does this matter?”, or “if they go to sleep an hour earlier that means I’ll get more time in the evening, it can only be a good thing!”. The downside tends to come the other end of the night in the autumn though. If the child is going to bed at what will now be 7pm they are more likely to either wake in the night or wake earlier the following morning if they have fulfilled their sleep need. You cannot make them take an extra hour’s sleep if they don’t need it. It may therefore be “hello better evenings”, but that is often accompanied with “hello horribly early mornings” (or earlier than the normal early!).
In Spring the change may be good from a morning perspective, but if you don’t change sleep times you will have to be up with your child for an extra hour in the evening. So it’s win/lose either way!
2. Be really careful about light
In the autumn we’re lucky, the change means that the evenings are darker and thus more melatonin conducive, that’s a good thing for sleep. The mornings however are lighter, that’s not such a good thing. Blackout blinds therefore are a sterling investment for autumn and winter mornings when you’d like a little more sleep (though not always a guarantee sadly – early morning waking post coming soon!).
It’s also really important to think carefully about the use of artificial lighting, since it is likely to be dark at bedtime and you’re likely to need some light to do the bedtime routine. Read this post for more details on why light matters and how to prevent it from inhibiting your child’s sleep.
In the spring and summer things are trickier. You need to make the evenings darker than they perhaps naturally are, seeing as most tiredness depends upon the effects of light exposure on the eyes and brain. Here it’s all about closing curtains and blinds in the evening, a good hour or so before you want your child to sleep. Yes, it’s depressing losing the beautiful light spring and summer evenings, but it might help.
3. Daylight exposure.
Daylight exposure is really important for resetting circadian rhythms (aka ‘body clocks’). Our bodies know when to be tired and when to be alert based upon the amount of exposure to sunlight we receive. This daylight exposure tells the brain whether it is time to release the hormone of sleep or the hormone of alertness. The quickest and best way to reset a circadian rhythm that is a bit wonky is exposure to direct daylight as early as possible in the daytime. This means bundling your child and yourself up in warm clothes and getting outside straight after breakfast. Taking a walk, playing in the garden, going to the park are all great. If possible you will get outside for a minimum of thirty minutes every morning.
4. Be Sensitive and Patient.
Your child didn’t ask for the clock changes to happen, just like you. As infuriating as the sleepless evenings or tiring early mornings may be to you, being made to change developed, normal sleeping patterns because of an obscure quirk of modern-day society is just as hard for your child.
Try to stay on the same team. Clock changes are really hard for parents, just as you have got over one another one happens, but they’re really hard for children too. Understanding this will make them a lot easier on the whole family
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