On Sunday morning at 2 a.m, everyone except residents of Arizona and Hawaii will spring forward one hour. Those of us who savor our sleep will feel the loss of that single hour, but the early-to-bed, early-to-wake routine will be an especially hard sell to your kids.
“For walking-talking kids, it looks like playtime outside, but you’re telling them to eat their peas and go to sleep? It doesn’t make any sense,” says certified sleep consultant Karen Schwarzbach, the founder of Babies to Sleep and Pivotal Sleep. Babies, on the other hand, have only their circadian rhythms and imposed routines to guide their adjustments, and a sudden shift can lead to disrupted sleep, crankiness, and a fussy kid. “It’s not a big deal for some families, but for others, it takes everyone a long time to adjust to the new time frame,” she says. In addition to the stress of cranky kids who are unwilling to get up an hour early, parents are suffering the anxiety of the mental math of getting an hour less sleep.
So how to make the transition less painful? “It’s all about perception and one-by-one behavior modifications,” says Schwarzbach. Ideally, you started shifting your schedule earlier bit-by-bit every day for the past week. But it’s too late for that now, so we asked Schwarzbach for her best last-minute tips for easing into the time change.
1. Shift your schedule 15 minutes earlier each night
You missed the boat on a week of gradual changes. But even two nights of shifting can reframe what nighttime looks like, if you make changes in an orderly fashion. “Start dinnertime or bedtime 15 minutes earlier, and shift all your activities 15 minutes earlier as well,” Schwarzbach says. Make use of somewhat invisible cues to help yourself out: Bring the lights down earlier, and lower the activity levels and noise levels in the household. “Slowly adjust the circadian rhythm, so that when Monday rolls around, you’re all still waking up at 7 a.m., but they’re mentally unaware of time shift and—most important—physically where they need to be.”
2. Be obvious
No need to break the news to an infant that this shift is occurring. But if you’ve got a precocious preschooler on your hands, you might need to set the clocks back in increments throughout your home, and invite your kid to accept that while it might not feel like their normal schedule, all the routines are going to be the same.
Close the blackout curtains in their room before dinner, or set a light-based alarm in their room for a bit earlier. “Their bodies respond to messaging,” Schwarzbach says. Kids will also respond to the conspiratorial tone of treating it like an event—spend the weekend re-setting clocks with them, or waking them up with a dramatic entrance and curtains thrown wide to let the sunshine in.
3. Tire them out— preferably in the sun
This isn’t so helpful for snowbound-state parents, but try to send the kids outside to run around each weekend morning. Getting them out in sunlight earlier in the day will top up the potion that will help them settle into feeling tired a little earlier that night.
“Daylight sun exposure stimulates cortisol, and actually helps improve melatonin levels at the end of the day,” Schwarzbach says.
4. Cut out sugar
This seems like a no-brainer—sugar is a stimulant. What’s harder to remember is that carbohydrates in everyday foods will convert to sugar and affect your kids when you’re trying to get them to nod off an hour early. “If you’re going to have a snack before bed, have complex carbs mixed with a protein,” Schwarzbach says. That means serving yogurt with the berries, or almond butter with the bread. If your kid is sensitive to sugar rushes, Schwarzbach also has a list of sleep-promoting foods (think tryptophan) that are worth trying, and a list of sleep-stealing foods that are worth avoiding.
“Tart cherries are the only food with naturally occurring melatonin. A recent study revealed that subjects who consumed 8 oz. of tart cherry juice once in the morning and once at night for two weeks showed an average increase in sleep (and sleep efficiency) by 84 minutes.”
Complex carbs with protein and calcium
Rich fish (salmon, halibut, anchovies)
Protein without carbs
5. Read different books
“The most stimulating color combination for children under the age of one is black, white, and red. It’s like a triple cappuccino for little kids,” says Schwarzbach.
Tons of baby toys and board books leverage this color combo, but they wake up your child, so avoid them in favor of books with a pastel palette during your bedtime routine. Emotional books can also stimulate your kid—if a character in the story dies or experiences some other small trauma, it might make it harder for them to calm down before bed.
6. Skip the bath
For some children, the shift in body temperature elevates cortisol, which makes sleep difficult. “I’ve asked parents, ‘Do you find that your baby is in the bath and relaxed and happy, but then after they get out, it’s like they’re on steroids?’” Schwarzbach says. It’s just their body’s reaction, so understanding that can make a difference when it comes to a smooth bedtime routine.
7. Forgo extra playtime
Working parents who come home late on weekdays might want to keep the kids up later to play with them when they’re home. But keeping them up later can create a chemical imbalance that their normal melatonin levels can’t overcome—so when you finally do try to put them down later, it’s actually harder. “You’re trying to rock and shush the stimulation out of your child, and then they wake up more frequently and earlier the next day,” says Schwarzbach. For a smooth shift, skip the extra stimulation for a few nights.
8. Take your own advice
Parents can do everyone a favor and take “sleep nutrition” as seriously as they take food nutrition, says Schwarzbach. That means being realistic about the glasses of wine, cups of coffee, or late-night screen binges that impact your sleep. Says Schwarzbach, “Kids don’t have the mechanisms to self-regulate by turning on their lightboxes, avoiding fun activities, or closing their shades—so if parents don’t have good sleep habits, it makes it harder to apply them to your child.”
For more insight into getting your entire family to sleep well, you can sign up for Schwarzbach’s newsletter via Babies to Sleep. She also recommends the book Good Night, Sleep Tight by Kim West: “I use her methodology with some of my parents, and her delivery is practical and holistic. It’s a good middle ground.”