It happens every year. Summer feels like an endless stretch of open days and nights. Then suddenly, just as we’ve all gotten used to the freewheeling pace of summertime, the school year is right back upon us. My kids are gearing up to start school in another few weeks so I feel your pain.
It can be tempting for parents to bury their heads (and their toes) in the sand and hang on to the summertime routine right to the bitter end of kids’ vacation. But that makes for a pretty bumpy, conflict-filled, chaotic re-entry to the school year. It’s just a bad idea.
Instead, this year, why not try something different: a gradual, planned migration back into the school routine, with a focus on sleep. It takes just a little bit of planning and commitment. But the rewards can be great, for kids and parents.
Why the school-sleep transition matters so much
Every parent knows that having kids on a consistent sleep schedule means more order and less chaos and conflict, both morning and night. That sleep schedule delivers better rest for children, and less stress—and more restful sleep—for parents (Yea!).
But as we head into another school year, it’s worth a quick reminder just how much sleep matters to kids’ health, development, and academic performance:
Poor sleep increases kids’ social and behavioral problems
Not getting enough high-quality sleep affects areas of the brain that involve emotional regulation and response, as well as impulse control. There’s an abundant body of research that shows poor quality and insufficient sleep increase the risks of behavioral issues in children and teenagers. Among the most common behavioral problems in school-age kids and teens are:
- Social withdrawal
- Mood swings
These behavioral issues often lead to isolation and stigmatization in children. They can compromise children’s relationships with their friends, siblings, teachers, and parents. They also make it more difficult for kids to learn, and for kids to participate in groups and activities that contribute to their emotional, social and intellectual development.
I wrote recently about an emerging theory among some scientists that what is diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may often be a sleep problem related to disruptions in circadian rhythms.
And there are growing links being discovered between poor sleep and bullying in children and adolescents. Both younger kids and teenagers may be more likely to act as bullies when they are sleep deprived.
Poor sleep is linked to academic issues
You’ve heard me talk a lot about the links between sleep, learning, and memory. Poor sleep compromises the brain’s ability to process and store memory, as well as to learn new information. When kids don’t get enough sleep, their academic performance suffers:
- Poor sleep is associated with lower grades and lower standardized test scores
- Not getting enough sleep increases absenteeism in school children
- Lack of sleep hinders kids’ ability to concentrate and focus
As parents, we have high hopes—and expectations—for our children. We want them to excel to the best of their abilities in school. Without enough sleep, they simply can’t perform at their best.
Poor sleep raises children’s mental and physical health risks
This can be hard for parents to hear, but it’s important for them to know: there no time in life when we get a “free pass” on sleep, and that includes childhood.
The sleep patterns we develop in childhood help set the stage for sleep and health throughout our lives. Poor sleep in children is associated with many of the same health risks that we see in adults, including:
- High blood pressure and other types of cardiovascular disease
- Metabolic disorder, and type 2 diabetes
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at the sleep patterns of more than 4,500 9-10 year olds, and found that children who slept more had lower BMI, less insulin resistance, and lower blood sugar.
And a just-released study (again, in Pediatrics) showed that adolescents who got more sleep had lower blood sugar, smaller waist circumference (an important marker of cardiometabolic health), lower cholesterol, and less fat mass.
It’s not only children’s physical health, but mental health that can suffer when kids don’t get enough high-quality rest. Research shows children who don’t get enough sound sleep are less adept at processing and regulating emotions, and more likely to develop emotional disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Here’s how to get your kids on a school-friendly sleep schedule
Now that we’ve talked about the importance of their sleep routine—and the serious consequences for not sleeping well—let’s dive into some strategies for making the transition from summer to school year.
Organize a game plan.
That’s in part what you’re doing right now, by reading this article—so good for you! Adjusting sleep schedules (whether your child’s or your own) is always easier and more effective when you’re working methodically and thoughtfully with a plan. Improvising at bedtime is a prescription for frustration and chaos, especially when it comes to kids. Before you actually start making moves to change your child’s sleep routine, map out your process, and get organized. And take a few moments to visualize the process as it successfully unfolds—that mindfulness step can make a big difference!
Keep chronotypes in mind.
I have many patients who come to my office full of frustration about their children’s sleep habits, and the challenges of establishing a real sleep routine—especially when there are kids of different ages in the household. I always remind them: your child’s sleep biology is different than yours, and different from their siblings, too. No two children are exactly alike in their sleep preferences. And children move through different chronotypes as they age and develop from childhood through adolescence.
- Toddlers and preschoolers are early-to-wake, early-to-bed Lions, who need naps to supplement nightly rest
- Grade school and middle school kids are middle-of-the-road Bears, who sleep most closely in sync with the solar day and night
- Teens are night-preferring Wolves, who are zombies first thing in the morning and become increasingly active and alert in the later stages of the day
It’s especially useful for parents to keep chronotype in mind when they have children in transitional stages of development. Kids move from Lions to Bears sometime around age six or seven, at about the first grade. Teens transition from Bears to Wolves at the time of puberty, which can be as early as 11 or 12, during the middle-school years. If you’re a parent with a child in these age ranges, keep in mind you may be dealing with a new chronotype—and that means new sleep preferences to work with.
The timing of the daily school schedule doesn’t consider children’s and teenagers’ chronotypes—and especially for teens, sleep suffers as a result. But parents can find insight and useful knowledge in understanding their children’s biological sleep drives, and working to create sleep routines that align with those biologically-driven preferences wherever possible.
Know how much sleep your child needs.
In order to set up a nourishing sleep schedule, you need to identify the right amount of sleep for your child. Every child’s sleep needs are different, so it’s important for parents to test and adjust sleep amounts, based on your own child’s behavior and performance. A cranky pre-schooler who is sleeping 9 hours a night may need 10. A low-energy teenager who’s sleeping 8 hours a night may need 9. Use these numbers as a guideline to work with your child’s individual sleep needs:
Pre-schoolers: 10-13 hours a night. For some children this age, 8-9 hours may be enough, while others may need as much as 14. Many of these children will need to nap to meet their sleep needs.
Grade-schoolers: 9-11 hours a night. Some grade school age children will be okay with 8 hours, while others may need as much as 12.
Teenagers: 8-10 hours a night. Because they’re more independent (and tending to stay up later) teens’ sleep can be harder for parents to track. Developing open, honest communication with teens about sleep can make a big difference.
Use your child’s wake up time to set their bedtime.
Numbers don’t lie. If your grade school child needs to be up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for school, and he needs 9.5 hours of sleep, that means a bedtime of 9 p.m. Your first step is to determine a realistic wake up time for your child, one that includes time for breakfast, washing, dressing, and getting packed up for school. Once you have that number, use the guidelines above to work backward to identify your child’s bedtime. You may need to do some testing and adjusting to find just the right set of times.
Gradually adjust your child’s bedtime and waketime.
Whatever your child’s summer sleep schedule is currently, it probably looks different than the school-year schedule you’ve just calculated. If it didn’t, none of us parents would have any trouble making this back-to-school transition! Maybe your child has been sleeping in on these warm, relaxed summer mornings. I’ll be there have been a whole lot of throw-bedtime-out-the-window evenings, to watch movies, linger around a campfire, or play flashlight tag in the backyard with neighborhood kids.
You’re about to ask your child to adopt a different schedule than the one they’re currently accustomed to. Asking them to make a big change, all at once, on the evening before the first day of school, is a recipe for tears and stress for parent and child. Instead, do it incrementally over 10-14 days. Without fuss or fanfare, pull back bedtimes and wake-up times by 5-10 minutes a day, or 10-15 minutes every few days.
Quiet and darken the pre-bedtime hour.
During the next couple of weeks, while you’re slowly adjusting your child’s bedtime and wake time, also start to implement a Power Down Hour™ in the evenings. This is an hour before bed for quiet activity, away from bright light (ideally, including the TV), to help your child unwind. This is time for the body’s natural progression toward sleep kick-in, including the all-important nighttime rise in melatonin production. As with bedtime, you don’t have to start with a full hour all at once. Build this quiet, low-light hour gradually, in 10 or 15-minute increments. Because so many of us are transitioning kids’ bedtimes while the sun is still shining well into the evening, you’ll may need to start having your kids come in from outside a bit earlier, to avoid that sunlight stimulation close to bedtime.
Get plenty of morning sun and activity.
The flipside to curtailing your child’s evening sun exposure? Right now is a great time for your child to be getting plenty of morning sunshine, and physical activity. This early-in-the-day light exposure and physical exertion will boost your child’s energy for the day, helping them feel more tired and ready for bed at night. Morning light exposure also reinforces circadian rhythms to an earlier sleep-wake cycle, which is where your children are headed when school starts.
Adjust dinner time and bedtime snacks.
These changes to bedtime may mean parents need to adjust dinnertime as well. If your family is anything like mine, you tend to eat dinner a bit later in the summer. There’s so much to do—and so much light to do it all in—that a later dinner feels natural for many people. For kids, as well as adults, trying to fall asleep on a very full stomach can be difficult. An activated digestive system, a revved-up metabolism, and the corresponding rise body temperature can mean it takes longer for kids to fall asleep. Give your kids enough time after dinner, before bedtime, to digest.
Of course, kids wouldn’t be kids if they weren’t looking for a pre-bed snack. There’s nothing wrong with a light snack before bed. Often, it’s helpful to sleep, provided it’s not too large and high in calories, or filled with sugar or caffeine, all of which can stimulate your child just when you most need her to relax.
Let this be the summer that ends with a smooth, tear and tantrum-free transition from the anything-goes summer routine to the buckle-down start of the school year. You’ll feel better for it, and your child will sleep better from day one of this academic year. That’s a great place to begin.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™