After more than a year of virtual learning, hybrid schedules, and a whole lot of at-home time, kids are going back to school—for real.
This is not a typical back-to-school season. For a lot of families, it’s been a long time since they lived in the day-to-day routine of getting kids off to school in the mornings. The past year-and-a-half has brought so much disruption to families’ routines—sleep included.
Putting some extra thought and time into preparing kids to sleep well as they head back to their classrooms can help make the transition easier for everyone—and get kids off to a strong start in this academic year.
Acknowledge that this year is different
The stress of this long pandemic year has taken its toll on many kids, as well as their parents. We’re seeing some truly alarming research about the rise in mental health issues in children and teenagers throughout the pandemic. Re-entry to “normal” may be relatively easy for some kids, but for many it will be more complicated Some kids may be excited to return to their regular school-based lives. Others may feel nervous, reluctant, overwhelmed, unprepared. And many will experience all of the above.
Stress, depression, and anxiety interfere with sleep in children just as they do in adults. Know the signs of anxiety and depression in children, and if you have any concerns about your child’s mental health, reach out to your children’s health care provider for help.
Do a bedroom check
Kids need quiet, dark, cool rooms for consistently restful sleep. Give your children’s bedrooms a “pre-flight” check before the school year begins, to ensure their sleep environment is optimal for their nightly rest. Do the window coverings block outside light? Do you have low-watt, non-halogen lighting in kids’ bedrooms? Are their bedrooms screen-free, including phones and tablets? Do you need noise cancelling equipment to maintain quiet from bedtime to wake-up time? Does your child’s bedroom stay at a consistent temperature of around 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, an optimal temperature range for sound sleep?
A clean bedroom elevates sleep, too. A clean bedroom is more inviting and restful, reduces the impact of allergies on sleep, and can improve sleep quality for our kids, as it does for adults. I wrote recently about how to give our bedrooms a full clean-through after this long year at home.
Protect kids’ eyes from blue light
I don’t need to tell any parent of a school-aged child about the challenges of managing screen time, especially over this past year and half. It’s been a tough road for a lot of families. And screen time worries aren’t new, of course. Before the pandemic, more than 80% of children were spending at least 3 hours a day on digital screens.
We’re just beginning to get data that measures the increases to screen time in children during the pandemic. Some initial research indicates that, unsurprisingly, screen time soared during these many months of at-home time. One study of kindergarteners in Ohio found their average screen time nearly doubled, to almost six hours a day. This study looked at the rise in screen time in children in low-income families, many of whom were likely to face particularly hard challenges in adapting to school closings, finding alternative childcare and adjusting their own work schedules to care for children. But the rise in screen time among kids during the pandemic has taken place in families across the income spectrum.
Resetting boundaries around screen use with your kids may take some time. And screens are a presence in our kids’ lives—that’s not changing. Beyond setting reasonable limits for screen time and content in line with your child’s age and your family’s circumstances, what’s important for kids’ sleep is to protect them from the most stimulating, sleep-disrupting light that digital screens emit.
Kids are especially vulnerable to stimulation from blue light, which is found in high concentrations in digital screens. Research shows blue light causes twice the degree of melatonin suppression in children as in adults. And the younger children are, the more aggressive melatonin suppression from blue light will be.
I spent a chunk of my pandemic year working with Luminere to create blue-light blocking glasses specifically designed for kids and teens. They filter out blue light to protect sleep, and to protect children’s developing eyes from eye strain and light-induced eye damage, from both artificial light and natural light. Kids can use them for homework, and also for gaming and watching TV and any other screen time activities. Each set includes a pair of glasses for daytime and a pair for nighttime, to protect kids’ eyes and sleep patterns from the spectrum of light they’re exposed to throughout the day and night, indoors and out.
Here’s where you can read more about the science behind protecting kids’ sleep and eyes from light damage, and get all the details on my kids’ blue-light blocking glasses.
Know how much sleep your children need
Children—including teenagers—need more sleep than adults, to support their developing minds and bodies. Alarming research by the American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 found that in the U.S., nearly half of school age children (ages 6-17) aren’t getting the sleep they need on school nights.
How much sleep is that? The general recommendations for sleep in kids from the AAP are:
- Preschoolers (3-5) need 10-13 hours a night (including naps)
- Grade-school kids (6-12) need 9-12 hours a night
- Teens (13-18) need 8-10 hours a night
Kids individual sleep needs will vary; some children may be closer to lower end of the range for their age group, while others may need the high end to feel rested and function at their best. Keep in mind, the amounts at the low end of these ranges represent minimum amounts. To support their development, children should get no less than this amount of sleep on a regular basis.
Gradually adjust bedtime to align with school schedules
To ensure your kids get the sleep they need on school nights, you’ll need to work backward from their wake-up time to set an appropriate bedtime. Start by being realistic about the time you and your children need to get up and dressed, have breakfast, get organized and out the door in the morning. You might be out of practice with this routine after a year mostly at home.
If your grade-school child needs to be up at 6:30 in order to be at school by 7:45 a.m., bedtime is going to fall somewhere between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., depending on their age and their individual sleep needs. A high-school teen who needs to rise at 6:30 for school will have an optimal bedtime that falls somewhere between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.
Don’t try to make the bedtime adjustment all at once. Use the weeks leading up to school to gradually work back to a new bedtime, adjusting in 5-10 minutes a night, or 15-minute increments every couple of nights, until you reach your goal. With all school-age kids, and with teens and tweens in particular, bring them into the process by talking about their sleep needs, and what those needs mean for:
- Their ability to do the things they love (sports, clubs, dance team, chorus, playing/socializing with friends)
- Their ability to enjoy school and be successful in their schoolwork
- Their ability to feel focused, relaxed, and capable and have FUN
A lot of kids have been isolated from much of the in-person activity that comes with school. Helping your child to remember and reconnect with the joyful, stimulating activities that the school year brings can make their earlier bedtimes make sense to them—and can help ease anxieties about going back to the classroom full time.
Understand your children’s chronotype, and how it changes
Broadly speaking, preschoolers and many young grade school kids are Lions, who naturally rise early. Older grade-schoolers and some middle-school kids are Bears, the middle of the road types whose schedules are most closely in sync with the solar night and day. The biological changes of puberty brings a significant shift in chronotype for teens, nearly all of whom become night preferring Wolves.
Kids of any age will need time to adjust to new bedtimes and new wake times. But the adjustment will likely be greater, the older your children are. Many parents will have children who entered the pandemic Lions and came out Bears, or went in as Bears and came out Wolves. 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, you may be dealing with a new chronotype and new sleep preferences. Keeping kids’ chronotypes in mind can help you establish realistic expectations for nighttime and morning routines.
For teens in particular, school start times are radically out of sync with their circadian clocks and chrono-rhythms. That’s a big problem that most school systems around the country have yet to address. Until we see the changes we need, in better aligning school schedules with adolescent biological clocks, it will continue to be a struggle to get pre-teens and teenagers the rest they need. But it’s very much worth doing the work, for teens’ mental and physical health, for their cognitive development and their academic success.
My book, The Power of When, is a comprehensive guide to knowing your chronotype and using it for the benefit of you and your family’s sleep and health, productivity, relationships, and all-around happiness and well being. To learn your chronotype, take this quick quiz: www.chronoquiz.com.
I recently wrote this quick introduction to chronotypes, which explains what chronotypes are, why they matter, and how to start using knowledge of your chronotype to improve productivity in your daily life. A lot of these strategies work for kids, too!
Shift dinnertime to align with new bedtime
Changes to bedtime may mean parents need to adjust dinnertime. If your family is anything like mine, you tend to eat dinner a bit later in the summer. For kids, as well as adults, trying to fall asleep on a full stomach can be tough. An activated digestive system and the corresponding rise body temperature can mean it takes longer for kids to fall asleep. Give your kids enough time to digest their dinner before bedtime. Sixty to 90 minutes is a good timeframe to work with, as a minimum buffer between the end of dinner and bedtime.
Kids will inevitably come looking for a bedtime snack. There’s nothing wrong with a light snack before bed. Often, it’s helpful to sleep. My general recommendation for pre-bed snacks is to keep them at no more 200 calories, a combination of protein and complex carbohydrates, and to avoid sugar-filled foods and anything that contains caffeine (that includes chocolate).
Interested in how your family’s daily diet can enhance everyone’s sleep? Here’s a recent discussion of the best foods for sleep.
Encourage plenty of physical activity during the day, all summer long
All parents know firsthand how well kids typically sleep after a long day that’s filled with physical activity. Whether it’s organized sports and activities, hiking and roaming outside, or freeform play in the backyard, keeping kids physically active throughout the summer, and not slacking off in the days leading up to school, can help make the transition to a school sleep schedule easier.
Exercise can have the same direct benefits for children’s sleep that it does for adults: helping them fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and wake less throughout the night, improving the quality of their rest. A lack of physical activity, on the other hand, can make sleep more difficult in kids. This 2009 study found of 7-year-olds found that for every hour of the day a child was sedentary, it took them 3 minutes longer to fall asleep.
For children, the combination of regular exercise and routine, high-quality sleep is a powerful tool in their development. Research shows that exercise and sleep both contribute to more positive mood, increased focus and attention, greater self-regulation, and also reduce children’s risks for ADHD.
Create a PowerDown Hour™ just for kids
Kids benefit tremendously from pre-bedtime routines that help them make the transition to sleep, at the end of an active day. As part of the move back to school, set up a PowerDown Hour™ tailored just for them. What does a PowerDown Hour look like? The specifics can vary according to your child’s age and interests, but here’s a basic template to follow.
Make your child’s PowerDown Hour™ screen free. No TV, no phones, no tablets. Music is a great accompaniment to a PowerDown Hour™ for kids. And audiobooks can be fun, too.
If your child is going to have a snack before bed, do that at the start of the PowerDown Hour™.
Take 20-30 minutes for bath or shower time, brushing teeth, and getting into pajamas.
Spend 10 minutes of the hour in any, or all, of these ways:
A little movement. We don’t want kids getting too active right before bed. But a little physical activity can help them release some of the energy they’ve still got pent up. Yoga, stretching, taking the dog out for a quick stroll around the yard are some easy, low-key ways to help kids physically relax before bed.
Some reading time. Whether you’re reading to them, they are reading to you, or they’re reading on their own, books are the perfect partner for a kids’ PowerDown Hour™. Avoid any homework or required reading. This hour before bed should be a no-pressure time, ideally for teens as well as younger kids.
Quiet play or crafts. Sketching and drawing, coloring with crayons, building with Legos—whatever their age, your child has pastimes that they enjoy and find relaxing. Those activities have a place in their PowerDown Hour™. Steer clear of the activities they like but also wind them up, mentally or physically. Take a pass on the bounce house or trampoline in the rec room or the backyard. Opt out of the model plane construction that your child loves but also can bring out frustration. Play in the PowerDown Hour™ is easy, gentle, and low key.
Meditation and mindfulness. I always recommend meditation as part of a PowerDown Hour™ for adults. Meditation and mindfulness are for kids too, and these simple practices can help lower activity in children’s nervous systems, reduce stress, and increase mental and physical relaxation, just as they do for grownups. Older kids and teens can use guided meditation apps on their own or with you. With younger children, you can do simple deep breathing exercises during bath time, while getting dressed for bed, or as you move between other activities of this quiet, restful hour.
Be consistent—weekends included
My final piece of advice is really important. As you transition toward the new school year and after the school year begins, stay consistent with bedtimes, wake times, and pre-bedtime routines. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Kids will come to know and expect what’s coming, night after night. That’s soothing for their minds, and provides a sense of comfort and security that can help them transition to sleep more easily. Their bodies will be better primed for sleep at biological level too: a consistent routine of sleeping and waking reinforces circadian rhythms and circadian sleep-wake cycles. If you’re going to let kids stay up late or sleep in on the weekends, try not to deviate from normal bedtimes and wake times by more than 30 minutes.
For a lot of families, it’s been a long haul to get to this point, when our kids are returning to a full-time, in-person school schedule. Parents and kids have been through a lot this year, to say the least. Keeping all that we’ve been through in mind, putting some extra thought and attention to your children’s sleep can go a long way toward giving them a smooth transition back to their classrooms.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™