By Valerie Finholm , USA TODAY’s “Back to School” magazine Published 8:00 a.m. ET Aug. 10, 2019
Attention, parents: It’s 8 p.m. Do you know where your children are? If they’re not in bed, you may be overlooking one of the most important things you can do to prepare your kids for school.
In the summer, bedtimes can become more fluid, with youngsters staying up later and later. But before school starts, it’s important to establish a bedtime routine that will ensure they get proper rest to prepare them for busy days.
Researchers have found that kids need more sleep than adults — lots more — to support their growth and development. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that preschoolers get 10 to 13 hours of sleep a day, grade-schoolers get nine to 12 hours and teens sleep eight to 10 hours.
Kids who don’t get enough sleep — even an hour or so less than recommended — may have trouble paying attention, sitting still or keeping their emotions in check at school, says sleep psychologist Lisa J. Meltzer, an associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver.
“Sleep is just as critical as diet and exercise,” says Meltzer. “We need to make sleep a priority, and often it’s not.”
Cause for alarm
“Twenty years ago, people went to bed earlier,” says Marc Weissbluth, professor emeritus of clinical pediatrics at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Yesteryear’s children also spent more time napping.
There are many reasons for this, including naps cut short in day care and working parents who postpone bedtime to spend time with their children, says Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Another culprit: Many parents are sleep-deprived themselves — getting by on six or seven hours a night — and don’t recognize the condition in their children. Research shows that regular sleep deprivation has serious — and lasting — side effects for kids, including behavioral problems, weight gain, hypertension, headaches and depression.
In a study published in 2017 in Academic Pediatrics, parents and teachers reported more problems with 7-year-olds who didn’t get enough sleep during their toddler and preschool years, compared with those who got an age-appropriate amount of sleep during those years. Insufficient sleep was defined as less than 12 hours during infancy, less than 11 hours for 3- and 4-year-olds and less than 10 hours for 5- to 7-year-olds.
The study found that the sleep-deprived kids struggled with emotional control, paying attention and making friends. Other research has linked poor sleep and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Kids need to wind down before they sleep, so it’s important to establish a sleep ritual. “Our technology has on/off switches, but our brains have dimmer switches. So, it takes quite a while for our brains to shut down at night,” Meltzer says.
Weissbluth says waiting until the first day of school to alter sleep patterns can leave children in a daze for the first few weeks. So, don’t wait until the night before school starts to adjust your child’s bedtime. Instead, gradually shift bedtime, putting your kids to bed 15 minutes earlier each night, starting about two weeks before school starts, Meltzer says. With nine to 12 hours needed for grade school students, that translates to a bedtime of about 7:30 or 8 p.m., if children need to be up around 6 or 6:30 a.m.
For grade school kids and younger, a popular bedtime routine is a bath followed by a story. For older children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all screens be turned off at least one hour before bedtime so teens have time to wind down.
Be aware that sleep habits shift during puberty, so it’s natural for teens to stay up later. A short after-school nap can help teens work more efficiently, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Also, they should steer clear of caffeine-infused drinks late in the day.
Establishing a good sleep routine early will pay off in the future. “When children very young get the sleep they need, it helps them for the rest of their lives because they know how it feels to be well-rested,” Weissbluth says.
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