Back to school means a return to a sleeping routine
Although there are a few weeks of summer left for school children, experts say it’s time to start thinking about getting them back on a routine sleep schedule.
Whether students will attend classes in-person, virtually or a combination of both this fall is still left to be decided in many districts. However, sleep experts say establishing a bedtime routine now will benefit them in any of these scenarios.
“Kids need routine in order to thrive,” said Danielle Harris, a family medicine practitioner and Community Care Network physician on staff at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart. “Even more so during this pandemic, when anxiety for the unknown, absence of social activities, financial stressors and possibly even personal losses are more prevalent than most children have ever experienced.”
Establishing a bedtime routine and sticking to a sleep schedule helps children — and adults — feel they have something to rely on for stability, she says.
“While it is understandable for kids and families to have changed their schedules and stayed up later during the pandemic, it is absolutely critical that kids get back to a stable routine,” Harris said.
When to begin
The sooner you start, the better, Harris says.
“It will take a few weeks for kids to adapt to this and re-regulate their sleep architecture,” she said.
Lisa Medalie, an insomnia specialist at University of Chicago and director of the Pediatric Insomnia Program, says she generally recommends her families to start shifting closer to a school year bedtime about 1 month before school starts.
“With the pandemic, families have not had a mandated wake time for several months, which means for many families, they have gotten pretty far off the regular schedule,” Medalie said. “Families that are several hours away from where they need to be with bedtime will likely have to start the shifting process sooner than families that are only an hour away from the desired bedtime.”
Hours of sleep
Before planning a sleep schedule, Harris says it’s important to know how much sleep a child should get. Recommendations are typically made by age, and feature a range because not all kids of the same age require the same amount of sleep to feel well-rested, she says.
● Young adults (18 to 25 years old): 7 to 9 hours
● Teens (13 to 18 years old): 8 to 10 hours
● Grade school (6 to 12 years old): 9 to 12 hours
● Preschool (3 to 5 years old): 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
● Toddlers (1 to 2 years old): 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
● Infants (4 to 12 months): 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
“Listen to what seems to work for your child,” Harris said. “If left to wake up naturally, how many hours would he or she sleep? Note that amount and enforce this.”
How to transition
Begin moving a bedtime routine and wake up time by about 15 minutes earlier each night until the desired time for each has been reached, says Dr. Maneka Kaul, a board certified sleep medicine specialist with the Franciscan Physician Network.
“The first few days will be hard, but stick to the schedule and don’t let your kids doze off during the day,” she said. “This will help consolidate their night time sleep and they will wake up refreshed and ready for their first day of school.”
There are also three key components to sleep health to keep in mind – duration, quality and regularity, Harris says.
“If any one of these are decreased, children develop sleep insufficiency that impairs their ability to learn and grow,” she said.
It is often natural for children, especially teens, to want to go to sleep later and wake up later. Some may even function better on a later sleep schedule, such as 11 p.m. to 9 a.m.
“If this is feasible, this is OK,” Harris said. “It matters much more that kids get enough sleep for their age, that that sleep quality is good and that this amount of sleep is consistent.”
With countless distractions for children and adults – video games, browsing social media, chatting with friends – parents must set boundaries for their children, she said.
“It is difficult for a person of any age to put the phone away,” Harris said. “I struggle with it as well. But we must establish discipline in the household and designate set times for games, Internet and socializing, and set times for sleep.”
Harris advises families to determine together what this routine will be, and stick to it.
“You’ll be surprised how well we can sleep when all distractions are removed,” she said.
In addition to creating a sleep schedule, local sleep experts offer the following tips:
Create limits and stick to them. Although it is natural for younger children to want to engage their parents for longer or older children to spend more time on their phones, Harris said it is important to set limits. Examples include two stories before bed or one 30-minute TV show.
Avoid late night outings and dinners. Dinner should be at least three to four hours prior to bedtime, Kaul says. Limit sugar and desserts, as well as beverages containing caffeine, in the evening hours.
Establish a bedtime routine. Examples include reading a book or taking a bath, Kaul says.
Keep cell phones in the kitchen overnight to charge. Though perhaps most difficult for teens, this step will help reduce the temptation to use it, and the benefits in the short- and long-term will be worth it, Harris says.
Use natural light to wake up. Especially for teens, bright light in the morning such as exposure to sunlight or a light treatment, can cue the brain to stop producing Melatonin, Medalie says.
Try not to deviate too much on the weekends. Keep a similar sleep schedule on the weekends to make Sunday evenings go more smoothly, Harris said.
Encourage children to keep a private journal at night. Especially now, children may need an outlet for their anxiety, Harris says. “Identifying the emotion you are feeling and the likely cause for it allows the brain to process it and decrease rumination before bed,” she said.
Get 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. “This will allow you to expend nervous energy so it doesn’t build up right before sleep,” Harris said.
Consider getting help. If your child is struggling with bedtime or sleep in general, Medalie suggests scheduling a visit with a pediatric insomnia specialist. Medalie, who is the founder of DrLullaby, says a digital version of evidence-based strategies like DrLullaby provides may help as well.