A lack of routine during the pandemic has made it difficult for kids to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. Now is the time for kids to get back on track.
Pandemic got you up at night? For many families, a lack of routine and typical activities like school and sports has made it difficult to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
Although many school schedules are still uncertain heading into fall and beyond, now is the time for kids—and their parents—to get back on track.
- Maintain a schedule, even when school is out. Letting kids sleep and wake whenever they want is not a healthy long-term solution for kids or their parents. By sleeping through the day, kids may be missing valuable socialization opportunities with the only other people they see now—the rest of the family. And kids’ erratic sleep schedules also put pressure on parents who are trying to work from home. “People of all ages are struggling with this right now,” says Dr. Okorie. “Sleep schedules may be shifting a little later, but having some anchors in your day is important for sleep and for mental health.” How about an unscheduled nap now and then? “Occasional naps are fine as long as they are short (20 to 30 minutes) and early in the afternoon so they don’t impact nighttime sleep,” Dr. Okorie says.
- Figure out how much sleep your kids actually need. So what should that new sleep schedule be? Dr. Okorie recommends keeping a simple sleep journal to record when your kids go to bed, when they wake up, and how they feel first thing after waking. Use this to help determine the optimal number of hours your kids should be sleeping every night (usually eight to 10 hours). Once you have that number, you can set a sleep schedule based on school start times and the family’s schedule. “There may need to be some flexibility around later sleep and wake times than in the past, but knowing the optimal sleep duration will help set expectations,” Dr. Bhargava said.
- Make gradual changes. Start shifting sleep and wake times by 30 minutes every day, beginning two to four weeks before school is set to return, until you reach your goal. Children’s circadian rhythms take time to change, especially in the summer, when longer days make earlier sleep times challenging. In the mornings, Dr. Okorie stresses the importance of taking in bright light quickly and getting out of bed to help the body wake up—even if kids have nowhere to go.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Now more than ever, it’s important to create the right environment for sleep. Since kids may be spending more time in their rooms these days, if they are having trouble sleeping, Dr. Okorie recommends trying to reserve the bed for sleep—no homework, video games or other screens in bed. Screen time in general is on the rise, but “it’s important to try to maintain the same guardrails around technology” as used before the pandemic, Dr. Okorie says. This includes one hour of tech-free time before bed and frequent tech breaks during the day, when kids can go outside or do something else to rest their eyes. Another benefit of limiting screen time is limiting exposure to news, which can cause the same anxiety in kids as it does in adults.
- Don’t be afraid to seek help. As pulmonologists, Drs. Bhargava and Okorie also treat patients with asthma and other chronic lung disorders, whether or not they have sleep issues as well. Many of those patients have improved during the pandemic. “A lot of my patients have actually thrived under social isolation because they aren’t being exposed to nearly as many germs,” Dr. Bhargava says. But he also wants patients and their families to know that it is safe to seek treatment—whether for an asthma attack or a sleep issue. “We are seeing lots of patients through virtual visits, and we’ve created a very safe environment for those who want or need to come in to the clinic or hospital,” he says. “All providers and staff are screened, and we have very thorough cleaning and infection control measures in place.”