Kids are usually not ready to go back to school in the fall, and to confuse matters, they sleep following a summer schedule which generally puts them in bed later than is recommended for school-aged kids needing to get up early for school the next day. This can mean a tough transition from summer to school days for many families, with many elements to blame for this challenge.
Daylight hours are still long and late enough to make it hard for kids to go to bed at a normal time. The sky doesn’t darken early enough in August, even in early September, and that means parents may have to double their efforts to get their kids to bed at a healthy time.
On top of that, many schools still have earlier start times than are recommended by most sleep health organizations. This is a particularly significant problem for teenagers as their sleep phases tend to delay at this time in their lives, as they are literally unable to fall asleep until later as a result of major developments in the brain combined with considerable changes in hormone levels. Many school districts have become aware of the need for teens to sleep in and start school later and have adjusted their start times so elementary aged children start off the day earlier (between 7 and 8 AM), allowing junior high and high schoolers the later (around 9 AM) slots. But there are still many school districts across the country which have not made these changes, perhaps at the peril of the kids in those communities. Some research shows that test scores for teens with early start times are considerably lower than those who get to sleep in, and other studies indicate that teens with early start times are also more likely to get into motor vehicle accidents as a result of sleep deprivation which may partly be blamed on this lack of allowance for sleep imposed on them by their school district.
Warmer temperatures in late summer and early fall can also make it harder to fall asleep, as the human body must be able to “cool off” at night in order to achieve sleep onset; warm days, especially in humid areas east and south, can interfere with sleep hygiene in this regard.
What can parents do?
- Know what your child’s sleep needs are first, then factor in bedtime rituals, morning rituals and transportation to school, then subtract these from your child’s school start time to find the right bedtime to which your child acclimates.
- Preschoolers (up to age 6) need 10 to 12 hours
- Pre-adolescent school-aged kids (ages 7-12) need 10 to 11 hours
- Teens (13 to 18) need 8 to 9 hoursPicking a bedtime (example): If your child is 10 years old, and they need about half an hour to get to bed, half and hour to get ready in the morning and half an hour to get to school, and their school start time is 8am, then they need to start going to bed at about 830 at night. This allows them to get ready between 830 and 9pm, to sleep until 7am, then they can get ready from 7 to 730am and head off to school promptly to meet the 8am start time.
- Gradually put your kids to bed earlier over the course of the late summer, if they are pre-adolescent.
- In the case of older kids in late summer, ask them to try to be home earlier or go to bed earlier so they can adjust to the more structured sleep schedule they’ll have to deal with in the fall. If you have teens in sports or other activities that meet before school, discuss with them the importance of getting enough sleep so they can better manage the demands these early schedules can place on their energy and alertness while in class.
- Go cold turkey: the night before school starts, put the kids to bed at the time you want them to go to bed. Prepare for them to be tired or unruly or otherwise less functioning for the first couple of days. Many school districts start in mid-week to prepare for this reality anyway.
- If you have to choose one time to be consistent about, make it the morning wake-up time. All human beings do better if they rise at exactly the same time every morning and allow the day’s activities and their own natural circadian rhythms to determine their bedtimes later.
- Don’t give your teens too hard a time about the fact they can’t get to sleep at an earlier time. This is something they physiologically have no say over and is, in fact, a normal part of their development.
- Institute “screen rules” at bedtime. Kids in 2014 are essentially “plugged in” through their phones, laptops, and video game consoles. The problems with screens are two-fold: first, these devices emit blue spectrum light, which is scientifically proven to shut off melatonin production in the brain (melatonin is a hormone that is secreted in order to prepare the body for sleep); in addition, the content of movies, television shows, Skype phone calls, video games, Facebook and other electronic communications can be tantalizing enough to make it difficult for kids to shut their minds down at bedtime. If your kids can’t learn to police these activities now, the odds of their ever getting a good night’s rest even beyond college life are likely to be next to nothing. Old habits die hard. Don’t let them form these poor sleeping habits in the first place and they’ll be healthier adults in the long run.
- Make sure your kids are not eating late or having snacks right before bedtime. Especially be vigilant about stopping their consumption of caffeine-laced products like chocolate, soda, coffee, cocoa and energy drinks after 5pm at night.
- Put room-darkening window treatments in your kids’ rooms if they have many windows which bring in a lot of light. An eastern or northern exposure window will always be darker at night than a western or southern one, but don’t forget to factor in streetlights outside their rooms, house lights or any lights from passing traffic, which can continually illuminate their bedrooms just as they are trying to fall asleep.
- Make sure your kids are not physically exerting themselves until bedtime. The adrenaline rush that commands the bloodstream following a period of exercise takes a couple of hours to wear off, and that could mean your kids might end up being too hyper to sleep right afterward.
- Remove distractions from your kids’ sleeping environment. That means having them pick up the clutter of their day, if possible, so that they don’t have in their sight lines the reminders of interesting activities to thwart their attempts to sleep.
- Stick to a relaxing bedtime ritual. For younger kids, this could be a bath, teeth brushing and bedtime stories or prayers. For older kids, it could also be a shower or bath and other self care and reading a book, if they can’t fall asleep right away.
- Teach your children meditation. Meditation is a great way to practice mindful living, as it helps with the practice of shutting down the active mind. Meditation also involves healthy breathing practices which can be the basis for a good night’s sleep if practiced at bedtime. Meditation can also be especially useful for kids dealing with the stresses of daily living: family problems, bullies, challenging subjects at school, budding romances, pressures derived from competitive activities. If kids can manage their stress levels, they will be better equipped to deal more successfully with all the very real challenges that childhood and adolescence can bring.