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How to get children back on a sleep schedule for school

Getting kids on a back-to-school sleep schedule

Most kids have probably gotten out of a bedtime routine this summer while they are out of school.

It’s important to get them back on a sleep schedule now, especially since we are only a couple of weeks out from the start of a new school year.

The No. 1 tip I can give to families is to start adjusting their child’s bedtime back by 15 to 30 minutes every night until the child is back into their normal bedtime routine.

That also means that you should wake them up 15 to 30 minutes earlier each morning.

When kids’ bedtimes fluctuate by multiple hours, it’s just like they have traveled through several time zones. It can leave them groggy, disoriented and not really ready to start the new school year feeling their best.

If you are sleep-deprived, you’re not going to be a stellar student, you’re not going to do your best at making a good first impression with a new batch of friends and you’re not going to feel as good about the new, exciting opportunities that come with a new school year.

New sleep guidelines

The American Academy of Pediatrics updated their sleep recommendations last year and there are a few changes parents might not be aware of yet.

They are stressing that teenagers need way more sleep than they are currently getting. About 87 percent of teens aren’t getting enough sleep.

When middle school and teens are sleep-deprived, this can impact their social skills and learning. They can sometimes be misdiagnosed with learning disabilities or get labeled as a trouble maker. In reality, they are punch-drunk groggy and get energy bursts at weird points in the day.

Here are the new sleep recommendations by age:

  • Infants 4-12 months old need about 12-16 hours of sleep during the daytime including naps

  • 1-2 years old — 11-14 hours of sleep including naps

  • 3-5 years old — 10-13 hours including naps

  • 6-12 years old — 9-12 hours of sleep

  • 13-18 years old — 8-10 hours of sleep

Often we see a lot of kids get involved in after school activities and they tend to cut back on sleep to make room for those activities and that’s not a good trade-off. It’s better for a child to be good at a very small number of things than to try to be so engaged in multiple things that they’re not as successful at any of them.

'Sleep hygiene'

In medicine, we use a term called “sleep hygiene,” meaning how do you create an environment that’s most conducive to helping you or your child fall asleep and stay asleep.

Temperature: The best thing you can do is have a dark, quiet room that’s at a nice, cool temperature.

Calming down: Your body also needs a wind-down period. It needs stimulation that is consistent each night saying “these are the clues triggering my body that this is sleep time.”

For younger children, that can be picking up toys, brushing their teeth, taking a bath and then maybe followed by a little bit of story time.

It’s important to have a plan and very consistent rules; for instance, don’t let a child stall by letting them switch out which stuffed animal they will be sleeping with. Limit choices at bedtimes such as how many books they will get to read.

Electronics: As you get into bedtimes for older children, screen exposure is so important. They have to minimize the amount of screen time they have about 30 minutes to an hour before they go to sleep. That means you have to turn off the TVs in the house, put cell phones and tablets away, and turn off computers.

Instead of kids using electronic devices before bedtime, have them add a couple of chores to the bedtime routine such as putting away clothing, getting an outfit or backpack ready for the next day, or walking the family dog.

If your family uses an e-reader at bedtime, I suggest getting an older version that is not backlit. This means if you turn off all the lights in the room the e-reader should also not be emitting any light. Even a faint glow can disrupt normal hormones that control your child’s sleep patterns and the quality of their sleep. Exposure to back-lit screens prior to bedtime can mean even if your child gets the full recommended number of hours of sleep they can still wake up tired as their brain had trouble shutting off fully.

Sleep hormone: Melatonin, a natural sleep hormone, can be helpful in short bursts when resetting your child’s sleep schedule. It is available over-the-counter and I recommend the 1mg or 3mg tablets. The lower dose is usually the more effective dose for most people. Doses above 3mg can actually have the opposite effect and disrupt sleep. Melatonin taken at bedtime can help your body reset its own internal signals that now is the time to sleep.

As in everything we do, our kids emulate what we do as parents. If parents don’t have good sleep hygiene or sleep habits, their child won’t either. It’s important for parents to set a good example when it comes to creating a bedtime routine.

About Amy Seery MD