Your “Back to School” Sleep Guide

Sleep is one of the most important components of a healthy lifestyle (alongside exercise and nutrition), but is also easy to overlook. A few months ago we posted a blog detailing the sleep phases and the importance of a full night’s sleep. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into a habit of going to bed late, drinking a cup (or two) of coffee in the morning, and struggling through the day. Repeat this long enough and it almost starts to feel natural, but a lack of sleep can affect both mental and physical health. Particularly in children, a proper sleep schedule has been linked to improved behavior, emotional regulation, learning, memory, and physical health.

Unfortunately, summer can disrupt even the most carefully planned sleep schedule. Students often go to bed later and sleep longer, making for a rude “awakening” once school is back in session. Here are some tips for creating a back-to-school bedtime routine and getting onto a healthy sleep schedule.

1 – Determine how much sleep your kids actually need: Although everyone is different, the National Sleep Foundation recommends the following as a general guideline:

  • Preschoolers (ages 3-5) should receive 10 to 13 hours of sleep (including naps).
  • School-aged children (ages 6-12) should receive 9-11 hours of sleep.
  • Teenages (ages 13-18) should receive 8 to 10 hours of sleep.

Sadly, most American children receive fewer hours of sleep than recommended, with only 40% of middle school and 30% of high school students sleeping enough. In case you are curious, adults should try to get 7 or more hours of sleep per day (good luck!).

2 – Gradually ease into a regular sleep schedule: Whenever possible, parents should try to help their children get to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This is easier said than done, especially in the summer, but the benefits can be huge once school is back in session. For one, there will be less of a transition required to get the kids awake, fed, and out the door. In addition, students will have an easier time settling down and falling asleep at the end of the day if they have a consistent bedtime routine year-round.

So what do you do if your children have drifted away from a consistent schedule? The easiest method is to patiently ease them back into the sleep schedule that you will be adopting for the school year. Starting a few weeks out, incrementally move bedtime and wake-up times by 15 minutes. After a few days with the new times bump them up by another 15 minutes, and repeat until your child is sleeping and waking at the desired times.

3 – Create and maintain a good bedtime routine: A solid bedtime routine can help individuals fall asleep faster and have more productive sleep. The routine should include turning off electronic devices, ideally an hour before bedtime, to minimize exposure to blue light. Although the science is still unsettled, multiple studies have shown that blue light can result in poorer quality of sleep. So, instead of electronics kids should transition to activities that allow them to relax. This can include taking a bath or shower, brushing teeth and other hygiene, reading or journaling, or just relaxing with a parent.

It can also help to prepare the environment to better help transition into bedtime. Keeping the bedroom cool and dark, minimizing noises, and eliminating distractions are the best ways to encourage healthy sleep patterns.

4 – Identify and eliminate negative sleep influences: Pay attention to potential negative sleep influences and try to eliminate them as soon as possible. This can include simple changes like avoiding caffeine and large meals before bed (hint, this also applies to adults). Try to limit the number of naps that school-aged children are taking, or eliminate napping altogether. Finally, while it’s extremely important that children are exercising regularly, try to limit physical activity immediately before bed.

In addition, it’s important to help kids learn to avoid stress immediately before bed. Limit the number of extracurricular activities to manageable levels and encourage them to complete homework earlier in the evening if possible. Finally, identify activities that can help to regulate stress, such as meditation, reading, or fresh air.

Cover image: Sleeping GirlDomenico Fetti, circa 1615.
Yawning Infant, Martin Falbisoner, August 2018.
Wutthichai Charoenburi, Flickr, February 2016.

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