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Sleep Tips

Prep Your Child for Back-to-School

When the start of a new school year is just around the corner, it's a good idea to evaluate your child's sleep routine and make any necessary adjustments. Because of extended daylight during summer evenings, many school-age children stay up later and sleep in the following morning.   

Resetting your child's sleep cycle well before the first day of school will help ensure he gets the right amount of rest.

Dr. W. Christopher Winter, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, CNSM Consulting and the Medical Director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Va., said parents should focus less on bedtime and more on wake-up time when they want to prepare their child for a school year sleep routine. "What you don't want to do is try to get kids to fall asleep earlier than normal," he said.

Parents need to make sure their child is in his bedroom with the TV and other electronic screens turned off at the appropriate bedtime, Winter said, but they shouldn't demand that the child go to sleep when he doesn't feel sleepy. Instead, the child can engage in a calm activity, like reading or drawing, until he feels tired enough to fall asleep.

Winter said plenty of bright light is an important aid to help your child wake up earlier. Even if your child isn't successful at getting up right away, ensuring there is significant light in his bedroom will help begin the wake-up process, he said. "Going into the bedroom and turning on lights, opening up blinds, really trying to make the room they are sleeping in as light as possible is best," Winter said.

It's also important for your child to equate the bright morning light with some type of activity and food. "If you can create a situation where the body understands that soon after it wakes up there will be activity and eating, the brain is much more likely to anticipate waking up," Winter said.

After the parents wake their child, they should make sure he eats something, such as cereal or a granola bar, and engages in an activity, such as taking the dog for walk or going outside to get the newspaper, he said.

Winter said the amount of time it takes a child to adjust to a new sleep routine depends on how much his old wake up time varies from the new one. He said if a child needs to get up at 6 a.m. during the school year, but is accustomed to rising at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., he will need a week or more to adjust.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends once your child is used to his new sleep schedule, it's best to stick with it, even on weekends, because it will keep his circadian rhythm well-regulated.

Creating an atmosphere conducive for sleeping will help a child adjust more quickly to a new routine. This can be accomplished by keeping the child's bedroom cool, quiet, and dark, and removing any electronics at bedtime. Tidying up the room before bedtime will also help create a calming environment for your child.

If your child appears irritable or is inattentive during the first few days of school, he may not be fully adjusted to his new sleep routine, Winter said. He said, "We want to make sure our children are getting enough sleep, but we also want to make sure the child who isn't getting enough sleep doesn't come home and take a nap all afternoon."

Winter said long naps might interrupt the child's natural sleep cycle, so if they seem tired after school, parents should get them to bed a bit earlier rather than allowing them to nap.

The beginning of a new school year is a good time to evaluate your child's mattress. If it has visible signs of wear and tear, it's to buy a new one. A mattress that sags or is lumpy isn't providing your child the support he needs to get a good night's sleep.

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