How to Get Your Kids’ Sleep Back on Track for the New School Year
If you’re like so many parents out there, you’ve let your kids’ sleep schedules get a bit looser over summer break. After all, it gets dark later, and it’s hard to persuade a kid to go to sleep by 8 p.m. when the sun is still blazing. Plus, there’s nothing as special as sharing a late summer night with your kids—running to catch the ice cream truck, catching fireflies, looking at the stars or sitting on the porch watching people stroll by.
It’s all harmless summer fun until you realize the school year is fast approaching and summer is on its way out.
This stress is a near-universal parenting problem. Mornings are rough as it is, but they become especially stressful when you’re waking kids from much-needed sleep to rush them out the door.
We reached out to experts on children and sleep for advice to help transition kids to a more school-friendly sleep schedule—as well as tips for maintaining healthy sleep habits all year long.
When to Start Getting Kids on a School Schedule
If possible, it’s best to start the transition to an earlier schedule a week (or even just a few days) before school starts. Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep specialist, Sleep.com Advisor and author of The Rested Child, says that kids who are only off by a few hours will need less time to adjust. Kids whose sleep schedules have skewed super-late—such as a teen who is staying up till 2 a.m. every morning—may need more time.
He recommends calculating when to start adjusting the schedule by giving yourself two to three days for each hour that your kids’ schedules are off. So, kids who are going to sleep one to two hours later will just need a few days to transition. “If they’re going to bed four hours later than they typically do, maybe you want to start that a week or a week-and-a-half before things get going,” Winter explains.
Start the Transition With Morning Wake-Ups
It might seem totally counterintuitive, but it’s best to focus on tweaking your kids’ wake-up times first, rather than trying to get them to go to bed earlier. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t worry so much about the bedtime,’” Winter says. “Just start to enforce an earlier and earlier wake-up time, and the bedtime will take care of itself.”
Jade Wu, Ph.D., behavioral sleep medicine psychologist, says the shift toward an earlier wake-up might be a multi-step process. “Step one is to get back to a regular wake-up time (i.e., the same time every day), even if that time doesn't match the school year schedule yet,” she says. Once the wake-up time is standardized, start to shift that wake-up time gradually toward what it will need to be once school starts. You can do this by about 15 minutes a day for a couple of days, Wu offers.
Set the Evening Mood
As your child starts waking up earlier in the morning, they should start getting sleepier earlier and earlier at night (hopefully!). You can gently encourage this by making your home into a more sleep-inducing place as that earlier bedtime rolls around. Here are some ways of helping kids prepare for sleep.
Control the Lighting
Almost every kid has a screen they look at (or are glued to) throughout the day. The problem is that the blue light from TVs, computers and tablets can interfere with kids’ sleep. Blue light makes it more difficult for the body to naturally produce melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy at night—and kids seem to be extra-sensitive to the effects of blue light.
It’s not just blue light—any light exposure in the evening can interfere with your child’s circadian rhythm and make it harder to sleep. This is partly why kids tend to resist bedtime once those bright summer nights hit. Winter says that, once fall approaches, there are ways to minimize light from electronics and other sources.
“You can do a lot of passive things, like controlling the lighting of your home—making sure that things are dimmer after dinner,” he suggests. And what about those electronics? If you have a master switch that cuts off the WiFi in the house, consider using it, Winter suggests. “You might let people know now, ‘Hey, a week before school starts, we’re starting to get stricter about cutting off the WiFi.’” You can also consider making it a routine in your home that electronics aren’t taken into the bedroom at night.
Start to Bring That Bedtime Routine Back
Children thrive on routine, and as you transition them back to a different sleep schedule, you can work on setting some routines around bedtime, Wu suggests. These sorts of routines might have gone by the wayside as you enjoyed your more free-flowing summer, but it’s time to bring them back.
“Establish a bedtime routine first, even if it happens at a later hour than it should,” Wu says. And what should that bedtime routine include? “It should be low stimulation,” she describes. It can include reading a story, brushing teeth and changing into PJs. The idea, above all, is to make it relaxing and enjoyable for your kids.
Cue Up Their Sleep
Wu is all about external sleep cues—established signals that tell your kids that it’s time for bed. This can be a special light or a chime sound that’s programmed to be activated at a certain time each night. “Tell your kids that it's bedtime, so they learn to associate the cue with the start of the bedtime routine as a matter of course,” Wu suggests. Besides setting up a sleep-inducing routine, this reduces the chance that you will be thought of as the “bad guy” when it comes to enforcing bedtime, Wu adds.
If All Else Fails
If you’ve found yourself at the start of school with overtired kids, do not panic. Prep what you can to let your kids get the eight to 12 hours of sleep they need—this depends on the kids and their ages—to go into those morning classes attentive and rested. As a parent, you can help get their meals ready, their clothes picked up and their backpacks packed to give them a bit of extra time. If you know that your kid isn’t a morning person, try to adjust their school schedules to move important classes later in the day, when they’re more focused.
How to Establish Good Sleep Habits All School Year Long
Your kids will inevitably adjust to their new sleep routines once the school year starts, whether you’ve managed to do it in a more measured manner or have just gone cold turkey (which experts do not recommend). But even once kids are adjusted to those early-morning wakeups and earlier bedtimes, maintaining healthy sleep habits all school year is a goal worth considering.
This includes not letting kids stay up later on weekends. Instead, encourage them to maintain their same wake-up times on weekends, so that they’re not impacted by what’s called social jetlag.
Once kids are on an ideal schedule, stay committed to the routines and practices that help them lessen screen time and know their bedtime cues. Kids appreciate structure, and their sleep benefits from it.
What Are the Biggest Issues Interfering With Kids’ Sleep?
According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, elementary school-aged kids need nine to 12 hours of sleep each day, and teens need about eight to 10 hours. But research shows that about a third of all kids aren’t getting enough sleep. Winter says that the biggest hurdles preventing kids from getting their recommended Zzz’s are three main things: extracurriculars (i.e., a jam-packed schedule), heavy use of electronics before bed, and the stressors of school and life.
So how do you tackle these issues? Winter says that you don’t have to eliminate all of your kids’ after-school activities. As long as they aren’t interfering with sleep, activities can and should continue. Your children should go ahead and sign up for extracurriculars they are passionate about, but start with just one or two. “After that, it becomes a privilege: You can do it, if you can manage everything else properly,” he suggests. “If you can’t, maybe you need to drop that other thing.”
As mentioned above, electronics can become an issue for many kids, but it’s not like we can wish them away. They are here to stay, and most of our kids are even using their electronic devices for homework and reading books, Winter notes. The key is decreasing their use right before bedtime and putting electronics “to sleep” for the night before getting into bed.
Regarding stress, Winter says it’s not just academic and social stresses that are interfering with our kids’ sleep, though those are certainly issues. Many kids get stressed about sleep itself, so taking a relaxed approach to bedtime is important. “You want to try to prevent them from entering that sort of ‘performance anxiety’ mind of ‘I’ve been in bed for 15 minutes and I haven’t fallen asleep,’” says Winter.
If your kids experience stress around sleep, be realistic with them. Tell them to expect it to take some time to fall asleep sometimes, and acknowledge that it might be tough. Give them the tools that will help them fall asleep—dim lights, fewer electronics, set wake-up times. But never force a stressed kid to sleep, Winter advises. “You never want to create that sense of ‘I’m failing in bed’ mentality in a child, because they will absolutely bring that with them into adulthood,” he says.
The Bottom Line about Kids and Sleep
When you are an exhausted parent, it can be hard to see the big picture here, but establishing healthy sleep habits isn’t just about getting through each school year intact. It’s about instilling the kinds of lifelong sleep habits your kids will carry into adulthood. And it doesn’t take much: Just establishing some commonsense routines for your kids and making an effort to help your kids get the sleep that they need can go a long way.
As for successfully transitioning to the upcoming school year, making some small tweaks—like adjusting wake-up times gradually over a few days, and reestablishing bedtime routines—can work wonders. However it goes for you, remember that you are not alone. There are millions of parents who will be making this transition right along with you … and chugging a lot of coffee along the way to make it through.