Oh, the lazy days of summer. Long stretches of daylight, lemonade, grilling, and pick-up games outside. If it could only last a little longer! As the season winds down, you may take a final getaway weekend with your family. Or you may just stay home and squeeze every bit of time before school starts. Either way, there’s a good chance that your children are off their normal bedtime and sleep schedule by now. That’s completely understandable, but it’s also something that needs to be remedied before the school bell rings.
I want to help equip you to get your children back into an age-appropriate and healthy sleep routine so that they wake up bright-eyed and alert for that first day of school. It’s not really an impossible task. It just takes a little forethought and a few days to implement changes.
Shift Bedtime and Sleep Schedule Back to Where It Should Be
You can shift your child’s bedtime back to the appropriate time for school nights either gradually or cold turkey — you choose. If you do it gradually, then shift it in 30-minute increments over as many days as needed. Just do the math. Most elementary school-aged children need to be in bed by 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. to get the sleep they need each night.
Follow these recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics for total hours of sleep pre-school and school-aged kids should get by age:
- Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours daily to promote optimal health. That includes naps.
- Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours daily.
- Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours daily.
If your child shows some resistance to going to bed earlier, wake him up in the morning at his new school day wake up time.
If you prefer to go cold turkey, I recommend starting this process in the morning by waking your child up at his new school day wake-up time. That evening put him in bed at the appropriate time so he can get the recommended amount of sleep after a calm bedtime routine. He will be a little more tired and willing to go to sleep at his new bedtime.
RELATED: 8 Steps to Fall Asleep Fast.
The Benefit of Physical Activity for Sleep
Getting physical activity each day is important for our sleep. During the school year it may get pushed aside when homework piles up. As weather permits, you can take a brisk walk around the neighborhood for 30 minutes after dinner or play catch. Just be sure your child is fitting in at least 30 minutes of exercise, ideally outside. This will help her go to sleep as well as improving her physical health.
While rough play — like wrestling on the bed for fun — is great for some kids, bring it to an end an hour before bedtime because it naturally stimulates your child and will keep her up longer. The same goes for strenuous physical activity. Choose puzzles, building toys, reading or other quiet activities in the hour before bedtime.
Create a Soothing Bedtime Routine
Trust me, children thrive on routine even if they resist it at times. Sometimes we jettison our routines in the summer and need to put some structure back in place as school draws near.
Your child’s evening routine actually begins at dinnertime. Young children digest their food more slowly than adults and will need to eat two hours before bedtime in order to sleep soundly. After dinner you may clean up together and do something as a family.
Structuring your school-aged child’s soothing bedtime routine can be as simple as choosing three to four things that should happen every night in the same order right before your child goes to bed. This may include a bath or shower, brushing teeth, laying out clothes and shoes, packing the child’s backpack for the next day, snuggles, and a book or a story.
Depending on their age, your child may enjoy some independent reading time before you say goodnight to him. Just be sure to brush teeth and put pajamas on before you let him start to read in bed. Show your growing child your love and affection with snuggles, hugs and kisses. Turn off the light at bedtime and say goodnight.
The idea is to find a routine that suits your family and stick to it. Of course you will change it as your child grows, but don’t change it every week. Keeping to a consistent rhythm in the evening right before bed signals to your child when it’s time to sleep.
Turn Off Electronics
It can be tempting to “help” your child wind down with electronics, but most screen time actually has the opposite effect. We all have a body clock, called our circadian rhythm, which is a 24-hour cycle. This rhythm regulates when and how we sleep, wake and eat with melatonin, a hormone secreted in the brain by the pineal gland. Blue light emitted by our electronic devices and some light bulbs suppress the production of melatonin, which we all need at night to go to sleep.
Children should avoid all computers, smartphones or tablets for at least two hours before bedtime since these items are generally within 12 to 18 inches of the face. The effect of the blue light diminishes from over five feet away, so watching television from a safe distance does not have the same negative effect on our melatonin production. But the content of the programming and the length does matter for your child. Intense programming can have a disturbing effect on your child once she lies down in bed and is alone. Also, the more we sit and watch TV at night, the less we read books and interact, and the more we eat.
One idea is to limit your elementary school kids’ screen time to weekends so that it’s not a daily battle and it’s not adversely affecting their sleep schedule on school nights. At the very least, turn off handheld devices or computers two hours before bed, and TVs an hour before bed.
Practice Your Morning Routine
If your child is just starting school or pre-school, consider doing a dry run a day or two before the big day.
If appropriate, help your child set his alarm and teach him how to turn it off. Get up at the new school day wake-up time, get dressed, make your child’s lunch, make sure he eats a healthy breakfast, brush teeth and hair, gather his backpack, put on shoes and drive by the school. This is great for Mom or Dad, too.
Sometimes we underestimate (or overestimate) how much time we need in the morning. You will all get in a groove and improve your “time” as you get used to the morning routine. But the traffic will increase when school really starts, so keep that in mind.
A Rested Child Performs Better and Is Happier
The negative effects of sleep deprivation are real and detrimental in many ways. Being sure your child is well-rested for school is one of the most important tasks on your plate as a parent.
A rested child will perform better in school and be happier about going to school. She will relate more effectively to peers and teachers and experience less anxiety about all of the changes involved in going to school. It doesn’t eliminate all of the concerns children will have, but it sets them up to cope better physically, mentally and emotionally.
Going to school is a big adjustment for young children, whether it’s their first year or third. I encourage you to take some extra time at the end of summer to shift their schedule and implement a bedtime routine conducive to getting plenty of sleep. It will be well worth it.
This article originally appeared in US News and World Report.
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