Sleep: Getting Back on Track for School

Sleep and getting your child’s bedtime routine back on track for school is something all parents think about as the long summer vacation winds to an end. As school looms closer, you try putting them to bed earlier to get them used to the change, but they say they aren’t sleepy: they can’t fall asleep. The answer is to schedule a planned, gradual move back to the school bedtime routine, over a period of at least two weeks’ time.

In summer, kids stay up late, and then sleep in the next morning, as long as they like. Which makes bedtime routine and sleep the first, if not the main casualties of summer. After several weeks of their new sleep freedom with liberal sleep/wake times, children fall out of the habit of going to bed at a decent hour and getting up early the next morning. Why get up early, and stick to a schedule, when there is no school? After all, it’s vacation.

Disturbing the Sleep Rhythm

This is a good question. The answer is that disrupting the sleep rhythm is never a good idea, in either direction. “To be perfectly honest, we recommend staying on the same sleep schedule even through summer vacation,” says Carolyn Burke, outreach manager at The Sleep Advisor. “This is the best way to keep the body and mind on a healthy sleep schedule.”

It’s an awful lot to ask, however, as Burke would be the first to concede. It’s difficult for parents and children to forego the perceived freedoms of summer. And so Burke suggests that if you’re not going to stay on the same sleep schedule year round (which is probably the case with most of us), at least make the switch a bit at a time.

But let’s back up: why would it be most of us parents who opt for more flexible summer bedtimes?

Well, for one thing, it’s a relief for parents and children alike to not always have to be racing to get to school on time. Ditto parents not having to fight with children over their pleas to stay up “just a few more minutes!!”

children playing in summer sunset

We Can Be Flexible

As parents, we like that in the summer, the answer to that kind of a plea is going to be, “Why not?” We love our children’s energy. And we can be flexible. After all, the children don’t need to get to school on time the next morning. (There is no school. It’s summer. Lather, rinse, repeat.)

Then too, as parents we also know that we can’t just expect kids to fall into line: into a proper schedule after so many weeks. If we, on the other hand, do nothing, as the first day of school looms close, we are courting disaster. Because at some point kids must go back to school. And when that first day back does roll around, we need to do more than have our children arrive on time. Because if children show up half asleep, not having slept enough hours the night before, they are there in body only. And that’s no way to learn.

It’s only natural: all parents want their children to succeed in school. Some planning at the end of summer is therefore in order as you transition back to the school bedtime routine. To that end, here are six things you can do to help your child make the shift from all-night summer night owl to our wonderful, everyday, on-the-ball student.

1)     Make it a Gradual Change

  • Begin adjusting your child’s sleep schedule two weeks before the first day of school.
  • Move your child’s bedtime back by 5-15 minutes each night.
  • In the morning, wake your child up that many minutes earlier.
  • If you put your child to bed ten minutes early, wake the child ten minutes early. Bedtime and wake time adjustments should match.
  • Continue to move bedtime and wake times back, until your child’s bedtime routine matches his needs once school begins.

setting alarm clock

2) Find Your Target Sleep Wake Times

Figure out what time your child needs to go to sleep and what time s/he needs to wake. The idea is that you choose a bedtime/wake time frame to give your child sufficient sleep with enough time in the morning to get dressed, eat breakfast, and arrive at school on time. To figure out your child’s ideal back to school bedtime schedule consider that according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM):

  • Children 6-12 years of age should sleep 9-12 hours a night
  • Teenagers 13-18 years of age should sleep 8-10 hours a night.

child asleep in bed with teddy bear

Example: If your child needs around 10 hours of sleep and school begins at 8, he can go to bed at 9 PM to get up at 7 AM.

But of course, in figuring out your child’s target sleep/wake times, you need to consider the length of the commute to school and how much time your child needs to wake up and get ready. A younger child may need more time to sleep as well as more time to get ready. Every child is different.

3) Ban Electronic Devices an Hour Before Sleep

Ban the use of all electronic devices, for instance TV, mobile devices, video games, and computers, from at least one hour before bedtime. Have children hand you their devices for safekeeping at that time, until morning. Electronic devices interfere with sleep in two ways: The artificial blue light their screens emit prevent the body from releasing the sleep hormone melatonin, which prevents children from becoming sleepy. In addition, if children have their phones with them while they sleep, they will answer texts all night long and respond to social media posts. Interrupted sleep is bad sleep, so make taking away their devices a fact of life.

child with smartphone texting under covers at night

4) Get Some Sun

Child Sleep and Behavior Consultant at Little Big Dreamers Mylee Zschech offers some surprising advice for getting kids back on track with their sleep. “To help with the adjustment parents can also get their kids out in the morning sun within the first hour of waking. This helps to reset their circadian rhythm to the new sleep schedule. Going to a playground or a walk around the neighborhood can work well.”

sisters playing in field in morning sun

5) Set the (Calm, Quiet) Tone

An hour before lights out, be ready to suggest quiet activities and do what you can to offer a calmer environment. Perhaps you could put on some soft classical music and keep the lighting to a minimum. This is a good time to read books, draw a picture, or take a bath. The idea is to help your child relax and unwind in peace.

Dr. Lina Velikova of , a clinical doctor and sleep expert, suggests a more active role for the parent in this task, “One of the good tactics is clearing kids’ evening schedules. The less activities they have in the evening, the easier it will be for them to fall asleep,” she says.

smiling calm mother and daughter reading together in bed

6) Approach the Task With Confidence

A parent should approach preparing a child for the new sleep routine, as an unwavering fact, with confidence that this is the best thing for the child. Such an attitude will help your child accept that a change in bedtime routine is what is going to happen. Dr. Velikova relates to the emotional component of the adjustment, “Getting back to normal sleeping schedules can be tough for kids. You need to discuss the new rules now and explain that the vacation is over and they need to get back to the school routine.”

7) Develop a Strong Sleep Routine

In some ways there is a fourth component to getting kids into the swing of things in their back to school bedtime routine, and that is routine for routine’s sake. A routine is a soothing thing to have: something a child can predict. Knowing what’s coming next makes it easier to fall asleep and get a good night’s sleep. By sticking to the same activities and methods each night, your child will come to adopt a new bedtime routine as just what she expects to happen. That means she will eventually be adopting these same measures to go to sleep and wake up, without any help from you.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.