Supply lists have been checked off, overgrown locks trimmed and backpacks filled to the brim. But if kids haven’t yet transitioned back to school-year sleep habits, they’re not ready for the first day.
Trading summer’s relaxed sleep schedule for a school-year routine is an important part of back-to-school prep, says Roslinde Collins, M.D., medical director of the Sleep Center at Rutland Regional Medical Center in Vermont. Reestablishing an earlier time for lights-out helps ensure that kids get the rest they need to shine at school.
Kids who get their required nine to 12 hours of nightly slumber are primed for school-year success. Proper rest helps children learn and retain information because memories are incorporated during REM sleep.
If late bedtimes linger into the school year, kids will be subject to grouchiness, inattentiveness or worse: “Chronically sleep-deprived children often exhibit symptoms of hyperactivity and can even be diagnosed with ADHD,” says Collins.
Don’t expect kids to fall back into their school-year sleep habits without some help. While you can’t make them celebrate summer’s end, you can plan for brighter mornings and happier days with some advance preparation.
Slow and steady
Kids depend on a regular sleep schedule, so don’t wait until the last day of summer to dig out the alarm clock. Rising early after months of sleeping in can shock little bodies and leave kids in a daze during the critical first weeks of school.
DO: Instead, give them time to adjust to the new schedule. Beginning a week before the first day, wake kids 15 minutes earlier in the morning, and move bedtime earlier by the same amount of time. Continue adjusting both wake-up and bedtime by 15 to 20 minutes per day until both are appropriate for their school-day schedule.
Early to bed, early to rise
During the transition, adjust both bedtime and wake-up time. Hitting the sack early isn’t enough, says Collins; kids won’t be tired enough to fall asleep earlier unless they’re also waking earlier in the morning.
DO: Once they’re up, let the sun shine in—fling open curtains to expose them to morning light, and serve breakfast in the brightest spot in the house. They’ll be awake in no time, and the light will reset their internal clock to help them fall asleep earlier at night.
DO: An hour before bedtime, help kids slow down to prepare for sleep. Draw the curtains to block out late-summer rays and limit stimulating television and video games. Spend time winding down as a family with books and other quiet activities.
Stay in the groove
Kids’ bodies and brains depend on consistency, so aim to keep bedtimes in check even on weekends and school breaks. Collins recommends keeping school-vacation bedtimes no more than an hour later than normal.
Sleeping in on weekends is a reality of our sleep-starved culture, but it’s no substitute for good everyday habits. A general rule of thumb: “If kids have to sleep in more than two hours later than normal on weekends, they’re probably not getting enough sleep during the week,” says Collins.
When it comes to sleep, kids are not little adults. “Parents often wonder why it’s hard to get their child up and ready for school after eight hours of sleep. They’re not done sleeping yet!” says Collins. Good school-year snooze habits will make this year their best yet.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published sleep and health journalist and author of Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
If kids have to sleep in more than two hours later than normal on weekends, they’re probably not getting enough sleep during the week