Back to School, back to sleep! 10 tips to finding your sleep routine

“The road to academic success is paved with sleep,” according to Dr. James Kemp, the director of our sleep center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  Sleep helps kids do well in school, improves social functioning, prevents illness and injuries, and even prevents obesity.  But American children don’t sleep enough.  With touch-screens luring children to avoid bed, we have a growing epidemic of pediatric sleep deprivation.  Don’t let your kids go to school sleep-deprived.  Summer is ending and it’s time to get your kids on a back-to-school sleep schedule.

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Here are 10 tips for back-to-school sleep:

1) Pick your strategy: cold turkey or gradual bedtime change?  I admit it– it’s just easier to go cold turkey and set a really loud alarm on the first day of school, especially for teens and tweens.  The problem with this approach (besides a painful morning and sleepy child) is that your child’s body will demand catch-up sleep.  Unless they start going to bed earlier, your kids will need to sleep in on the weekend.  And then they will be off schedule again. If you do go cold-turkey, make a commitment to early bedtimes during the first week of school.

Gradual bedtime changes are hard to implement, but they allow your children’s circadian rhythms to adjust, and your child will have healthier, higher quality sleep.  Your child will be able to enjoy the first week of school, too, instead of living in a sleep-deprived fog.

2) Calculate your child’s sleep needs: Children’s sleep needs change with age, so check out this sleep chart by my colleague Dr. Kelly Ross and figure out how much sleep your child needs:

Age Hours of Sleep Needed
1-4 Weeks Old 15 – 16
1-12  Months Old 14 – 15
1-3   Years Old 12 – 14
3-6   Years Old 10 – 12
7-12 Years Old 10 – 11
12-18 Years Old 8 – 9
Adults 7-8.5

 

These are averages, and every child is different, so you may want to add time if your child is a sleep-lover or in a growth spurt.

3) Set your wake-up time and bedtime:  For most of us, it is easier to stick to a consistent wake-up time than it is to get to bed on time.  Implement gradual changes in your wake-up time until you are at your goal wake-up time.  Getting to bed on time is usually the harder challenge.  Calculate your goal bedtime based on our child’s sleep needs and wake-up time, and think hard about what obstacles are in the way of bedtime.

4) Set a bedtime for your screens, too: Screen time before bed prolongs “sleep latency,” or the time it takes to fall asleep.  So your screens need a bedtime, too, at least ninety minutes before your child’s bedtime (I prefer two hours).  Set an alarm on your phone or tablet for your screen’s “bedtime.”  Choose a unique alarm sound, like a barking dog, so that when the dog barks the kids know it’s time for the screen to go to bed.  Then pick a common spot to charge up your screens overnight– we use a basket on the kitchen counter.  This makes it easier for you, as a parent, to check that all screens are off and out of kids’ bedrooms at least 90 minutes before bedtime.

Here’s what happened when I tried bedtime with an iPad with my toddler (it didn’t turn out well).

5) Write out your afternoon schedule: The trick to getting to bed on time is an afternoon schedule.  If you child still has chores or homework to do, chances are you will let her stay up to finish.  Most children only have about 4 hours each day between school and bedtime.  This time is valuable.  Have a schedule for homework, extra-curriculars, practicing, bathing, and unstructured playtime.

6) Exercise: What is your child’s primary form of exercise during the school year?  Can you get started early?  Exercise helps kids sleep well, and sleep improves athletic performance.  Avoid exercise in the 2 hour window before bed.

7) Get rid of chemical stimulants: Caffeine, energy drinks, chocolate, and nicotine interfere with sleep.  When you’re trying to get your children on a sleep schedule, it’s best to get rid of all of it.  Some “health” and energy drinks contain elusive amounts of caffeine, so be careful as to what your children are drinking and read labels.

8) Refill your medications: ADHD medications, antidepressants, and other common pediatric drugs can alter sleep.  Be sure your child is taking their prescription at the right time of day and isn’t missing doses.  If your child has gone off medications for summer break, now is the time to re-start them.

Rarely, teens who struggle with sleep schedules and depression actually have narcolepsy.  Contrary to public belief, you don’t have to fall asleep mid-sentence or standing up to be diagnosed with narcolepsy.  Rather, narcolepsy is a neurological disorder of sleep regulation, and some teens with narcolepsy are mis-diagnosed as having depression or other psychiatric disorders.

9) Let melatonin work: Melatonin is a natural hormone made by your brain that triggers that sleepy, I-can’t-keep-my-eyes-open feeling.  Light exposure reduces melatonin production, including blue light from LED screens.  Dim lights and pull shades to darken your home at least 30 minutes before your child’s bedtime.  The darkness will trigger a surge of melatonin that will make bedtime much easier.

Melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter at most pharmacies.  I do not recommend regular melatonin use in children, but there are some situations where short-term melatonin use may help kids get back on a sleep schedule.  Do not give your child melatonin without first discussing it with your pediatrician.

10) Don’t skip the bedtime story, even for big kids:  Reading aloud to children is crucial for vocabulary development and literacy success.  Children need to hear words to be able to learn to read well.  Sadly, research shows that the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than children raised below the poverty line.  These vocabulary gaps are evident in children as young at 18 months.  Singing and reading aloud to children at bedtime is a fabulous way to help your kids improve their vocabulary and succeed in school.  So turn off the bedroom lights, use a clip-on reading light, and read and sing to your kids while they drift off to sleep.

Are you tired?  Here’s what sleep deprivation does to parents.  We’ve also put together tricks to keep toddlers in bed and help infants sleep through the night.

Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. About Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D.

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, M.D., is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Social Media Team, and co-founder of the ChildrensMD hospital physician blog. Her work has been featured in print and online publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Fox2 News STL Moms. Kathleen and her husband are raising five children.

Follow Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs Twitter: @MomDocKathleen and connect with her on .

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