Parenting Sleep
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August 03, 2016

12 back-to-school sleep hacks for parents and their kids

A trio of experts shares advice to scale back the stay-up-late-all-summer conundrum

It’s August or – as it’s known to parents – the month before their children go back to school.

Parents also know it as the month before there’s heck to pay for letting their children stay up later than they do during the school year. (Trust me on this one; in the Hickey household, we're summertime pushovers.)

While that return to normalcy of schedule can be a jolt for parents and kids alike, it doesn’t have to be.

Nope, all it takes is a little commitment and perseverance to get kids back into the groove of going to bed at an hour that won’t leave them falling asleep on their desks during the school day.

PhillyVoice reached out to a trio of local sleep experts/consultants with a simple question: I’ve let my child’s sleep schedule get out of whack this summer, so please, please tell me what I can do to return smoothly to a time of normalcy.

Emily Robinson, whose Sound-A-Sleep Consulting LLC is based in Medford but serves Philadelphia and New Jersey, said that she’s “a fan of keeping close to the same sleep schedule in the summer as during the school year, but I understand most families fall into the category of letting rules slide a little in the summer.” 

Robinson (like our other experts) also recognized that that's a challenge to reverse, so she offered five tips for parents as the school year approaches.

At least a week before school starts, get back to school-year bedtimes

With no hard-and-fast rule, it’s OK to start the process two weeks out for younger children. 

“It takes a week to reset the internal clock,” she said, using jet lag as a comparative reference point. “Your biological clock is catching up to seeing light at the wrong time of day. With kids, the pattern of going to sleep later has the biological clock saying ‘this is the time we go to sleep and this is the time to wake up.’ So, as we get close to the start of the new [school] year, start [addressing that transition] at least a week prior.”

Translation: No staying up late when the school year appears on the horizon.

No electronics within an hour before bedtime 

Televisions, computers and video games – which stimulate minds both young and old – could push back bedtimes. Robinson noted that it’s important to “set a tone for relaxation” as bedtime approaches. 

“It’s a great thing to hold off on reading and make it a part of the bedtime routine,” she said. “They’ll have a better chance of remembering [what they or you have read] and it helps brain activity shut down, so when it’s time to turn out the lights, it’s easier to fall asleep.” 

As for that drifting-off process, if children are tired enough for sleep, but not overly tired, it should take 5 to 10 minutes for younger kids and 15 minutes for older. 

Remember: Blue screens are the antithesis of lullabies.

Have a predictable, consistent bedtime routine

“Make it something that happens in the same order every night: Bath, brush teeth, reading or being read to,” says Robinson. “The same thing happening in the same order at the same time is queuing them for sleep.”

Darkness is key

With the summer hours, it’s light outside later, even past their bedtimes. This is especially problematic for younger children. 

Experts recommend “blackout shades” and then, if the room isn’t dark enough, using an extra blanket or sheet over the window to ensure that it’s as dark at bedtime as it is in the middle of the night. Since melatonin (aka the sleep hormone) is produced in darkness, darkness is key to a good night’s sleep.

Limit caffeine (or sugar) in the evening hours

Cutting off sugar intake will help them doze off easier and earlier. If you can replace sugary desserts with fruit after dinner, do so, says Robinson, who acknowledged that “it’s not always easy” to pull that off.

Debbie Sasson, a doctor of psychology, is a certified child sleep consultant from Bala Cynwyd who runs Sleep Sisters with her California-based sister Melissa. They’ve written about the back-to-school conundrum before.

Concurring with Robinson’s tips, except walking back the one about dessert – “a bowl of ice cream isn’t going to keep them awake, but no glass of Kool-Aid in bed” – she offered five more of her own.

Calculate the best bedtime 

Kindergarten and elementary school-aged children need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep a day, a statistic that she's seen surprise some parents. Sasson recommended calculating how much time is needed to get ready before leaving the house for school and then counting back from there to determine the ideal bedtime for your child.

While every child is different, the National Sleep Foundation offers guidelines for sleeping hours that are recommended, may be appropriate and not recommended. They are (listed in that order):

Preschoolers (4-5 years old): 10-13 hours; 8-9 or 14; less than 8 or more than 14

School-aged children (6-13 years old): 9-11 hours; 7-8 or 12; less than 7 or more than 12

Teenagers (14-17 years old): 8-10 hours; 7 or 11; less than 7 and more than 11

Get the temperature right

Sixty-eight to 70 degrees is ideal for comfortable sleeping.

Bask in the natural sunlight of the daytime hours

“Getting natural sunlight in the afternoon helps our Circadian rhythms" acclimate to wake-and-sleep demands, she said, noting the benefits of training the body to know when it’s time to rest. (Plus, it's good for their health to exercise in the first place.)

Get a white-noise machine

And make sure it’s on consistently. 

“Don’t let it shut off after 45 minutes,” Sasson says. “If a dog barks, or a car horn honks, that can wake a child up, so make sure it’s on all night, but not too loud.”

Keep an eye on wake-up times

“If they’re waking up earlier, that means they’re overtired. So, you need to reset that clock in a way that the child can understand,” she says. “Maybe that means they’re not allowed to get out of bed until a certain time. Parents often make the mistake that if their children are waking up earlier, they can go to bed later, when the opposite is true.” 

Translation: If your child is waking up early, don’t let them go to bed later.

Lacey Russo of Solace Sleep Consulting in Malvern, offered a pair of additional sleep hacks, as well.

A gradual return to school-year sleep hours

“What I tell parents is they have to start earlier than the day before,” she says. “You can adjust bedtime by 15 minutes a day, or 10 minutes a day, so it’s not a shock for them.”

Involve them in the process

“Tell the kids this is about to happen. They’ll probably push back a little bit, so it helps if they’re involved in the discussion and thought process,” she said. “Nobody likes change, especially change that’s no fun. Kids don’t want to be tricked; they want to know what’s going on, and it works when they feel like they’re part of the discussion.”

There are a slew of other tip sheets about this topic, so if you’re still looking for more help, you can start here, here, here and here.