How to Get Your Child’s Sleep Schedule Back on Track

Start early to help your kids get the sleep they need for back-to-school.

While you may have let your kids go to bed later during the summer months to accommodate vacations, special events, and the season’s more laid-back feel, they’ll need a good night’s sleep every night to stay focused once they’re back in school. To get your kids back into a school year routine, start as soon as you can. Here’s how to make it as painless as possible with ideas for every age group.

Kids and Sleep Schedules: Elementary School

Make a focused effort a week to two weeks in advance to get your elementary-school aged child back to their school time sleep routine, advised Michael Strunc, MD, director of sleep medicine, and child neurology at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va.

Still, you can’t just put your child to bed an hour earlier for a night or two before school starts. They likely won’t be able to sleep earlier if their bodies aren’t tired. Instead, Dr. Strunc recommends waking up your grade-school child an hour earlier starting a week or so before school starts. “When you wake them up, turn on the lights and maybe play some music. Lights and noise are external cues for our circadian rhythms,” he said.

Also to help them get with the program, don’t let kids take a nap during the day. As you continue to wake them up earlier, they’ll be more sleepy come bedtime. And you can gradually move their bedtime to an earlier ideal-for-school time — aiming for 15 to 30 minutes earlier each night until they are sleeping as they normally would for school.

As part of the before-bed prep, make sure your children avoid TV and any stimulating activities. Read a book together or listen to benign noise such as soothing music, waves (commonly found on nighttime sound machines), or even a fan. The point is to make pre-bedtime a little boring for them, so sleep seems like a better option, said Strunc. Aim for nine to 12 hours of sleep a night for your elementary-aged student.

Kids and Sleep Schedules: Middle School

With hormonal changes kicking in and technology commonplace in their lives, middle school students have sleep challenges that younger ones do not, said Strunc. The best approach with this age group is to also start adjusting their sleep pattern a good week or two before school starts — follow a similar approach as that used with the elementary school kids. Once again, it’s best to work in 15- to 30-minute increments to change both bedtimes and wake times, said Judith Owens, MD, director of sleep medicine for Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Although there can be individual variations, most middle-schoolers need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night. You’ll probably find that this age group wants more independence and more connections with friends through electronics. “A lot of middle-schoolers have cell phones and, with their mobile devices, they are hooked in 24/7,” said Strunc. Instead of sleeping, they want to stay up and text, check Facebook and use other social media sites. That means you may have to take a hard line on having them avoid their gadgets for about an hour before bedtime. “You have to set rules,” said Strunc. Otherwise, the hours will slip away, and they won’t get the quality sleep that they need.

Kids and Sleep Schedules: High School

When it comes time to help your high-schooler adjust to their back-to-school sleep schedule, two factors often complicate the picture. First, an adolescent’s body naturally wants to stay up later due to an internal shift in internal body clock. This prompts him to want to stay up about an hour beyond when he might have gone to sleep before, said Strunc. “After adolescence, the clock shifts back again,” he added.

At the same time, many high schools across the country have an earlier start time compared with elementary and middle schools. Late nights and early school start times mean high-schoolers frequently arrive at school sleepy, said Strunc.

“If a typical teen needs nine hours of sleep and if they have to get up at 5:30 in the morning, that can be a recipe for disaster,” said Dr. Owens. Sleepiness can affect safety. A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found a significantly increased crash rate in a Virginia school district where high-schoolers started school earlier 75 to 80 minutes earlier compared with another nearby district.

Electronics also can distract your high-schooler from a good night’s sleep. Some even feel peer pressure if they don’t respond to a message from a friend in the middle of the night.

To help your high school student get an ideal nine hours of sleep, your approach should be similar to that with a middle-schooler, said Strunc. Start helping them to adjust their bedtime and wake time for several days before school starts, and enforce your rules about keeping electronics off for better quality sleep.

By Vanessa Caceres