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Get Your Child's Sleep Schedule Back on Track Before School

08-16-2019

Summertime, and the living’s easy, right? For many families, that means flexible schedules, vacations, and long days followed by later nights. Traveling, staying up late, and breaking the “school routine” of bedtimes and wake-up times was fun while it lasted. But, now the first day of school is creeping up on the calendar, and you’re struggling to get your child to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up alert and on time. What to do?

Sleep is everything, especially for young, growing minds and bodies. If summer’s longer days and shorter nights have reset your child’s internal clock, consider these tips for school-year sleep success.

Why the Body Needs Sleep

Preschoolers, kindergarteners, growing tweens, young adults, and everyone in between need good sleep. It’s vital to children of all ages. Restful sleep, along with proper nutrition and physical activity, impacts our overall health and well-being. In children, the right amount of sleep directly influences their health and development.

Our bodies may appear to be at rest when we sleep, but they’re really hard at work. Sleep allows our bodies to fight off infections and helps us metabolize sugar to prevent diabetes. Deep sleep triggers the release of a hormone that stimulates growth in children and teens. This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps to repair cells and tissues—not only in children but in adults too. Ironically, sleep is a time when our bodies “recharge and repair.”

If you want your child to succeed this school year, getting enough sleep should be a top priority. When children don’t get enough sleep—even just 25 minutes less a night—it can lead to lower grades, fatigue, and trouble concentrating during school. But the most destructive symptom of a bad night’s sleep in children is displayed in their behavior, as most parents and teachers can agree. The symptoms of ADHD mirror those of tired kids. Acting impulsive and distracted are two of the classic ADHD symptoms that can be displayed by simply tired kids.

A new school year is an excellent time for parents to evaluate and model good sleep habits, too. Studies show 25% of American adults don’t get enough sleep 15 of every 30 days. To help your family establish healthy nighttime routines, consider these tips.

1. Gradually adjust bedtimes and stick to them.

A week or two before school starts, gradually adjust your child’s bedtime. Move it five to 15 minutes earlier every night, until you’ve reached their ideal bedtime for the school year. Everyone in the household should also adjust theirs gradually, so your child’s circadian rhythms reset. This is more effective than making a sudden and shocking change a day or two before school starts. If you approach a new school routine gently, it will feel normal by the time the first day of school rolls around—and bring smiles for those first-day-of-school pictures!

It’s also important to know how many hours of sleep your child needs so you can count back from wake-up time to determine bedtimes each night. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this is the ideal amount of sleep based on age:

  • Preschoolers (ages 3-5) need 10-13 hours
  • School-aged children (ages 6-13) need 9-11 hours
  • Teens (ages 14-17) need 8-10 hours
  • Young adults (ages 18-25) need 7-9 hours

As parents, one of the most challenging tasks is sticking to a consistent bedtime, especially if your child is involved in extracurricular activities or if other surprises pop up throughout the week. But, experts say it’s one of the most important things you can do for your child’s academic success. Maintaining a consistent bedtime—even on weekends—allows your child’s natural circadian rhythms to follow an uninterrupted pattern. This brings healthier physical and mental functioning and better behavior.

2. Establish relaxing bedtime rituals and routines to “wind down.”

Preparing for bedtime should be one of your family’s favorite, cherished times together. Your family may need to plan on 30 minutes or an hour’s worth of time for your child’s routine. This may include taking a bath, drinking a glass of warm milk, diffusing lavender essential oils, brushing your teeth, stretching, reading books, or listening to soothing music.

Children crave structure and routine. The younger your child is, the more likely you need to cycle through all or most of these rituals daily. You can think of bedtime as your little oasis to unwind, both mentally and physically, as a family. And, when you repeat the same routine every night, it will cue your child’s brain and body that it’s time to sleep, establishing healthier sleeping habits. Of course, some of the best ways to end the bedtime routine is with a hug, kiss, or snuggle.

3. Turn off technology.

The light generated by our electronic devices is a stimulator. It keeps us alert and awake by delaying your body’s internal clock (your circadian rhythm) and suppressing the release of the sleep-inducing hormone known as melatonin. It’s largely caused by the short-wavelength, artificial blue light emitted.

If your child logs two hours of screen time right before bed, for example, it will lower their levels of melatonin by 22%. According to another study, children who use computers, tablets, or phones as sleep aids have later weekday bedtimes, log fewer hours of sleep each week, and often feel sleepy during the day.

So, set a “screen bedtime”—a deadline about an hour before your child’s actual bedtime, when all technology must be turned off. Set recharging stations in the living room, kitchen, or common area of the house away from bedrooms for the night. Your devices will recharge without tempting the kids to check them during this time. If devices are in the bedroom, you or your child may wake up from the “dings” of messages and want to check them. This certainly doesn’t allow for restful sleep!

4. Get organized the night before.

Lay the groundwork for “smooth sailing” in the morning by preparing for the day the night before. Together, complete all homework, pack the backpack, choose and lay out clothes and shoes, and pack a healthy lunch. Mornings can be hectic, especially if you have more than one child, a spouse preparing for work, and/or shared bathrooms. Pair that with a child who stayed up too late the night before and forgot to prep for school, and the morning can become a nightmare. But preparing for a successful start to the day the night before removes stress to help you avoid morning meltdowns.

5. Get active for better sleep.

Encourage your child to play hard, not only during recess time, but in the backyard after school, at the local park, or walking or biking together in your neighborhood. The more active they are during the day, the more likely they are to fall asleep faster at bedtime and enjoy a more restful sleep. Research shows if kids don’t get enough sleep and feel tired, they are more likely to be sedentary and burn fewer calories—a chain reaction of unhealthy habits.

Additionally, for every hour children are engaged in sedentary activities, like watching television or playing video games, it takes them an extra three minutes to fall asleep at night. These studies are all proof that physical activity is vital to children’s healthy sleep habits and overall health.

Healthy Sleep Is Key to Academic Success

When your family develops good sleep habits together, your overall health improves, too, along with the likelihood your child will be successful at school. Research shows interesting links between sleep, learning, and memory function.

Three basic functions within our brain are related to learning and memory: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. While acquisition and recall happen while we’re awake, memory consolidation—the process by which memories become stable—takes place while we’re sleeping. Those neural connections are strengthened during sleep to form our memories. And brainwaves during different stages of sleep form specific types of memories.

So, before you consider slacking on your child’s bedtime routines this school year, think about what that may mean for their health, wellness, and learning. Taming those bedtimes could be the key to succeed at school in 2019!

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