Back-to-school health: going from a summer to school year sleep schedule

It’s just about time for the kids to head back to school, which means a sudden change in schedule and environment. These changes may be a secret source of joy for summer weary parents, but in certain situations the switch can cause health problems in children. For instance:

  • Asthma related hospitalization spike around the second week of school for thousands of children
  • Readjusting to school sleep schedules after summer vacation can cause children to get less sleep, which in turn can lead to poor school performance and behavior, increased risk for obesity and other mental health concerns

Over the next few weeks Thriving will identify a few of the more common back-to-school health problems, and provide parents with tips on how to avoid them.

How to smoothly transition your child from a summer to school sleep schedule.

The lazy days of summer are just that for many kids: lazy. After a long school year many parents are lax with their children’s bed and wake up times during the summer months. But when school rolls around and family sleep rules become more rigid, many children have a hard time adjusting.

People have a natural sleep cycle that scientists call the circadian rhythm, and the rest of us call our internal clock. It regulates things like our body temperature and appetite, as well as our sleep cycles. But when our circadian rhythms are out of synch with the external it can lead to difficulties falling and maintaining sleep.

These problems can be even more pronounced in teenagers, who have different sleep requirements and circadian rhythms than adults. Factor in school, sports, part-time jobs, homework and socialization, and a teenager’s daytime activities can easily go from 6 a.m. until 10 at night. And once they’re done, they can’t just immediately fall asleep; it naturally takes some time to wind down, which is often interrupted by text messages and social media. Before many teens realize it, the day is over and it’s almost time to get up and do it all over again.

Here are a few tips to help your children have a healthy sleep schedule by the time the first bell of the semester rings:

  1. Know your child’s natural sleep requirements. According to the National Sleep Foundation preschoolers typically need about 11 to 13 hours of sleep a night, kids up to 12 years old need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night and teens need about 8.5 to 9.25 hours.
  2. Create a sleep friendly environment. A bedroom should be just that: a room for a bed. Naturally there are going to be a few more items in your child’s bedroom, but electrical equipment like computers, TVs and videogame systems create distractions that are often more inviting than sleep to children, so they should be moved out of the bedroom during the school year. The bedroom should be dark and quiet.
  3. Be prepared. By now you should know when your child’s first day of school is. In preparation, start easing into earlier bed and wake up times about two weeks prior. This way, when school starts, your child will be used to the new schedule. Set rules for younger children and offer cues to older ones, based on pre-bed activities that limit screen time and involve relaxing activities in a dimly lit area. Both can help them get into a nightly ritual that supports healthier sleep habits.
  4. Lose the naps. If your teenage or grade school age child is in the habit of taking a mid afternoon nap in the summer, start weaning them off the practice now. It will keep them from getting too dependent on a mid afternoon break that won’t be available during school hours. Plus, naps in the afternoon have a tendency to push back bedtimes, which can create problems during the school year.
  5. Celebrate good sleep behavior. The surest way to have kids get more rest is to have them want to sleep more. In younger children positive reinforcement like extra privileges or special treats for good sleep behavior can help your efforts to get them to bed sooner. Positive reinforcement works for older children and teens as well, but explaining to them the physical and biological effects too little sleep can have on them, like an increased risk for depression and weight gain, might also encourage them to hit the sheets earlier.