As the clock winds down on summer break, parents and guardians study up on school-supplies lists, research sales in search of the best deals and prepare to weather the back-to-school shopping crowds.
Amid all the rush, parents need to be sure to not overlook one of the most important tasks to prepare children for the upcoming school year: adjusting their sleep patterns.
“It’s easy to go to bed late and sleep in late in summer if you’re a kid, and it’s easy to not notice if you’re sleepy during the day because you can nap or rest or do whatever comes your way. It’s a loose schedule,” says Sarah Zallek, MD, the medical director for the OSF HealthCare Illinois Neurological Institute Sleep Center. “You can just pull the bandage off and start getting up at the right time on the first day of school, but it’s much harder than adjusting gradually to the earlier schedule.”
Failing to get used to the earlier schedule of the school day makes it difficult for children to function at their best during the early part of the school year. If we do not get enough quality sleep at the appropriate time, it is harder to pay attention and stay focused. When we are tired, we simply do not think, remember and learn as well. According to Zallek, children are especially affected by the effects of poor sleep.
Start preparing now
To help children avoid a poor start to the academic year, parents should start now to wean their children off the late nights and sleeping in that defines the summer vacation lifestyle. When the school year begins, sleeping in late will no longer be an option and children will be expected to be awake and engaged throughout the school day.
The best way to help children prepare for the earlier school-day schedule is to adjust their wake-up time and bedtime gradually. Zallek suggests parents start by adjusting the wake-up time earlier each day and equally making the bedtime a little earlier.
The earlier this process starts, the smaller the adjustment will need to be each day, and the easier it will be for children to handle. According to Zallek, parents should not adjust a child’s wake-up time and bedtime by more than one hour each day. A daily adjustment of 15-30 minutes is ideal.
“Taking the time now from the beginning of August until school starts is the right amount of time,” Zallek says. “Your body has an internal clock that likes to be asleep at the same time each night and awake at the same time each day. The wake-up time in the morning is probably the most important way to set that biological clock.”
Parents should also be aware that children and adolescents require more sleep than adults. A good rule of thumb is the “10 by 10” rule, Zallek says. That means a 10-year-old typically needs 10 hours of sleep per night. Children younger than 10 can require more – as much as 11 or 12 hours per night. Adolescents usually require 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
Tips to help your child sleep better
- Cut out caffeine all together
To help children sleep well at night, they should be tapered off of caffeine for the school year. Children metabolize caffeine more slowly than adults and, according to Zallek, there is no need for a well-rested child to consume caffeine. Children should be wide awake during the daytime.“If kids are using caffeine because they are tired, it’s a good idea to figure out why they are tired,” Zallek says.Reduce caffeine by half a serving every day or every other day. Reducing caffeine too drastically can cause headaches, crankiness and tiredness.
- Reserve the bed and bedroom for sleeping only
The bed and the bedroom should be places reserved for sleeping, and no other activities. This conditions the brain to fall asleep in bed. A child’s bed should not be used for playing or watching television. Also, the bedroom should not be used for timeouts as a disciplinary technique.
- Prioritize sleep
Sleep should be a protected activity in the house. Put a focus on sleep and model good sleep habits for your children. Sleep is just as important to a healthy life as is diet and exercise and should not be secondary to everything else.“Sleep is fuel for the brain,” Zallek says. “If you don’t have enough fuel the machine isn’t going to run properly.”
- Model good sleep behavior
As a parent, an effective way to get children to understand the importance of sleep and adopt good sleep habits is to adopt good sleep habits yourself.