As summertime winds down, preparations for school are in full swing. For most families with school-aged children, that usually means a shopping trip for new clothes, a fresh pair of shoes, new school supplies and backpacks. No matter how you prepare for a new school year, children need a healthy bedtime routine to perform their best in the classroom.
Why good sleep is vital for students
Sleep is critical for your child’s optimal brain function and to help develop growing brains. In fact, sleep deprivation in children has been shown to affect areas of the brain relating to reasoning and emotional control.
“Insufficient sleep has been associated with problems in school including decreased alertness and performance in class. Some children even report falling asleep in the classroom. Insufficient sleep may also worsen ADD as well as depression and anxiety. Improving sleep quality and quantity may improve these conditions,” says Jonathan Schwartz, M.D., medical director of the INTEGRIS Sleep Disorders Center of Oklahoma.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says children who get adequate sleep have healthier immune systems in addition to better performance in school, better behavior, memory and mental health. As students become involved in athletics and extracurricular activities on top of academic responsibilities, sleep becomes even more important and vital in supporting tired, growing young bodies.
Recommended sleep habits by age
The National Sleep Foundation recently completed a two-year study to support new guidelines for recommended sleep.
Preschool (ages 4-6): 10-13 hours, including daytime naps
Young students (ages 6-13): 9-11 hours per night
Teenagers (ages 14-17): 8-10 hours per night
How to establish a healthy bedtime routine for your child
Sleep experts agree: when establishing a bedtime routine for your child or children, it doesn’t matter what you do, but how you do it. Regardless of the activities or tasks leading to bedtime, what’s most important is doing those same steps, in the same order, at the same time – every single night. Of course, life can get in the way of perfect routines, but getting back on track as soon as possible after a hiccup will help your child fall back into a rhythm of positive sleep habits.
Limiting distractions and late-night eating can be keys to a successful bedtime routine for children. “Parents should make sure their kids’ bedrooms are distraction-free and ready for sleep,” Dr. Schwartz says. “No electronics during the child’s designated sleep time. That includes phones, iPads, TVs and video games. Children don’t need to be using any kind of electronic device immediately before bed or in the bed, including cell phones.”
While a pre-bedtime snack is OK, “what’s most important is having a regular dinnertime and not eating big meals late at night or right before bedtime — that’s not good for children or adults,” Dr. Schwartz advises.
“When you consume foods with a high sugar content, your blood sugar goes up followed by an increase in Insulin to lower the blood sugar. The rebound effect of lowering the sugar may be associate with increased fatigue and sleepiness, which may affect performance in the classroom. Avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and evening time is also important.”
Dr. Schwartz recommends an adjustment period for getting back into a sleep routine. “Ideally, at least two weeks insures adequate time for a child to adjust,” he says. “However, if school is starting sooner than two weeks, even a few days is better than no adjustment period at all.”
The following tips can help train young children to sleep well:
One hour before bedtime
- Turn off all screens (televisions, tablets, phones, etc.). The blue light on screens stimulates the eyes and the brain and makes it harder for our brains to “turn off” and prepare for sleep.
- Limit food and drink intake. Caffeine intake after lunchtime should be avoided.
- Allow time for baths and changing into pajamas.
30 minutes before bedtime
- Begin quiet time, which may include listening to quiet music or reading. Set a firm expectation on a time limit for quiet time, and don’t allow dragging it out (we all know the “five more minutes” trick!). Television should not be part of quiet time.
- After quiet time, follow a consistent routine: picking out clothes for the next day, using the restroom, brushing teeth – whatever steps you include, try to go in the same order each night.
- Make sure your child’s bedroom environment is conducive to good sleep: cool, dark, and free of distractions. Security blankets and stuffed animals are OK.
- If possible, have your child get in bed themselves, awake, so they learn to fall asleep on their own.
- Say goodnight, turn off the light, and leave the room.
Teaching by example is important, even when it comes to sleep. “Parents need to be a good role model in terms of good sleep – they need to show their children that they have a regular schedule too,” Dr. Schwartz says.
For more tips on making good sleep part of your back-to-school routine, visit the National Sleep Foundation’s website.