Why Back-To-School Is A Critical Time For Children's Sleep Habits

How to get kids back on a healthy sleep schedule for school.
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If your child wakes up before the alarm clock (even if you'd prefer they didn't), it's a good sign he or she is getting adequate sleep. But if you set three alarms and still have to drag your child out of bed in the morning, it's time to work on some back-to-school sleep habits.

The start of school is a critical time to get kids adjusted to a consistent sleep schedule. Most children become used to staying up a little later and sleeping in more frequently during the summer, but as school approaches it's important to move bedtime up and get back into a routine. Inadequate sleep is a frequent problem that worsens as school starts, and it's a problem that leads to both tired kids and parents – a very unhealthy combination.

Too little sleep has been associated with behavior issues, including ADHD, hyperactivity and mood swings. Studies have consistently linked even mild sleep deprivation with academic underachievement, concentration difficulties and lower test performance and overall school performance. Poor sleep is also associated with poor eating habits and obesity. School-aged children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night, and many children are getting only 7 to 8 hours per night – sometimes even less.

Many parents are sleep deprived themselves and think the symptoms of sleep deprivation are completely normal. As a result, they aren't even aware their children are not getting enough shut-eye.

To determine if your child gets enough sleep, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does he or she need to be woken up three to four times to actually get out of bed?
  • Does he or she complain of being tired throughout the day?
  • Does he or she take an afternoon nap?
  • Does he or she need catch-up sleep on the weekends?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, simply put, your child is not getting enough sleep. Not only will your child's behavior and mood improve with more sleep, but getting more snooze time will help with performance at school as well.

These eight easy tips will help your child get accustomed to healthy sleep habits:

1. Aim for a bedtime that allows your child to get at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep. If your child is not going to bed early enough, start moving bedtime up two weeks prior to the start of school, if possible. Move it up 15 to 20 minutes every few days.

2. Set a regular sleep schedule. Your child's bedtime and wake up time shouldn't vary by more than 30 to 45 minutes between weeknights and weekends.

3. Start scheduling a regular wake up time one week before school starts.

4. Create a bedtime routine – yes, even for older children – that is calming and sets the mind for sleep.

5. Turn off electronic screens at least 60 minutes prior to bedtime.

6. Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks, particularly in the second half of the day.

7. Help your child get ready for sleep by making sure he or she is getting enough physical activity throughout the day. Aim for at least one full hour of physical activity. Outdoor play, particularly in the morning, is helpful because exposure to natural light helps keep your child's circadian rhythm in sync.

8. As with many habits, it's essential to set a good example by making sleep a priority for yourself.

How to Survive the Mornings

Even with a good night's slumber, parents can agree that mornings during the school year can be pretty chaotic. Still, a little pre-planning can help make the early mornings go more smoothly.

A couple days before school starts, run through the morning routine with your children to make sure there's enough time to get dressed, eat breakfast and get out the door. It's also extremely helpful to check a few items off your morning "to-do" list the night before – such as packing lunches, setting out school clothes and making sure backpacks are stocked and ready to go.

When it comes to figuring out a healthy sleep schedule for kids, it's necessary to note that a significant proportion of children will have difficulty with sleep at some point during their childhood, and to an extent, this is developmentally normal. However, there is a subset of children who have sleep disorders and should seek medical care.

When to Schedule a Visit With the Pediatrician

Here are some reasons to take your child to the doctor to discuss sleep concerns:

  • Your child seems to have excessive fears or anxiety around going to sleep
  • Snoring that is loud or disruptive
  • Frequent nighttime awakenings
  • Nighttime bedwetting that persists past the age of 7
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, in spite of adequate hours of sleep

Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep? originally appeared on U.S. News & Word Report.

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