Back to School Sleep Tips for Parents and Caregivers of Young Children

Director of Communications

The words “back to school” quickly prompt thoughts of backpacks, clothes, packed lunches, and school supplies. A comforting bedtime routine and healthy sleep may not come to mind quite as readily, but they are so important for a successful school year.

Research shows that children who follow a bedtime routine and get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis have better alertness, focus, memory, behavior, and emotional regulation. In other words, they are better prepared to learn and thrive in school.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages three to five get 10-13 hours of sleep (including a nap) and children ages six to twelve get 9-12 hours of sleep each night. But we all know that sleep schedules and bedtime routines tend to loosen up during summer break.

With the help of our Good Night Advisory Council, Pajama Program has come up with a few sleep tips to help you prepare your child for the transition from summer vacation back to school.

Ease into the transition

Dr. Ronald Chervin, MD, MS: Professor of Neurology and Director of Michigan Medicine Sleep Disorders Centers says, “Give your child the best chance for alertness, optimal learning, peak attention, and good behavior. Consider gradual adjustment – over a week or two prior to the first day of school – to very regular daily wake times and bedtimes.” Easing into the process often works better than making a big, sudden shift. Try moving bedtime and wake time earlier by 15 minutes every other day until your child’s sleep and wake schedule is back on track for school. Then try to stick to that sleep schedule every day, even on the weekends.

“Give your child the best chance for alertness, optimal learning, peak attention, and good behavior. Consider gradual adjustment – over a week or two prior to the first day of school – to very regular daily wake times and bedtimes.”

Dr. Ronald Chervin
Good Night Advisory Council

Continue to take advantage of time outdoors

Enjoy the good weather these last few weeks of summer vacation and be sure to get your child outside in the morning for plenty of fresh air, bright sunlight, and physical activity. Time spent outdoors helps regulate your child’s body clock (circadian rhythm). When evening comes, dim the lights, close the blinds or curtains, and turn off screens. When it’s dark, your child’s body will naturally produce the hormone melatonin. This will help them feel sleepy and ready for bed. The daytime exercise will also make it easier for your child to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.

Be aware of hidden caffeine

Summertime is often filled with cool drinks and sweet treats. But beware, soda pop, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate are places where caffeine hides. Caffeine is a stimulant and it can stay in the body for a long time. When children eat or drink caffeine in the afternoon or evening, it can cause sleeplessness at bedtime, which makes the transition to school sleep and wake time difficult. Consider drinks like water and white milk, and snacks like multi-grain crackers, cheese, peanut butter, and veggies as healthy, caffeine-free alternatives.

Set a positive tone and work together

Having children come inside, turn off screens, and get ready for bed earlier can feel like it’s going to be a bit of a let down at first, but remember, parents and caregivers can set the tone. Commit to turning off your screens, too, and finding quiet, relaxing activities that you and your child can enjoy together 30-60 minutes before bed. Reading, coloring, drawing, listening to gentle music, doing a puzzle, stretching, or simply snuggling and talking about the day are wonderful ways to bond, connect, and cultivate a sense of security. These positive experiences become things that children and caregivers alike can look forward to each night. The bonus is that when these calm, screen-free activities are part of a regular bedtime routine – just like changing into pajamas and washing up – they help your child’s body and brain relax and prepare for a good night’s sleep.

Schedule worry time, if needed

Children often avoid worries or anxieties by keeping busy and distracted during the day. But at night, when the lights are off and those distractions are gone, worries (like feeling anxious about school) can make it difficult for children to fall asleep. Dr. Innessa Donskoy, Pediatric Sleep Medicine Physician at Advocate Children’s Hospital, encourages parents and caregivers to set 10-15 minutes aside earlier in the day as “scheduled worry time”. This time can be your child’s daily safe space for processing their worries. Dr. Donskoy notes, “This doesn’t have to be a problem-solving time, it is more of a release…For some, it is just talking out loud. For others, it can involve journaling, sketching, writing a song…anything to help them feel at ease.” This can help keep bedtime a time for peaceful relaxation.

Interested in learning more about a comforting bedtime routine and healthy sleep this school year? Check out Pajama Program’s early childhood, elementary, and parent/caregiver programming here. We’d love to provide your school, community group, educators, or staff with the materials, strategies, and support that can help families facing adversity build a better bedtime. Our vision is Good Nights for Good Days for all children, everywhere!

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