The A, B, Zs of Back-to-School Sleep: 5 Sleep Tips for Parents and Caregivers

It’s official: school’s back in. The initial excitement, or anxiety, about the new school year has probably started to fade as students have settled into their new “normal.” However, it’s not too late for parents and caregivers to look at their children’s routines and help them adjust to a healthier sleep schedule—setting them up for happier, more productive days.

The best way for children to begin the school day is by having a good night’s sleep. This is often easier said than done, given the time and energy demands on both students and their caregivers. Nevertheless, we can take simple steps to help young people thrive tonight, tomorrow morning, and throughout their lives as these routines become lifelong wellness habits.

Pajama Program is dedicated to closing the 24-Hour Good Day Loop, because good nights lead to good days. Here are our 5 back-to-school sleep tips to encourage children’s well-being. Some of these you have likely seen before—but perhaps with a new idea or two you may not have considered.

1. Encourage children to play outside.

How does outdoor play during the day lead to a good night? There are several reasons, starting with the Sun! In the summer, children can spend long days frolicking in the sun. As the fall sets in, the sun goes down earlier every night, and children spend the most of their day sitting in a classroom, sometimes with little-to-no natural light. Sunlight is vital for our Circadian rhythm, the internal clock in our brain that signals to us when it’s time to sleep or wake up. Without a noticeable shift from daylight to darkness, our brain does not know when to signal the body to release melatonin, the naturally occurring hormone that helps us get to sleep. Translation: It’s past 9pm, and your little one is still wide awake.

Outdoor play promotes physical exercise and stimulates the imagination. Both are especially important as schools often sacrifice recess and creative time for standardized curriculum and test prep. Some parents involve their children in outdoor extracurricular activities after school, but not all students have access to these resources. Taking a neighborhood walk or visiting a local park are great alternatives!

2. Help empower young people to get homework done more easily and faster.

Nothing can disturb a good night’s sleep like the stress of an unfinished assignment. Perhaps you’ve had what neurologist and former classroom teacher Dr. Judy Willis calls “The Dream,” a common nightmare most of us have had about school—the one where you were not prepared for the test or you failed to read the assigned texts. Homework is often the bane of every student’s (and parent’s) existence. While some schools around the U.S. are cutting down (or even banning) homework, other students spend considerable time after school on their assignments.

The good news is that we can teach children how to hack their minds to get work done more easily and in less time. How? The ultradian sprint. The Harvard Business Review published an article, Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, on how you can maximize human performance by focusing on a task in 90- to 120-minute bursts. The key is to (1) set a goal, (2) set a timer, (3) have zero distractions (one shift in attention increases the amount of time to finish a task by 25%), and finally, take a total break afterward. While young children will not need that much time and may have a shorter attention span, the principle remains the same: create the space, set the time, and focus the mental energy. This skill will help young people feel empowered to command their daytime and feel more at peace at night.

3. Make bedtime something to look forward to.

Most articles with back-to-school sleep tips offer the same advice: Adjust bedtime earlier and stick to a routine. First, set the school-year time for bed: work backwards from when your child needs to get up to get to school on time, take into account how much sleep they need, and add 30 to 45 minutes for a bedtime routine. If you can, figure out what the school-year bedtime needs to be 10 days to 2 weeks before school starts, and make the change gradually. Having a set bedtime and a nightly routine are essential for helping a child adjust to a school schedule. Ideally, you will want to follow this every night, even on the weekends.

Rather than viewing bedtime as just another demand, we can help children view their bedtime routine as a sacred ritual, something to look forward to every night. We can talk with children about healthy sleep and how it makes us feel. As they get older, we can increasingly let them make decisions about their routine so that they feel more independent.

Additionally, back-to-school shopping usually centers on new supplies and outfits—but why not get a pair of new back-to-school pajamas too? This can help children feel just as excited about getting ready for bed as they do about getting ready for school. That’s why Pajama Program is dedicated to providing new pajamas for young people: it helps create a comforting bedtime routine!

4. Create a relaxing environment.

Whether you live in New York City or small town U.S.A., we live in a distracting world. Technology that puts infinite information at our fingertips—and that includes over half of children 8 to 12 years old in the U.S. who have a cellphone. One research study showed that teens who use a cellphone after bedtime about once a week tripled the chance they would feel very tired the next day. Televisions, computers, video games—all of them stimulate the mind and affect our Circadian rhythms. The advice among experts is virtually unanimous: turn off the technology at least an hour before bedtime and keep it out of the bedroom.

Beyond nixing the digital distractions, we can create a more relaxing environment for restful sleep. The beginning of the school year means significantly increased stress levels—not just about school work, but personally and socially as well. Consider introducing mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, gentle yoga/stretching, and guided meditations, as options for their bedtime routine. Calming music, nature sounds, or white noise while they go to sleep can be especially helpful in urban settings (just because the city never sleeps doesn’t mean our children shouldn’t!).

5. Read a story.

There is something undeniably powerful about a good bedtime story. We might assume they read all the time when they are back on schools, but this does not mean we shouldn’t read with them before bed—actually, quite the opposite. Reading with your child at bedtime is less about improving their vocabulary and literacy skills than it is about the connection you feel with each other through the act of storytelling.

As children get older, the amount of required reading in school only increases, but joy they feel in reading does not necessarily increase with it: reading can become a chore, a task students must complete for their classes—something that, in their minds, can stand in the way between them and doing something “fun.” We can help children connect with the magic of stories by creating the time and space to read as part of a comforting bedtime routine. Children experience the delight of diving into a good story, immersing themselves in a world of imagination,  discovering something new about the world, and connecting with their loving parent or caregiver. And, as children grow older, they will always have the comforting routine of reading before bed, something that they can take into adulthood.

Help us support good nights for good days for all children, everywhere.