Summer is full of opportunities to stay up later than usual; from firefly sightings to backyard barbecues and the additional hours of daylight, there are a million reasons why your kids’ sleep patterns have likely changed over the summer.
If you’re lucky, staying up later in the evening has also meant sleeping later in the morning – a parent’s dream. But don’t get too used to it.
In some parts of the United States, school has already started. The rest of us know that the regular morning routine is looming around the corner. My own son has to catch the bus at 7:20 and he has been regularly sleeping past 7:30 this summer. As much as I’d love to stay on that schedule, we’re planning to introduce him to the concept of an alarm clock at least two weeks prior to school starting.
That gut instinct, it turns out, is backed up by science. Not only is it challenging for kids to change their sleeping patterns, but if they keep staying up late even when they have to wake up earlier they’ll lose precious hours of sleep that could impact more than just our morning stress levels.
The impacts of less sleep
It has long been argued that the sleep needs of adolescents can directly compete with the school schedules and wake-up times that society imposes on them (as this long-term Stanford University Study explains). Just as the teenager’s natural bedtime and rising time shift later, school demands often shift earlier. Unfortunately studies like this have not changed school schedules in many communities.
Letting kids stay up later, while forcing them to rise earlier leads to sleep deprivation that can have harmful effects on academic performance and behavior. This is not only true for adolescents but for younger children as well. The more sleepy our kids are when they are in school, the more likely they are to suffer negative impacts on memory, learning, and school performance (Dewald et al., 2010). Consider the following studies as examples:
A 2005 experiment (including 74 kids between the ages of 6 and 12) found that sleep restriction was connected to academic performance and attention among children as rated by their teachers, even among children who exhibited no symptoms prior to the experiment.
A 2003 study that monitored children’s neurobehavioral functioning during their normal sleep routine and then asked them to limit sleep by just one hour had similar results. Students slept more deeply during their limited sleep but exhibited reduced alertness during the day.
Likewise, a 2002 study found that connections between sleep quality and neurobehavioral functioning were even more prevalent among younger children. These children were also more likely to have behavioral problems, as reported by their parents.
Changing sleep patterns and transitioning to school
The importance of a consistent bedtime routine is often stressed in parenting literature as a means for addressing the struggle to get children to sleep. But getting children to sleep is only part of the reason why this schedule is important. Research also suggests that a predictable sleep routine is essential as we prepare students to transition to school. For example:
A 2002 study of over 200 incoming preschoolers found that children who had disrupted sleep patterns, defined as “variability in reported amount of sleep, variability in bedtime, and lateness of bedtime” had a harder time transitioning to preschool.
A 2005 study of adolescents during the change from summer schedule to school time found that high school students can lose up to 120 minutes of sleep per night during the two weeks just after school starts compared to their summer sleep schedule. This loss of sleep resulted in poor performance in the earlier part of the day for most students.
Plenty of research has demonstrated the potential positive benefits of changing to a later school schedule, especially for adolescents (Wahistrom, 2002; Kirby et al., 2011). But most school systems have not made the change to a later school day due to a plethora of competing factors, such as after-school schedules and transportation issues.
Until we can figure out a way to align school start times (and our work schedules for that matter) with the circadian rhythms of our children, we’re going to have to do our best to help our children adapt to the start of school.
Tips for adjusting bedtime
Helping your child transition to an earlier bedtime and wake-up time is something you should attempt gradually, especially if summer has changed the regular schedule drastically. Give yourself at least two weeks before school starts, if possible.
Learn how much sleep your child should be getting.
Before you decide on the best bedtime arrangement for you and your child, think about how much sleep your child needs. You might have a good idea based on experience, but these guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation can also be a good reference point.
Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day
14 – 17 Hours
12 – 15 Hours
11 – 14 Hours
10 – 13 Hours
9 – 11 Hours
8 – 10 Hours
From the National Sleep Foundation
If you need to change to an earlier bedtime, do it gradually.
Pediatric sleep expert Judith Owens notes that it is much easier to ask a child to stay up later than to get them to go to bed earlier. She suggests working in 15 minute intervals, moving bedtime 15 minutes earlier every two or three days until you get back to the desired bed time. Remember to also move the other parts of the bedtime routine (like dinner and bath time) earlier, too.
Overemphasize the quiet pre-bed mood.
Any strategy for encouraging sleep will emphasize creating a quiet, dark, technology-free bedtime routine. This might be especially important as kids are shifting back to school. Summer bedtimes often mean staying out late and falling asleep in the car, or rushing to bed after an exciting picnic. Children are naturally tired after these adventures and often fall asleep more willingly.
As you remove these elements and ask kids to shift back to a more “normal” bedtime routine, they may be used to the excitement and energy-draining impact of summer schedules and won’t feel ready for bed. You might find that an added emphasis on creating a calm post-dinner environment is more important than normal during this transition period.
Create a wake-up plan together.
When you know that waking up earlier is going to be a challenge, it can be useful to talk to your child about how you’ll work together to make it easier. Does your child want an alarm clock instead of you nagging at them? Can you set out clothes to wear the night before to make morning dressing easier?
Younger children may benefit from a checklist that includes the tasks they need to accomplish before heading to school or starting the day. You could also consider some ideas to be more mindful and less chaotic in the morning, like choosing nature over technology or taking a 10 second breathing break before heading out the door. Talk to your child about the benefits of a happy morning routine and celebrate the mornings when everyone achieves that goal.
Change your own bedtime.
As much as we know that we need to help our kids be prepared to wake up earlier, we’re going to have to wake up right along with them. Don’t underestimate your own need to make a gradual transition. Use similar strategies to move your own bedtime and wake-up time earlier, too.
Asking our kids to change a schedule or routine to which they have become accustomed – and may be enjoying – will bring its own challenges. They may be resistant because they feel they’re losing a more fun daily routine. Emphasize the opportunity to spend quiet bonding time together, to do things together as a family, or to discuss what they are excited about when it comes to getting back to school. Let them know that you understand their feelings and may share them, but emphasize the positive opportunities that back-to-school brings.
So add “gradually shift bedtime routine” to your back-to-school to-do list. You’ll thank yourself when it’s easier to rise and catch the bus on that first school morning. At the very least you’ll have a much better first day of school photo.