Q. We got really slack about schedules over the summer – the kids went to bed late, slept in and just generally didn’t have a lot of structure. How can we get them back into gear before school starts?
A. Many parents choose to “loosen the reins” (i.e., allow later bed times and more TV or video games before bedtime) when it comes to sleep rules for their children during the summer months. This is a decision that makes sense for many families and does not reflect bad or irresponsible parenting. Furthermore, for children with no serious sleep problems, it can be a nice and appropriate break from their structured or busy schedules during the school year. That being said, this can make the adjustment back to school-year sleep schedules difficult for some children and parents. These tips can be used by parents to help ease this transition:
1) Ease in to earlier bedtimes and wake-up times. Children are occasionally given later bedtimes in the summer. Their bodies can then become used to this, and it becomes the norm during summer months. In order to help children shift to a more school-appropriate sleep schedule (i.e., earlier bed and wake times), parents may want to move up bed/wake-up times 5-10 minutes earlier each day for a few weeks before school starts. Parents can do this until the child is going to bed and waking up consistently at the desired predetermined times. This will allow their bodies to adjust to a new sleep schedule gradually and hopefully will decrease some of their resistance to changing the schedule.
2) Develop and follow a consistent sleep routine. During the summer months, school obligations such as homework are gone. Therefore, parents often allow their children to do more “fun” activities right before bedtime and for longer periods of time. This can also lead to bedtime rituals decreasing as well. In preparation for school, it is important for parents to remind their children of the schedule (turning off TV, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, etc.) and hold them to it in order to create smoother bedtimes during the school months. Activities such as story time or lullabies can also help strengthen this routine and get children excited about going to bed. This routine will also help children’s bodies and minds prepare for sleep, which can significantly help them fall asleep sooner.
3) Limit screen time. Children are often allowed to watch more TV, play video games, or use electronic devices such as tablets more frequently in the summer. It is important for parents to limit access to screens prior to bedtime in preparation for sleep because the light created by these screens can cause stimulation in the brain that can make it more difficult for children to fall asleep. Other activities such as reading or listening to music are more conducive to sleep and still allow the child to do something they enjoy before bedtime. Parents can help promote positive sleep by making a rule of no use of screens 30-60 minutes before bedtime. For this reason, it is also a good idea to keep the TV out of your child’s bedroom, reinforcing the message that the bedroom is for sleeping, not for watching TV.
4) Let them be physically active … but not right before bed. Children often have more time to run around and be physically active during the summer. This is beneficial for a variety of reasons, one of which being that it can promote healthy sleep for a child. Therefore, parents will likely want to continue to encouraging their child’s outdoor play and physical activity throughout the school year. However, if physical activity occurs too close to bedtime, children can become overly stimulated, making it difficult for them to wind down and fall asleep. Therefore, it is a good idea for parents to find more “laid back” activities to enjoy such as reading, playing board games or singing right before bed.
5) Make smart decisions about diet. Some parents will allow their children to eat more sugar or drink more caffeine in the summer months. When children consume these substances even five hours before bedtime, their sleep onset can be disrupted. It is a good idea to eliminate the consumption of sugar or caffeine after dinner in order to help promote healthier sleep for children and easier bedtime routines for parents.
If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Sheras or any of our experts by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Daniel Sheras is a clinical psychologist at Orenstein Solutions in Cary. He provides psychological services to children, teens and families to address ADHD, anxiety and depression, and family issues. Contact Orenstein Solutions at 919-428-2766 ext. 0 for more information.