It’s that time of year again: back to school. If you’re like most of us, you’re wondering where the summer went. Whether you’re celebrating having your kids out of the house or feeling a bit wistful about it (or both!), the issue remains: your kid needs to get into a school-year routine. And one of the most difficult part of that routine to re-establish? Sleep.
Yes, the transition from the bedtime-doesn’t-matter mode of summer to the homework-plus-soccer-and-school-starts-at-seven mode of the school year can be rough. Kids aren’t used to the new schedule, they miss their summer freedom, and on top of that, the stress of school-year obligations can make falling asleep more difficult than it normally is. When you consider that quality sleep is a key factor in academic performance for school-age students, this is a big issue.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways you, as a parent, can help your child de-stress and get quality rest once the school year starts. Here are a few back to school sleep tips.
Little Ones (Kindergarten to Second Grade)
- Steer clear of stimulation.
As bedtime gets closer, avoid any games or activities that will wind your child up. Oftentimes this means active games like tag, video games, very funny/scary shows, or anything else that gets them particularly excited.
- Give a warning.
It’s also best to start your child’s bedtime routine well before actual bedtime, since young kids often need a while to get used to the idea that they have to go to sleep soon. If they don’t like being told what to do, focus on a choice: “Bedtime’s in 45 minutes. Would you like to read Book X or Book Y together?”
- Keep it consistent.
With kids in this age range, parents often play a major role in their bedtime routine. Do everything you can to keep that routine consistent—the order of events, the timing, maybe even the words you use. Consistency is key for quality sleep.
- Love the lovies.
If she doesn’t already have one, give your child a “lovie” to go to sleep with. Having an adored stuffed animal or blankie to cuddle with can be a great relief to little ones with anxieties keeping them up.
- Talk when you tuck. When you tuck your child in, build in time to talk. Nighttime often brings out kids’ worries, and having time to talk about them with a parent can help relieve concerns and help them fall asleep more easily.
- Breathe deep.
Deep, belly-filling breathing calms down the whole nervous system. Happily, it’s something that anyone at any age can do. Teach your little one how by having him lie down, putting a hand on his belly, and breathing so that his hand rises. If he gets stressed out or worked up, do ten slow, deep breaths together.
Elementary Age (Third Grade to Sixth Grade)
- Turn off the tube.
The no-stimulating-activities rule applies here, too. For this age group, you need to be particularly vigilant about cutting off TV or video game use as bedtime approaches. Not only can it get kids riled up, TV screens can also have an adverse impact on natural sleep cycles.
- Don’t wing it on the weekend.
This is the prime age for slumber parties, which makes it hard to get your child to stick to a weeknight bedtime on Fridays and Saturdays. Still, enforce this policy when you can. Maybe rule out sleepovers until October. Staying up late on weekends will make Sunday (and often Monday) nights very difficult for both of you.
- Consider the afternoon.
When thinking about getting your kid to sleep, it can be easy to focus only on the hours before bedtime. But remember that everything leading up to bed matters as well. Help them plan their afternoons so they include time for homework, physical activity or just to chill out. Otherwise they may have a pile of obligations—or excess energy—remaining when it’s time to hit the hay.
- Make a list together.
At this age, kids can feel overwhelmed as their school demands increase at the same time that extracurricular activities and social dynamics become more important. Alleviate these stressors by spending some time helping your child create a list of all her obligations and decide when she will tackle each one.
Teenagers (Seventh Grade to Senior Year)
First, a note about teens: this is a special category, since the body’s circadian rhythms actually shift during teenage years, putting their natural needs in direct opposition to the demands of school schedules. Their bodies want to go to bed later and sleep in the next day, yet school starting times continue to creep earlier. It’s an unfortunate situation, but there are ways to make it more pleasant for all parties involved:
- Halt the homework:
Establish a cut-off time before which your teen must have completed all of his or her schoolwork. The mind needs time to calm down after doing anything stressful or mentally demanding, so cramming for an exam or cranking out a report right until it’s lights-out is a recipe for staying up all night. If your teen consistently can’t get work done before this set time, and talk with them about ways you can help them manage their work.
- Pare down the obligations.
It’s become par for the course for college-minded teens to be in every club, sport, and volunteer activity offered in their town. While engaging in after-school activities is wonderful, be careful that your teen doesn’t get worn thin by all they have to do. Especially since all that stress can prevent them from falling asleep when they finally do get to bed. One activity they care passionately about is just as good as three they can barely stay awake through.
- Be firm about the phone.
Set a no-phones-in-bed rule. Not only will this prevent the phone screen (and stimulus on the phone) from disrupting their sleep, it will also help preserve the bed as a sleep-only zone. Your teen’s body will come to understand this unique purpose of the bed and react accordingly when she lays down for the night.
Back to School Tips for All Ages
- Watch what they eat.
Make sure your kids don’t have any heavy meals or sugar close to bedtime. If any of your kids have started drinking caffeine, set a none-after-noon rule.
- Mind the environment.
Make sure your child’s bedroom is sleep-friendly. Keep the temperature cool, purchase dark curtains if it gets a lot of ambient light from outside, and make sure it stays comfortable and clean. If you can’t help the noise level in your child’s room, consider getting them a fan, white noise machine, and/or earplugs.
- Encourage relaxing recreation.
Sometimes it can feel like screen-free, non-school-related activities are figments of the imagination, but they do exist and are extremely helpful for relaxing before bed. Coloring, knitting, reading individually or aloud, and meditating are all good options that can be adapted for different ages.
- Set a bedtime.
It’s simple, old-school, and it works. Sure, this can be difficult as children grow older, but having a consistent bedtime helps your child sleep better overall and prevents a nightly debate over how late he can stay up.
Perhaps most importantly, year-round and not just for back to school: model good sleep behavior and teach your kids that good sleep powers great days. Good luck and may your whole family sleep well.