Getting ready to get up - sleep schedules for the start of the school year

Many parents relax bedtime rules during the summer, especially if the kids aren't taking a morning bus to camp or daycare during summer weekdays. Natural rhythms are working with you early in the summer as sun the sets later in the evening and it is light outside until about 9pm in the mid-Atlantic region. Request for "just 5 more minutes" seem more reasonable over the summer when your child likely doesn't have to get up so early in the morning.

Many parents find their kids' bedtimes have shifted 30 minutes to a couple hours later over the course of the summer months. This can be especially true for teens whose bodies are naturally inclined to stay up late and wake in the later morning (or early afternoon). So how do you get them back on a school schedule?

Shifting sleep cycles, also called circadian rhythms, is easier for some people than others. Experts generally recommend not trying to shift more than one hour a day and The National Sleep Foundation recommends shifting kids' bedtimes about 15 minutes every 2-3 days. As you pick the new target consider that children, like most American adults, are not getting enough sleep. Preschoolers are recommended to get 10-13 hours of sleep, elementary school kids about 10, and about 8 hours for teens. Figure out when they need to get up and then work backwards towards a target bedtime that gives a 30 minute pad for falling asleep. If your kid always nods off quickly, a 15 minute pad could be enough.

Here is an example: The bus comes at 7:45 and the kid needs 45 minutes to get ready in the morning. Wake up time is 7am. For 10 hours of sleep, that means the kid should be asleep by 9pm. The 30 minute pad for falling asleep and some lolly gagging means target bedtime is 8:30 for this child. For a middle school or high school student the bedtime would be no later than 10pm, maybe earlier depending on when they have to leave in the morning.

Now is a great time to start shifting your kids back towards a school sleep schedule. Yes, expect to hear some complaining about going to bed earlier, but the sun is working with you right now. For little ones you can point out the sun is down and it is dark outside sooner. For older kids, you can offer an incentive for kids who are in bed by the new designated time. Have some digital clocks around to cue them. If they have a tablet or cell phone, have them set an alarm 15-30 minutes prior to the new target bedtime. Offer an incentive (like a preferred breakfast) for those who get to bed before the deadline.

Technology is both a help and a problem in this area. Alarms to get INTO bed are as important as the ones to wake up. In the not helpful area, some research points to the blue-white light emitted by screens interfering with natural sleep hormone cycles. For this reason, and general excitement issues, video games, exciting movies or TV shows, and other "screen time" activities are probably not a good idea for at least an hour before bedtime.

If your child has a TV in their bedroom, be sure it is not turned on as they are trying to go to sleep. Being in bed watching TV does not count towards those 8-13 hours of sleep. Also, use parental locks on the TV to be sure they aren't watching in the middle of the night. Similarly, electronics like smartphones and tablet should charge in a parents bedroom where it is easy to be sure they aren't texting or watching media late into the night.

For more information on sleep for kids and teens, consult the children and adolescent section of The National Sleep Foundation website dedicated to this age group.

Todd Koser