The image of children waiting for a school bus at dawn will become increasingly common as the days begin to shorten this fall. The summer sleep/wake schedule has to be abandoned for the new school year. Here are some ideas for helping children begin the year with healthy sleep habits:
1. Have the child keep a daily diary of sleep. Record when they go to bed. In the morning, record the times of awakening and getting out of bed (may be the same or different). Also make a note of how long they were in bed trying to sleep and how many times and for how long they awakened during the night. Plenty of chart diaries are available on websites, but it does not have to be fancy. Making one’s own may give a sense of agency and ownership of the process. Charting sleep can serve as a visible reminder and also show progress toward goals.
2. Keep the chart 7 days a week. The number of hours slept on weekends is a good gauge of whether sleep has been adequate during the week. If weekend sleep is longer, the child is paying off “sleep debt”.
3. Have bedtimes usually be non-negotiable. If a child has to be up by 6:30, that means 11:30 bedtime for 7 hours, 10:30 for 8 hours, and 9:30 for 9 hours. For most children and teens, 7 hours is not enough for optimal functioning. Even though having a later bedtime is seen as a sign of maturity for children, insufficient sleep leads to risks that can hamper academic achievement and diminish the ability to control emotions and behavior.
4. See if the child can awaken on their own without an alarm clock or a parent waking them. If so, that in itself is a fair indicator that sleep is sufficient.
5. Open the blinds or shades upon awakening to let in natural light. Better yet, a parent can open blinds half an hour before wake time.
6. Eliminate drinks and foods with caffeine, especially after noon.
7. Make sure the bedroom has adequate ventilation and a comfortable temperature.
8. Try to reduce household noise around the child’s bedtime.
9. Minimize family conflict of any kind to the extent possible in the hours before bedtime. Most conflicts can wait until the next day for discussion and resolution.
10. If the child has a cellphone, have them charge it overnight at an outlet outside of their bedroom. Texting goes on all night log and it is too tempting to keep up with what is going on.
11. Reduce the amount of screen time in the evening. Viewing television, computer monitors, and even cellphone screens can delay the onset of melatonin release that is needed to induce sleep.
12. Look at the weekly schedule as it begins to develop. Extracurricular activities (e.g. sports, band; choir) during evening or early morning before school often preclude sufficient time for sleep. Don’t simply accept that practices have to go late into the evening or begin before school starts. Ask for accommodations from coaches if necessary.