Let me start by saying honestly and sincerely, no judgment for what might have happened in the last few months. I know . . . I’m a pediatric sleep coach, and you may think I will chastise you for the late bedtimes, unenforced rules, inconsistent schedules, or any of the many “inadvisables” that may have occurred over your summer vacation. But I get it. I know how precious the summer months are. You want to squeeze in every minute of joy and togetherness during the long, glorious days. If it’s a choice between bedtime battles or staying up to watch the fireworks, come on, that’s a no-brainer. But what about back-to-school sleep habits that need to be re-established?
Consider it all forgiven, no matter what happened over summer vacation. The mission now is to get your child back on track so that they can get back to school sleep. In bed at a reasonable hour as they head into their first week back at school! Here are my top tips for back-to-school sleep success this fall:
How Much Sleep Does My Child Need?
First things first: what time should your child be going to bed? Many parents I work with are surprised to hear that I recommend between 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm. They’re even more surprised when I suggest keeping that time frame until their child is about 12 years old. There are two reasons why I think kids should be in bed by 8:00 pm.
1. Kids need a minimum of 10 hours of sleep each night.
If your child needs to be up by 6:30 am to get to school, they should be asleep before 8:30 pm. Factor in the time it takes them to fall asleep after they get into bed, and they should be in bed well before this time to get the sleep they need.1
2. As a parent, you need to be child-free for a few hours a day.
You need to be able to watch mindless TV, eat junk food without fear of being spotted, and just do grown-up things and recharge those parenting batteries. It is vital to your relationship with your partner and with your kids.
So now that we know when to put our kids to bed, let’s move on to the significantly more difficult issue of how.
6 Back-To-School Sleep Tips
1. Adjust the Schedule Gradually
Hopefully, you’re reading this while there are still a couple of weeks before school starts because the easiest way to get back on track is little by little.
If your child has been going to bed around 9:00 pm all summer, try moving up bedtime by 15 minutes every 3-4 days until you’re back to their normal, more age-appropriate bedtime. If this requires a little deception on your part by adjusting the clocks in their bedroom, just go ahead and get sneaky. Sometimes the ends really do justify the means.
2. Embrace a Back-to-School Sleep Bedtime Routine
If you had an effective bedtime routine before your summer vacation threw everything off, try to re-implement it as much as possible. Familiarity will help your child settle back into a schedule quicker and with less resistance than trying out something new.
On the other hand, if this is your first time implementing a bedtime routine, let me stress how much easier a repetitive, predictable bedtime routine can make your life. When your child’s body and brain start to associate things like taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading stories, and putting on pajamas all in the same order at the same time every night, it cues up their melatonin production, making sleep come easier. I seriously cannot recommend bedtime routines highly enough.
3. Use a Timer
Of course, things like baths and stories are super fun, so there is a tendency for your child to try and negotiate for more time in the tub or just one more story. If you constantly have to play sheriff, a timer can be your best friend for keeping things on schedule and taking the blame off of you. Mom may be able to be reasoned with, but a timer is pretty black and white.
4. Limit Screen Time
Along with slack enforcement of bedtimes during the summer, we also tend to ease up on the rules surrounding TV, video games, or otherwise staring at screens during the hours leading up to bedtime. When there’s no homework to be done, it’s much easier for the empty time to be filled in front of our devices.
Whether they’re phones, tablets, TVs, or computers, the thing about screens is that they emit a massive amount of blue light.2 This blue light can inhibit melatonin production, so screens before bed can have the unwanted effect of firing your child’s system back up when it should be powering down. Try to avoid any screen time for at least two hours before bedtime. (Note: this also applies to adults, so if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, try reading instead of watching TV before you turn out the lights.)
5. Make it DARK
While we’re on the subject of light, many of you living in the northern areas of the planet may notice that it’s still not getting dark until after 8:00 pm, and the only thing that simulates sunlight more than a TV screen is…well, actual sunlight. If your child’s bedroom is still light when you’re putting them to bed, I suggest investing in black-out shades.
6. Firm Up Boundaries for Back-to-School Sleep
One final note: experiencing some leniency regarding bedtime can suddenly transform your child into quite a sharp lawyer. Arguments for why they should be allowed to stay up later will likely be heard for at least a few days and potentially the next several years. Luckily, parenting is not a democracy. It is a glorious dictatorship where “Her Highness, Mom” makes all the rules. Don’t give in to pressure because, as I mentioned earlier, an early bedtime should be in place for several years. The sooner they accept that as the norm and their summertime hours as special circumstances, the easier the whole “bedtime thing” will be for you both.
I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer vacation and that your children look forward to starting school again. I promise that nothing will help them begin a new school year with a better attitude and a more positive outlook than plenty of sleep, no matter what grade they are heading into.