Aah, summertime – that magical season when sun-kissed, chlorine-scented children chase fireflies until they fall exhausted into deep slumber. Their little faces, still sticky with dried watermelon juice, bear the contented look of freedom. Whether your parenting style is well-suited to the free-wheeling vibe of summer, or you’ve been craving the structure of a school day since the first week of summer vacation, the days march on toward that red-circled date and the rumble of the big yellow bus that mark the first day of school. So, how best to ease the transition from the relaxed pace of summer to the pedal-to-the-metal start of a new school year? It begins and ends with sleep.
Proper sleep is the foundation for a successful back-to-school run. A new school year means more stress for everyone in the family. Time is at a premium – there’s more to do, and less time and flexibility with which to do it. Kids are coping with new teachers, new expectations for schoolwork, new social structures. Parents are coping with getting kiddos out the door on time, preferably without tears and with something besides stale graham crackers and jellied cranberry sauce in their lunchboxes. Everyone is coping with homework, and yes, bedtimes.
One of the best stress busters is a good night’s rest. Sleep helps with emotional regulation, so everyone can better deal with new challenges. Sleep is a powerful mood regulator too, predicting a child’s affect at school the next day – and a parent’s propensity to lose it in the school drop-off line. Memory, concentration, attention, even creativity – key ingredients of good school and work performance – are also greatly affected by sleep. Emotional intelligence, which improves your ability to get along with others and be socially involved instead of isolated, soars with quality sleep. Solid interpersonal skills make for more successful leaders – both in the classroom and in the workplace. Sleep is good for the whole family, so how can you ensure each family member gets what they need?
Start by getting back to a routine. It’s time to reign in some of the laxity of summer and create some structure. Our brains love predictability, so make it easy by helping them know what to expect next. There is no magic routine that fits every family, but you know your family best. Use that insider knowledge to develop a back-to-school sleep schedule that works for your family.
Sleep needs are individual. As you make your plan, consider how much sleep makes each of you feel best. How much sleep did each family member naturally gravitate toward during the alarm-free nirvana of vacation? For adults it’s usually around 7 hours, children 9-10 hours. A couple of weeks before school starts, begin to adjust your sleep schedule. Instead of making a non-negotiable bedtime, begin with a set a wake-up time that will work for the school year. Allow enough time for your morning routine – taking into account personal preferences and how quickly (or painfully slowly) your team members get ready. Stick to the wake-up time; everyone gets up at their appointed hour, no matter what. Go about your day and don’t nap.
Bright and early wake-times should build sleep pressure and make bedtime easier, but consider the following ways to fine-tune the process. If the bedtime routine has fallen by the wayside over summer break, it’s time for it to make a comeback. Nothing complicated required, keep it simple with a habit that is relaxing and comforting. Routines like a short story, prayer, bedtime song, or cuddle help to prepare the mind for sleep.
You can help the body be prepared too, by using two powerful tools – light and temperature. Soon after arising, go outdoors in the daylight. Even 10 minutes can help to anchor your circadian rhythm and reset your body clock. In the evening, taper light exposure, particularly blue light such as that from handheld devices and laptops. Blue-light suppresses melatonin secretion – the hormone that tells your body it’s time to sleep. Children are much more sensitive than adults to this suppression, which is why putting away technology a couple of hours before bedtime is so important.
Changes in body temperature also help your body know that it’s bedtime. A drop in body temperature is as good as a lullaby. A warm bath seems counter-intuitive, but when you get out of the bath your body cools rapidly. The sudden drop in temperature makes you drowsy. No time for a nighttime bath? No worries. Adjust your thermostat to start cooling an hour or two before bedtime. If you have smart home features, you can let technology do the work by dimming the lights and dropping the temperature to match your schedule.
You’ve prepped the brain and the body, but kids can sometimes be ruled by emotions. How can you make the return to a family nighttime routine more palatable? The eager students have new clothes and shoes, new pencils, calculators and lunchboxes – why not freshen up their sleeping quarters? Their space should be a place where they feel happy and secure – and that matches their growing needs. Make sure they fit properly in their bed and that the style of the room evolves with their maturity level. Upgrading your little one’s comforter with their favorite superhero might boost your child’s enthusiasm for bedtime and create a mental fresh start.
Summer days are coming to a close, but back to school doesn’t have to be a drag. Some advance planning and preparation to get your family’s sleep schedule back on track can make a big difference.A family nighttime routine can help with a smooth back-to-school transition for everyone! Get your family’s sleep schedule back on track with these tips and tricks from @BetterSleepOrg. #BSCSleepTips
About Ellen Wermter
Ellen Wermter is a board-certified family nurse practitioner through the American Nurses Credentialing Center and a member of Sigma Theta Tau National Honor Society. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Virginia and her Master of Science at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a member of the Virginia Council of Nurse Practitioners (VCNP). Ellen is a dedicated sleep professional certified in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia who actively treats patients full time. In addition to her clinical work, she is a regular contributor to media about the science of sleep and healthy rest. Her expertise has been featured in publications such as Reader’s Digest, Elite Daily, Offspring and Women’s Running.
This blog provides general information about sleep and sleep products. The words and other content provided in this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified heath care professional. This blog should not be construed as medical advice or used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately licensed physician or other health care professional. This blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be relied upon to make decisions about your health or the health of others. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog or elsewhere on bettersleep.org. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911