If your child wakes up before the alarm clock (even if you’d prefer they didn’t), it’s a good sign he or she is getting adequate sleep. But if you set three alarms and still have to drag your child out of bed in the morning, it’s time to work on sleep habits.
The start of school is a critical time to get kids adjusted to a consistent sleep schedule. Most children become used to staying up a little later and sleeping in more frequently during the summer, but as the school year gets under way, it’s important to move bedtime up and get back into a routine. Inadequate sleep is a frequent problem that worsens as school starts, and it’s a problem that leads to tired kids as well as parents – a very unhealthy combination.
Too little sleep has been associated with behavior issues, including ADHD, hyperactivity and mood swings. Studies have consistently linked even mild sleep deprivation with academic underachievement, concentration difficulties and lower test performance and overall school performance. Poor sleep also is associated with poor eating habits and obesity. School-aged children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night, and many children are getting only 7 to 8 hours per night – sometimes even less.
Many parents are sleep-deprived themselves and think the symptoms of sleep deprivation are completely normal. As a result, they aren’t even aware their children are not getting enough shut-eye.
To determine if your child gets enough sleep, ask yourself these questions:
- Does my child need to be awakened three to four times before actually getting out of bed?
- Does my child complain of being tired throughout the day?
- Does my child take an afternoon nap?
- Does my child need catch-up sleep on the weekends?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then — simply put — your child is not getting enough sleep. Not only will your child’s behavior and mood improve with more sleep, but getting more snooze time will help with performance at school as well.
These eight easy tips will help your child get accustomed to healthy sleep habits:
- Aim for a bedtime that allows your child to get at least 10 hours to 11 hours of sleep. If your child is not going to bed early enough, make bedtime earlier by 15 minutes to 20 minutes every few days.
- Set a regular sleep schedule. Your child’s bedtime and wake-up time shouldn’t vary by more than 30 minutes to 45 minutes between weeknights and weekends.
- Start scheduling a regular wake-up time one week before school starts.
- Create a bedtime routine – yes, even for older children – that is calming and sets the mind for sleep.
- Turn off electronic screens at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks, particularly in the second half of the day.
- Help your child get ready for sleep by making sure he or she is getting enough physical activity throughout the day. Aim for at least one full hour of physical activity. Outdoor play, particularly in the morning, is helpful because exposure to natural light helps keep your child’s circadian rhythm in sync.
- As with many habits, it’s essential to set a good example by making sleep a priority for yourself.
Survive the mornings
Even with a good night’s slumber, parents can agree that mornings during the school year can be pretty chaotic. Still, a little pre-planning can help make the early mornings go more smoothly.
A couple days before school starts, run through the morning routine with your children to make sure there’s enough time to get dressed, eat breakfast and get out the door. It’s also extremely helpful the night before to check a few items off your morning to-do list, such as packing lunches, setting out school clothes and making sure backpacks are stocked and ready to go.
When it comes to figuring out a healthy sleep schedule for kids, it’s necessary to note that a significant proportion of children will have difficulty with sleep at some point during their childhood, and to an extent, this is developmentally normal. However, there is a subset of children who have sleep disorders and should seek medical care.
When to see the pediatrician
Here are some reasons to take your child to the doctor to discuss sleep concerns:
- Your child seems to have excessive fears or anxiety around going to sleep
- Snoring that is loud or disruptive
- Frequent nighttime awakenings
- Nighttime bedwetting that persists past the age of 7
- Excessive daytime sleepiness, in spite of adequate hours of sleep
Parents’ guide to choosing a pediatrician
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.