For better or worse, the summer is past its halfway point. Believe it or not, some parents will be sending kids back to school in a few weeks. The prospect may fill some with melancholy (kids, parents), and others with relief (parents).
This year is particularly complicated, for several reasons related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Delta variant. (The Delta variant is making me feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III):
- Fortunately, it seems like most school will be in person, but there is a lot of controversy about masking and vaccination in some areas, which will make a return to Zoom school more likely.
- Many kids have gotten accustomed to staying up and getting up very late, due to Zoom school and many activities being canceled.
I made a video for teens to work towards sleep success this year. If you know a middle school or teen who has been staying up late, this is for them.
As a parent, you may want to start thinking now about how you will adjust your child’s schedule to get him or her back on her school schedule. It can be a rocky landing if teens need to adjust to a new school year and are used to staying up late and sleeping late– a condition known as social jet lag. To me, professionally, what this means is that it is time for a sleep tune-up for my patients who have trouble sleeping. I usually see my patients in July, especially those with body clock or circadian problems, to make sure that they are on the right trajectory to re-enter school successfully. The beginning of school sets the tone for the year and kids who are having trouble sleeping may struggle. I would advise parents to think about the sleep habits of their children, and how they may need to be readjusted prior to restarting school.
If you are wondering about whether or not your child could use some sleep adjustment, I would recommend answering two questions:
- Does your child’s sleep schedule need adjustment?
- Does your child’s bedtime need adjustment?
Does your child’s sleep schedule need adjustment?
This is a pretty easy question to answer. Look at when your child is waking up on a day where they don’t have any activities. If your child is consistently waking up more more than two hours later than the school wake up time (for teens) or one hour (for pre teens and younger), I would recommend that they you perform a sleep schedule adjustment. This tends to be a much more common problem in teenagers.
In general, getting your child up at 8am for a week before school starts and taking them out for a walk in the sunshine will help their body clock adjust to an earlier schedule. If your child is sleeping in VERY late (think noon or later, you may need to roll the clock back slowly as described below.
Does your child’s bedtime routine need adjustment?
During the pandemic, we have all relaxed screen time rules. Since the start of Covid 19, my older son got his first cell phone on his 13th birthday. However, it is critical that you start putting the breaks on screen time use in the evening and ensure that there are clear rules about keeping the cell phone, tablet, or television out of your kid’s room at night. I would also try to pick a bedtime which will allow your child an adequate opportunity to get enough sleep at night. Here are the recommended sleep requirements by age.
|Age||Likely needs||Could need|
|School age (5-12 years)||9-11 hours||7-12 hours|
|Teenagers (14-17)||8-10 hours||7-11 hours|
|Young adults||7-9 hours||6-11 hours|
Most children will fall in the “Likely Needs” category. If your child’s typical sleep needs are in the “Could Need” category, it would be worth talking with your child’s doctor to make sure they are getting enough sleep (if they are on the low end) or that they don’t have a sleep disorder (if their sleep requirements are at the high end).
Here are the best practices for prepping your child’s sleep for school:
- For elementary school age children, their schedule tends not to deviate too much during the summer. (Even if you want them to when you are on vacation, they don’t sleep in). However, you may have relaxed your routine a little bit. Here’s what I would recommend:
- Mark one week prior to the beginning of school and plan on establishing more rigorous bedtime routines about a week prior to the first day of school.
- If you have been a bit lax about electronics in the bedroom, I would encourage you to take them out right now.
- Teenagers are a bit more problematic. Teenagers have a natural predisposition to go to bed later and stay up later. If they have time shifted later by more than an hour, and they probably have, you can anticipate some difficulty in the first week of school. This is due to their natural body clock predisposition to stay up later and go to bed later, which can become exaggerated over the summer.
- Roll the clock back, slowly. It is always hard to You can only move the schedule back by about 10-15 minutes a day. So if your teenager is sleeping from 1-10 AM and your target sleep period is 10 PM-7 AM, you will need at least 12 days to make the move. Ideally, you will make a move every other day, so a three-hour shift can take about a month. The most important variable to move is wake time as bedtime will slowly adjust.
- Open those blinds. Early morning exposure to light will help to shift your child’s sleep schedule earlier. Conversely, late-night light exposure (usually from TVs, iPads, phones, gaming consoles) will move your child’s sleep schedule later.
- Enlist your child. If there is one thing I have earned as a sleep doctor is that a parent’s (or doctor’s) best laid plans are doomed to fail if the child is not on board. Discuss your concerns with your child in terms that they get.
- Recognize when things are a bit out of control. Some teens with a condition called delayed sleep phase syndrome may have a severe, marked delay where their day/night schedules become reversed. If a teenager has become nocturnal by the beginning of August, I would meet with your pediatrician now. Medication like melatonin may be necessary but please discuss with your physician.
I also want to share some related links:
- Here’s a great article on social jet lag from the Guardian.
- Here is an article in the Washington Post from awhile ago in which I was interviewed on this topic.
- My friend Sonia Smith has a great article on her blog about the importance of sleep for school and ways to evaluate sleepiness in children.
Stressed about your kids going back to school during Delta? I would recommend universal masking, vaccinating of every human eligible (we vaccinated our 13 year old without hesitation), and in person school if at all possible. My friend Dr. Rebecca Bell wrote a great article on back to school and the Delta variant here.
I remember having marked difficulty sleeping before the first day of school as long as I can remember, perhaps due to my undiagnosed restless leg syndrome. Finally, I’d love to close by ask if any parents have any useful tips (or horror stories) about the back to school transition for their children. How did your child negotiate the start of school last year? Anything you want to change this year?