Summer vacation means freedom for most kids. However, sleep schedules tend to fall by the wayside during the summer months. Many parents worry about teen summer sleep. Learn how you can help your child and teen develop healthy sleep habits during the summer months.
Sleep schedule changes in the summer months
Younger children (think from birth through elementary school) tend to be early risers. Thus, even if they are in school during the year and off for the summer, then tend to get up about the same time, or perhaps a little later (as many children are light sensitive
However, as children enter puberty, their sleep schedule gets later by about three hours. Thus, during the summer when schedules are more relaxed, many teens will start staying up and getting up later unless they have to get up in the morning for camp or work.
In study of children in early adolescence (ages 12-14), the average shift in the timing of their sleep schedule was later by about 41 minutes when compared to how they slept during the school year. Interestingly, data on older teens is somewhat limited.
Can you be more relaxed about sleep in the summer?
Most teenagers are chronically sleep deprived during the school year. Some catch up sleep, and synchronization with their natural, later body clock schedule is to be expected. I don’t think that teens need to stay on their school sleep schedule. However, there are a few caveats you should be aware of.
Many children, especially obese children, tend to gain weight in the summertime. Sleep is likely a factor
Many children in the US struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. Obesity researchers have explained this using something called the Structured Days Hypothesis. Essentially, the idea is that children have less structure during the summer. They can eat when and what they want to, they are less physically active, and their sleep schedule shifts later and is less consistent. All of these behaviors are obesogenic– they predispose children to gaining weight.
Summertime schedules are not a guarantee that children are getting more sleep.
A study of 7 year olds in New Zealand showed that the children were actually getting less sleep on weekends and summer days when compared to weekdays during the school year. Other studies have shown that teens, especially minority teens, are likely to continue to be sleep deprived during the summer.
Later sleep schedules are associated with less sleep and worse dietary choices.
An interesting study surveyed over a hundred to 9-15 year olds in a gifted program in Mississippi. They split the study participants into groups with early and late sleep periods. (They used a marker known as “midsleep time”– essentially the midpoint of a night of sleep.) The earlier group’s midsleep time was 2:11 am and the late group was 6:14 am during the summer. Assuming 9 hours of sleep, the early group was sleeping from 9:40pm to 7:50am; the late group was sleeping from 1:45 am to 10:45 am. The researchers found that children in the late group were more likely to make poor dietary choices– specifically to consume more sugary, caffeinated beverages, and select other foods with high energy density and poor nutritional content. This adds to the literature suggesting that short sleep and late sleep are associated with obesity in children.
Should parents expect kids to take ownership of getting enough sleep in the summer?
In the study above, children in the early sleep group were much more likely to have a parent set bedtime. Thus, parents can influence their child’s sleep time, even in adolescence. Although it may not feel that way, the way you talk about sleep and the expectations you set matter.
Should kids have a bedtime during summer break?
I would recommend one through age fourteen. After this I would set a wake time for weekdays. More on this below.
Is it OK to let your teenager sleep all day?
I wouldn’t let it become a habit as it will make it difficulty to adjust to school in the fall.
How much sleep is too much for a teenager?
Teenagers who are consistently needing more than 10-11 hours per night could have a sleep disorder. You should talk about this with your pediatrician. In my experience, however, most kids who are sleeping all day just have an inappropriately late bedtime.
Here’s what you should do about your child’s sleep schedule in the summer.
First, I think it is important that your child still have a set bedtime, up through ages 12-14. It’s ok if it is later. For my patients, I recommend a 1 + schedule for children in elementary school and younger (one hour later to bed and one hour later to rise), and a 2-3+ schedule (two to three hours later to bed and rise) on average days during the summer. Especially for older teens, you will have more luck if you negotiate this with them. For older teens agreeing upon a wake time and letting them set the bedtime is appropriate.
Second, it’s important for your children to have some structure during the day. Camp or jobs are ideal, but not everyone has access to them. I do think that every child should get out of the house every day and get some physical activity and sunshine. Give them chores. Help them make plans with friends, especially in the morning.
Third, don’t let electronic use get out of control over the summer. We all had to be more relaxed during the pandemic, and the summertime can be more relaxed as well. But many of the children in my clinic seem to spend all day and much of the night on their devices. At a bare minimum, I would encourage you to keep electronics out of the bedroom at night and place screen time limits during the sleeping hours.
Finally, and most important, check and see is your child getting enough sleep during the summer. You can’t take this for granted. (For more on the appropriate amount of sleep, read on!)
Now, all these rules apply to an average day. Don’t freak out if your child sleeps in to 2pm on one occasion after a sleepover with friends.
What to think about a month before school
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 bedtime routine need adjustment?
- Does your child’s sleep schedule need adjustment?
(By the way, here’s a video I shot last summer when many kids were heading back to full time school– on how to adjust back to a typical school sleep schedule).
Does your child’s bedtime routine need adjustment?
During the pandemic, and during summers, we have had relaxed screen time rules in my home. However, it is critical that you start putting the brakes 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.
|School age (5-12 years)
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).
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 than two hours later than the school wake up time (for teens) or one hour (for pre teens and younger), I would recommend that you work together to get their schedule on track. 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.
How to adjust your child’s sleep at the end of the summer vacation
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 tend to have more difficulty with this. 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.
- Here’s some great information on this topic from Johns Hopkins
- Summer Sleep Schedules: Does Your Teen Need One?
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?