Tips and strategies to get your child into a regular sleep schedule
Tips and strategies to get your child into a regular sleep schedule

Back to school – Part 1: Sleep

As the holidays draw to a close it’s important to adjust sleep schedules so that your family can be ready to survive the first week of school.

Need to know: Strategies to get your child into a regular sleep schedule

Ah, school holidays, the time when you can loosen up on strict daily routines and when kids beg (over and over again) to stay up “just a bit later”. As the holidays draw to a close it’s important to start bringing back routines and adjusting sleep schedules so that your family can be ready to survive the first week of school.

During the school holidays, it’s common for kids to stay up later and wake up later than usual. While this may seem harmless as a temporary measure, irregular sleep patterns can disrupt the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. 

The circadian rhythm is crucial to our wellbeing: it regulates our sleep-wake cycle, hormones, body temperature, and other essential physiological processes. Research has shown that children, like adults, have their own unique circadian rhythms that influence their energy levels, alertness, and ability to fall asleep and wake up. 

Why it’s important

Shifting from holiday sleep patterns to school routines overnight can lead to emotional chaos. Your child’s internal body clock has adapted to later bedtimes, and sudden changes can trigger resistance. Moreover, abrupt changes heighten the risk of sleep disruption, insomnia, and even symptoms akin to jet lag – fatigue, irritability, and trouble focusing – hardly the ideal start to a new school term!

A gradual approach is your best strategy to get sleep back on track. Start tweaking sleep schedules a week before school. By gently nudging bedtime and wake-up times closer to the desired routine, your child’s body clock gets a chance to adjust gracefully. This gradual shift makes falling asleep and waking up at the right times feel natural.

Remember, our bodies need time to adapt to new routines. Patience and consistency are key. Even if it takes a few days or a week, stick to the gradual adjustments, allowing your child’s sleep cycle to reset itself.

Tips & strategies

To get your child back on their regular sleep schedule, try these strategies:

Craft a Sleep Schedule

Ensure your child gets the necessary sleep: School-aged kids need an average of 9-12 hours of sleep per night. Any less and it will start to impact their day-to-day functioning including their ability to focus, learn, and keep emotionally regulated.

Use a gradual approach to shifting sleep: Start adjusting bedtime and wake-up time gradually, shifting them back by 15 minutes every couple of days until the desired schedule is achieved.

Stick to a routine, including weekends: Although it might feel like weekends are a time to relax routines, it is much better to keep to one sleep schedule. Not only is it less disruptive to our circadian rhythm, but there are also fewer arguments on Sunday nights about bedtime and less pushback about getting up on Monday mornings.

Practice Sleep Hygiene

Create a bedtime routine that is familiar and promotes relaxation: create a calming routine that signals to the body that it’s time to wind down. This may include activities like reading, dimming lights, listening to guided sleep meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation audio. Try a few different things to see what works for your child. 

Limit or avoid caffeine: caffeine can be hidden in many drinks and sugary snacks, check labels and avoid them from late afternoon onwards as they can disrupt sleep. 

Turn off devices 1-2 hours before sleep: light emitted from digital devices, and even overhead LED lights, signal to our bodies that it is still daylight, which delays the natural timing for the secretion of melatonin (sleep-facilitating hormone) and sleep onset.

Additional Sleep Hacks

Maintain a cooler bedroom temperature: there are internal and external signals that encourage our bodies to go to sleep, and body temperature is one of them. A drop in core body temperature is part of our circadian clock and accompanies bedtime and sleep stages.

Review timing of stimulants: ADHD medications can impact sleep depending on the timing of the last dosage. If your child has recently started medication or changed dosage, it might be worth talking to their paediatrician about the impact on sleep. 

Spend time in the morning sunshine: sunlight is the most important mechanism that helps sync our internal body clock to the outside world. The earlier you get your child out in the sunlight the earlier they will start feeling tired. Morning light advances our circadian clock, so that we get tired earlier in the evening, but light exposure late in the day or early at night will delay it, pushing back the time that you will feel tired. Think of the time that your child falls asleep as a result of the push and pull between these opposite effects of light exposure at different times of the day.

Replace blue lights in the bedroom: blue light has been shown to suppress melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shift circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours). Where possible use dim red lights for night lights. Red light is less likely to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.

Change the menu: some studies suggest that some foods can help you sleep better because they contain high concentrations of tryptophan, serotonin, or melatonin. If your child needs a late-night snack try giving them complex carbohydrates (oatmeal or whole wheat pasta/bread), fruit like bananas, kiwis and cherries, nuts like almonds and walnuts, or pumpkin seeds (subject to allergies).

  1. Back to School Sleep Tips: Routines, Schedules, & Sleep Hygiene | Sleep Foundation
  2. Tips for shifting kids back to their school sleep schedule – Sanford Health News
  3. Healthy sleep habits before kindergarten help children adjust to school — ScienceDaily
  4. Researchers find ways to help teens get more sleep: Time management and bright light therapy prove effective for adolescents — ScienceDaily
  5. The Role of Environmental Factors on Sleep Patterns and School Performance in Adolescents – PMC
  6. Effect of Extended-Release Dexmethylphenidate and Mixed Amphetamine Salts on Sleep: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Crossover Study in Youth with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder | SpringerLink
  7. Sleep and Diet: Mounting Evidence of a Cyclical Relationship – PMC
  8. Sleep and thermoregulation – ScienceDirect
  9. Blue light has a dark side – Harvard Health

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