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Resetting Your Kids' Sleep Clock for Back to School

Jennifer Nelson

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Kids struggling to get out of bed in the morning may not just be protesting going to school. A lax sleep schedule could be making mornings difficult—especially in the early fall.

“Relaxed sleep schedules during the summer significantly distort the circadian rhythm in children," says Dr. Jared Heathman, a psychiatrist at Your Family Psychiatrist in Houston. “This results in difficulty returning to a normal sleep routine."

If you're having trouble getting kids out of bed, remember that fixing kids' sleep schedules doesn't happen overnight. Experts suggest scheduling a gradual transition, moving bedtime back 10 to 15 minutes each night until you arrive at the target bedtime.

Next, start waking kids up 10 to 15 minutes earlier each day.

“Gradual adjustments ease the transition," says Heathman.

What Else Helps?

It's best to avoid light from electronics during the hour before bed, as it suppresses melatonin. Never let kids have tablets, laptops or smartphones in bed with them, says Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City.

To get kids ready to go to sleep, they need a bedtime routine that signals it's time to wind down. A natural wind-down routine can include baths or showers, a snack, teeth brushing, reading or snuggle time. Enforce the routine nightly so it becomes second nature.

Try to eliminate caffeine, sugary drinks, candy and big meals before bed. These can interfere with kids' sleeping patterns and keep them from falling asleep or staying asleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that sugar and fat can lead to lighter, less restorative sleep.

The Morning Rush

Mornings play a role in how kids sleep at night, too.

“Have your child get about 30 minutes of bright outside light when he/she first wakes, as that will help them be on an earlier schedule," says Dr. Catherine Darley, at the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine. Open bedroom blinds first thing or eat breakfast in a sunny nook.

Dehydration can also impact the sleep/wake cycle, so offer kids plenty of water when they wake up. The UCLA Sleep Disorders Center says dehydration has effects similar to jet lag. Take a water bottle on the commute to school if possible.

And, skip the morning sugar, sweet cereal, and caffeine. Instead, try vitamin-rich, energy-boosting foods such as oatmeal with nuts and berries, yogurt with fruit and granola, or a hard-boiled egg with peanut butter toast.

When All Else Fails

If you're desperate to get kids back on track this fall, you can try this fix next weekend:

“Let your kids stay up late one night, and the next morning wake them up very early so that they are very tired that night going to bed and will fall asleep early," says Dr. Christina Johns, the senior medical advisor for PM Pediatrics in New York.

Fair warning: This method isn't fun. To avoid sending cranky kids to school on Monday, your best bet is the gradual process.

Switching from staying up late and sleeping in to waking up early isn't easy for kids. Talk with them about the importance of sleep and the goal of getting them on track so they have enough energy and brainpower to succeed at school. Inspire them to be a partner in the process.


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Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based health writer who writes about all things sleep hygiene. She writes for The National Sleep Foundation, Phillips, Tom's Guide, Southern Living, Health, AARP and others.

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