This year, back-to-school plans encourage a safe return to full-time, in-person learning to support children's psychological and academic well-being. As tempting as it might be to let the summer sleep schedules stay in place, it’s important that children have a regular routine — and that they are sleeping during the dark hours and awake during the light ones, as our bodies do best that way. That's true for families who are home-schooling, as well: even when the trip to school is just a walk to the kitchen table, allowing for more sleep than those catching an early bus may get, no child should be spending all morning in bed.
Sleep is crucial for all of us, and this is particularly true for children. Without enough quality sleep, children are more likely to have health and behavioral problems — and difficulty learning.
Here are a few simple things you can do to help your child get the sleep they need.
Have a regular schedule
Our bodies do best when we go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day.
- Children and teens need eight to 10 hours of sleep. Count back 10 hours from when your child needs to get up in the morning. That’s roughly the time they need to be getting ready for bed (for younger children, count back 11 hours).
- For example, if your teen needs to be up at 7, then they should be getting ready for bed by 9, and in bed by 10 (since most of us don’t fall asleep the moment our head hits the pillow). A younger child should start getting ready (bathing, etc.) by around 8.
- Understand that teens are biologically wired to fall asleep later and wake up later and will naturally have later bedtimes. Unfortunately, most school districts don’t accommodate to this, so you are often working against biology.
- While it’s okay to stay up a bit later on weekends, don’t let the bedtime vary by more than an hour or so.
Turn off the screens before bed
The blue light emitted by screens can keep us awake.
- It’s best if the screens can be off two hours before you want your child asleep. Use that time when they start getting ready for bed as the time that the screens go off.
- The only real way to achieve this is to get all devices out of the bedroom. (So true!)
- Teens will fight you on this. If you can, hold firm (and buy them an alarm clock if they say they need their phone for this). At the very least, be sure that the phone is on Do Not Disturb mode overnight.
Have an environment that encourages sleep
- Quiet things down. If you are watching TV, turn the volume down, and in general try to not make much noise after children go to bed.
- Consider a white noise machine, or a fan (or air conditioner if you live somewhere warm). There are also white noise apps for those teens who won’t give up their phones.
- Room-darkening curtains can make a difference for children who tend to wake up at the first light of dawn — or who can’t fall asleep if it’s not fully dark outside.
Know how other factors influence sleep
- Busy teens often have difficulty getting everything done in time to get enough sleep. Talk with your teen about their daily schedule and look for ways to help them get more shut-eye, such as getting homework done during the school day, or limiting video games or other activities that eat into homework time. Sleep needs to be the priority.
- Limit caffeine. It’s best not to have any, but certainly nothing from mid-afternoon on.
- Limit naps! For a tired older child naps may seem like a good idea, but they can interfere with nighttime sleep. Naptime is okay through preschool.
- Make sure your child gets exercise. It’s not only important for their health, it helps their sleep.
- Have calming routines before bed (not exercise!).
If your child is having trouble falling asleep, or is waking up at night, talk to your doctor. It’s also important to talk to your doctor if your child is snoring or having other breathing problems at night. Don’t ever ignore a sleep problem; always ask for help.
Follow me on Twitter @drClaire
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD