- How much sleep does your child need?
- And how in the world do you accomplish that?
Going “back to school” doesn’t just affect students and teachers, this time of year can mean big schedule changes for most families as well, especially when it comes to their sleep schedule.
During the summer, we tend to slip into a more laid back and loose schedule. Nights run longer and with extended daylight hours the morning start slowly creeps later and later. Commuters tend to get out the door with a bit less time to spare because they don’t have to fight the school traffic. And vacations have probably left us vulnerable to less then desirable eating and sleeping habits.
What adjustments can we make now to get our bodies and our minds ready for the more rigorous demands of the day? How do we create a back to school sleep schedule?
First, let’s get to the root of WHY we need to make this a priority.
Sleep promotes alertness, memory and performance. Children who get enough sleep are more likely to function better and are less prone to behavioral problems and moodiness. Overall, they are in better health and have a higher capacity to learn and enjoy life. The truth is, this applies to adults as well. I’m pretty sure if teachers thought it would be effective, the number one homework assignment would be get a full night of sleep.
But what is a “full” night of sleep, exactly?
The answer depends on age. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a Statement of Endorsement supporting the following guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).
Age Recommended Sleep Hours per 24 Hour Period:
- Infants: 4 to 12 months 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
- Toddlers: 1 to 2 years 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
- Preschoolers: 3 to 5 years 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
- Elementary/Middle: 6 to 12 years 9 to 12 hours
- High School to College: 13 to 18 years 8 to 10 hours
Based on a study released by the National Sleep Foundation in 2014, when polled, parents estimated their children’s sleep time to be much lower than these recommendations.
So how do we make changes? I say take it piece by piece.
1. Make clear bedtime rules and routines
I think one of the more difficult things to do as a parent is to stick to your guns. It is easy for us to second-guess our decisions, and wonder if it really is that big of a deal to bend the rules just once. The answer is YES.
Once you and your partner have agreed on the rules, stick to them. You can even get some input from older kids as you put these rules together (but only input, they don’t make the decisions). Be consistent and have a unified front. Nothing is worse than being a wishy-washy parent. If your boss was inconsistent with you on their expectations, do you think after time you would get a little lax, or confused on what may or may not set them off? Same thing here with your kids.
2. Pick your poison – & limit extracurricular activities
I know you want your children to experience it all. But the truth is we are over-scheduling ourselves – and them. How is a first grader going to be able to get 11 to 12 hours of solid sleep if they are picked up from school and taken straight to a piano lesson which gets out at 4:30, and then you rush home to eat dinner between 5 and 5:30, to get to the ball park by 6? Then they practice for an hour and a half and when you get home, you still have to do homework and bath time. I nominate you for SuperMom if you can get them in bed by 9:30pm. Give them some time to fall asleep and they might be out by 10 just to wake them up at 6 am to start it all over again.
Now they have gotten 8 hours of sleep, but what was the recommendation? 11 to 12… that’s three to four hours of sleep debt they now have to carry.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have our children involved in activities – you just don’t have to do it all at the same time. When my oldest children were younger, we had a rule that you had a limit of two activities, and we had to find a way for the schedules to accommodate, or they had to roll off to another time. It’s ok to say NO.
3. Turn off the screens
Maybe now we have gotten good around consistent bedtime. This means the hormones that control the functions inside our body are getting consistent too. About two hours before its time to go to sleep our body starts to increase its levels of melatonin. It helps us feel sleepy, and aides in the onset of sleep. Once asleep, it also helps to keep us that way over the next 8-12 hours.
If your body was confused on when to start the production, you may not have enough to get to sleep easily or stay asleep. What causes that? The area of the brain that produces the melatonin (pineal gland) just happens to be a communicator and not too distant neighbor to the optic nerve. The optic nerve is a paired nerve that transmits visual information from the retina to the brain, information like is there light around?
Light means it is daytime and we don’t need melatonin. Therefore, when we have things like TVs, and iPhones, and tablets pulsing light directly into our eyes, the brain says, “I don’t really need to produce melatonin right now.” The result is a child or an adult that just can’t seem to fall asleep, or if they are able to fall asleep they may not have enough melatonin in their system to keep them that way all night.
4. Reduce the clutter
Ahhh, we’re finally in bed, trying to relax, and working on getting our melatonin levels appropriate, now what? We look around the room and even if it is dark, there is so much to see and do. As an adult, we see the laundry that is piling up that we need to remember to do, and the child sees a figure of a scary monster that just happens to be a shirt that was thrown to the side when it didn’t fit right one morning. What’s the take away? CLEAN YOUR ROOM. Does this sound strange?? It can have such a huge effect on the mind and the ability to slow things down and get a good night sleep. The bedroom should be a safe and inviting sanctuary for the resting mind and body.
5. Pay attention to the environment
Too much light, strange noises, and temperature can all play a huge part in difficulty getting to sleep. Look around the room – are there things that emit light that could be distracting to a child? Do you have light from street lamps or porches coming from outside the window? Consider things like black out curtains to get the room as dark as possible. This also helps to keep the sun light out in the early hours of the morning when we are still trying to get those recommended hours of sleep.
Are there environmental noises that could be drowned out by a white noise machine or some light lullaby station? If you opt for the music route, my suggestion would be to play something without words, because it can be counterproductive and stimulate the brain, or pull us out of sleep if we have drifted off.
Lastly, what is the temperature like? In most cases, temperatures above 75 or below 54 degrees Fahrenheit will disrupt sleep. Keeping the temperature around 69-72 is a nice stabilized temperature to help with the onset and continuation of sleep.
Are these tips enough to cure insomnia? Most likely not. But, these are great first steps to improve the sleep hygiene of the entire family. Most importantly, I think we need to examine our family’s relationship with sleep and consider if we are truly giving it the priority that it deserves.
Sometimes it can seem daunting as a parent to manage your sleep as well as the sleep of the rest of the family, because one thing you ultimately can’t do is MAKE anyone sleep. It can seem difficult to figure out how to get a child to sleep as much as the pediatric experts recommend – and it’s, even more challenging with toddlers and infants. If you find you are struggling in these areas, here’s more tips that you can download here.
Think on this: There is no single activity that can have a more drastic and immediate effect on the wellness and mental vitality of a person then a good night’s sleep. And you can provide that for your student.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dana Stone is Rocket City’s go-to on infant and child sleep. She founded Rest Assured Consulting after a very challenging year without sleep with the youngest of her four children. When she is not busy helping families sleep you can find her chasing toddlers or arguing with teenagers as she prepares to send the oldest daughter to college and the youngest boys to pre-school.
As a hyper-local website focused on all aspects of parenting in and around Huntsville, AL, and the Tennessee Valley, Rocket City Mom occasionally asks local parents to submit their stories for publication. This is part of our continual effort to represent varied viewpoints and experiences on our site. However, these articles should not be seen as necessarily expressing the views of Rocket City Mom Media Group, LLC.