The parents and kids back to school sleep tune-up

Scientifically-based Actionable Advice
By: 
Craig Canapari, MD
Director of Yale Pediatric Sleep Center

For better or worse, the summer is past its halfway point. Believe it or not, some parents will be sending kids back to school in a few weeks.  The prospect may fill some with melancholy (kids, parents), and others with relief (parents). It’s been great for us. Long, lazy days at the beach. Dripping ice cream cones. Bike rides. Long days and lazy mornings.

However, 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 schedule my patients with sleep disorders, especially 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.

  • 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 are a bit more problematic. 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 learned 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:

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 asking 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? Add your stories and comments to the original article post.

Craig Canapari, MD. is a pediatric lung and sleep doctor at Yale School of Medicine. For more evidence-based advice for sleep in kids and parents, head over to Dr. Canapari's website.