How to transition your kids back to a healthy sleep schedule before school starts

Back to school already?!

It’s hard to believe in a few short weeks we’ll be back to packing lunches and spending the evenings working on homework. 

Some of us may feel ready to bring structure back into our days after a summer of travels, while the rest of us will miss the freedom and flexibility of summer. Either way, this transition can be tough for the whole family, especially as you bring back early bedtimes and morning routines.

Whether your kids are about to start school, or already have, here are a few tips we recommend considering as you all adjust to the new season.

1. Gradually set an earlier bedtime.

Children usually stay up later during the summer, so it can feel like a huge adjustment to go from relaxing summer days and sleeping in, to now waking up earlier and needing to get ready quickly to head out the door.

The best approach to take is a gradual one.

Even if your child has already started school, you can still slowly start to move up bedtime by 15 or 20 minutes each night (preferably over a week or two) until you reach an appropriate time. Recommended bedtimes vary by age, but generally speaking, you should shoot for 10-12 hours of sleep a night for an elementary or middle school child, and 9-11 hours for a high school student.

We generally recommend a bedtime between 7:30pm and 8:30pm for school-aged kids, but you may need to count backwards and plan bedtime based on the time that school starts and how long it takes your child to get ready in the morning. If it’s still too bright outside at the decided bedtime, make sure you have blackout curtains or something blocking the bedroom windows. Keeping the room cool in the evening also helps the body know that it’s nighttime. 

2. Make bedtime a habit for everyone in the family.

It is best to set bedtime as close as possible for all children in the house.

If one child feels left out because she has an earlier bedtime than her brother, it’ll probably be more difficult for her to adjust.

You can also have everyone in the family participate in the bedtime routine, which helps promote healthy sleep habits in general. 

3. Plan an earlier dinner time.

The beginning of the school year can also bring an assortment of after-school activities. In our household, we have 1.5 hours in between after-school pick-up and sports practice, so dinnertime is either 4:30 or 7:30 p.m.

As often as possible, choose the earlier dinner time.

An earlier dinner time (and a nutritious dinner) helps with digestion and generally will prevent sleep disturbances for children. Eating earlier also ensures you have plenty of time to start the bedtime routine and have your kiddos in bed by their set bedtime.

4. Encourage exercise after school.

School can be both mentally and physically exhausting for children, but making sure they keep their activity level up is a great way to ensure a good night’s sleep. If your child has an interest in sports or after-school activities, we encourage this, if it is do-able with your other commitments.

5. Avoid screen time and over-stimulating activities before bed.

While many children use tablets and other electronics for homework, it is important to be mindful of how much screen time they are exposed to before bed. The light from screens (such as TVs, phones, tablets, and computers) can cause over-stimulation and suppresses melatonin, making it difficult for your child to fall asleep.

It is best to reserve screen time for late afternoon or early evening (if at all) — not within two hours of bedtime.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children age 2 to 5 be limited to 1 hour of screen time per day (which should be high-quality and slower-paced programming, and adults should watch with them to help them understand and apply what they are learning). The AAP also recommends keeping bedrooms electronics-free zones for all ages of children.

Instead of screen time, opt for a book or a quiet activity that promotes a more calm environment prior to bedtime.

6. Follow a bedtime routine.

Children want routine more than most of us realize.

When they know what to expect, it gives them a sense of security and support, making bedtime a whole lot easier.

Your child might look forward to the time you spend each night putting her to sleep, so take the same steps each night as you prepare for bed with your little one.

7. Stay consistent, even on the weekends.

Children need our help staying consistent, because let’s face it: if it were up to them, they would stay up until well past an appropriate bedtime. Even on the weekends, I encourage consistency in wake-ups times and bedtimes, which helps their internal clock stay on track.

Overall, just know that transitioning your children from one season to the next can sometimes bring its own set of challenges. Consistency and patience are important during any transition. While change can take some time, by emphasizing healthy sleep habits, your children will naturally fall back into a rhythm and all will be okay. Children are resilient and often adjust more easily than we think. By following the above steps, you are not only helping your child transition to healthier sleep habits, but you are also allowing your entire family to get the rest you all need!