Tips to Getting Your Kids to Sleep on a School Night
Summer’s over, the days are getting shorter and the late mornings are coming to an end. It’s time to pull out the alarm clock for the kids, and with that comes the inevitable arguments about going to bed early and then getting them up to to school.
Sleep is critical for kids and teens. Researchers have found adequate sleep offers a wide range of benefits for kids. It helps promote growth, it strengthens their immunity, it increases their attention span helping them to better in school, it boosts learning and some say it even helps them maintain a healthy weight. And it might make that teenager in your life a little more cheerful. Maybe.
How much sleep do kids need?
The total amount of sleep that kids need may vary. Some kids may need more sleep, others less. But here is a general guideline for sleep requirements for school-aged kids:
- Children 6 to 13 years old should get nine to 11 hours each night.
- For teens ages 14 to 17, eight to 10 hours are recommended.
Teenagers” biological clocks change during puberty. Typically, adolescents and teens fall asleep at a later hour at night and tend to sleep later in the morning. This pattern can present problems, because school schedules often require that teens get up early.
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What are the warning signs of sleep deprivation?
- Difficulty concentrating and learning
- Increased appetite
- Temper tantrums
- Defiant behavior
- A hard time waking up
- Falling asleep during the day
The Basics: Healthy Sleep Habits
If you’re seeing these problems, the answer might be good “sleep hygiene.” Just as you take steps to keep your teeth healthy, or your body free from infections, sleep hygiene refers to some basic routines that can help your kids fall asleep and stay asleep.
Let’s start with the basics. Here are some healthy sleep habits to help kids of all ages:
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends, holidays, and vacations. (See more about this below.)
- Make your bedroom quiet and relaxing. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, white noise machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing.
- The bedroom should be cool – between 60 and 67 degrees – for optimal sleep.
- Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime. If you are hungry at night, eat a light, healthy snack.
- Avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon or evening.
- Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime.
- Get outside during the day and dim the lights at night. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Dimming the lights at night encourages your child’s body to produce the sleep hormone melatonin.
Keep to a Bedtime Routine Even in the Summer
When the days get longer and school is over, it’s easy to let kids stay up. But don’t ditch the regular bedtime schedule. Maintaining a consistent routine helps kids get the sleep they need. If school has just started, it may be too late for that, but it’s something to remember for the weekends.
Teens who sleep in until noon can throw off their circadian rhythm, making it more difficult to wake up early again once school starts in the fall (or on Monday). Try to get him or her up by at least 9 or 10 a.m. so that the transition back to school hours will be easier.
A few weeks before school starts, gradually ease your child back to a bedtime and wake-up hour that provides enough sleep. A good way to do this is to move the alarm clock earlier by 15-minute increments every few nights until the right school sleep schedule is created.
A Bedtime Routine Can Help Get Kids Away from Their Screens
Everyone offers the same advice: electronic devices – computers, smartphones, video games, etc. – should be turned off at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens have been found to restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm. Lowered melatonin makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Taking away devices from your kids is, of course, easier said than done. But a routine can help.
When kids come home from school they are usually wound up after sitting in a classroom all day. A bedtime routine is important in getting them calmed down and ready for bed. Having a routine – like bath time, followed by craft or puzzle or light snack, followed by a bedtime story – gives kids something else to think about other than their devices. For older kids reading or listening to quiet music can be helpful.
You might want to make breathing exercises a part of your child’s bedtime routine. Deep breathing helps them get more oxygen in their bloodstream, and that can help them calm down and reduce stress. This can be a fun game, and there are a lot of ideas for breathing exercises for kids on the internet.
How can I help my teen sleep better?
Teens are unlikely to tolerate warm milk and cookies before bed time. But there are other things you can do.
- Stop the screen time in evening – particularly in their bedroom. Remove the TV from their bedroom. If they can’t stay off phone at night, make them use the phone outside of their room.
- Lead by example. Adopt good sleep hygiene yourself so your kids can model your behavior. Have your own sleep routine.
- Keep them on a consistent sleep schedule. If they find they are still tired, then talk to them about going to bed earlier.
- Before going to bed, encourage your teen to read quietly or listen to some relaxing music. But they should not do this in bed. Once you’re in bed the only thing you should do is sleep. Don’t associate anything else with being in bed besides sleep.
- Avoid Caffeine. Energy drinks and espresso drinks are common sights in teens hands, but I wouldn’t recommend anything with caffeine for teens.
- Get your teen involved in an afterschool activity. Even if they don’t like sports, there are lots of other clubs that can help them burn off their energy. Or how about a j-o-b?
- If they like to exercise, encourage it. As little as 10 minutes a day of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can improve nighttime sleep quality. This can be a great habit for the entire family.
Stress and Sleep
Sleep problems are common among kids who are anxious or who are making a transition to a new school year. They might have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early or experiencing nightmares. And often, one problem feeds the other. Kids who don’t get enough sleep are susceptible to anxiety and depression, which affects sleep.
The good news is, you can take steps to ease your child’s anxiety during the day and set him or her up for a good night’s sleep. Start with these strategies.
- Talk them about their anxiety. Rather than asking leading questions such as “Are you anxious about school?” which can inadvertently reinforce your child’s nervousness, it’s better to ask open-ended ones such as “How are you feeling about the start of school?” Then you and your child can come up with strategies for managing those worries. It’s best to talk thing through in the afternoon than before bed, which could trigger worries while they are in bed.
- It is important not to allow kids to let the fears/anxiety overcome them they are allowed to be anxious about going to school, but they are not allowed to skip school. Kids can have physical side effects from stress. Headaches and abdominal pain are common complaints, but they should be sent to school. If these symptoms are worrisome , then talk to your pediatrician.
- Relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, visualizing a calm place, doing gentle stretches can help. Encourage your child to use these strategies in the morning, before bed, and on an as-needed basis.
If stress and anxiety become a serious problem, be sure to talk to your pediatrician or a counselor.
5 Tips to Handle Nightmares
With the stress of starting another school year, your child may suffer from nightmares. Nightmares are common in in school-age children. Your child may cry out for your comfort or to your room after a nightmare.
- Comfort your child with a hug and calming words. Remind your child that the nightmare isn’t real.
- Your child may remember the nightmare and want to talk about it.
- Ask your child to talk about anything he or she is worried about. Worries and stress may make nightmares or other sleep problems more likely.
- Help your child stay away from scary books or movies before bed. Scary stories might lead to nightmares for some children.
- For younger children, commercialized anti-monster spray is available at most stores (Febreze or some aerosolized spray with homemade label or an incense diffuser).
Dealing with Night Terrors
Night terrors and nightmares may seem similar, but there is one important difference: unlike a nightmare, children typically don’t wake up from night terrors. During the episode, they may scream, shout, flail and kick, sit up in bed, and appear terrorized. But it is very difficult to wake or communicate with a child during a night terror.
While the night terrors—which can last from a few seconds to a few minutes—seem traumatizing, children will usually return to normal sleep after the incident and have no memory of the night terror the next morning. Night terrors are more likely to occur with girls than with boys, and most kids grow out of them by their teenage years.
If your child does have an episode, speak calmly and softly. Gently squeeze their hand and offer reassurance. Don’t try to wake or shake your child. This could make the problem worse. It’s okay to wait out the night terror. While unpleasant to watch, remember that the episode won’t last long and your child is unlikely to recall any of it in the morning.
While frightening to witness, occasional night terrors are considered normal for kids and do not warrant a trip to the pediatrician’s office. If your child has a lot of stress and often has nightmares or night terrors, or is sleepwalking, you should talk to you pediatrician.
Medications and Your Child’s Sleep
Stimulant medications used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can interrupt sleep just like other stimulants. Talk to your pediatrician if you think that is a problem.
You may wonder if an over-the-counter medication, prescription medication, or a natural remedy might be an option to help your child sleep.
I try to avoid sleep aid medications if possible. I prefer kids not learn that if something is “broke” to fix it with a pill. The behavioral changes to good sleep hygiene will be more effective in the end. Talk to your pediatrician before trying any of these options.
Most Americans suffer from a sleep deficit. But sleep is critical for growing kids and teens. We live busy, stressful lives and so do our kids. To make sure we get proper sleep, we need to make it happen. Like anything important, some planning, some persistence and some patience is required to make sure your kids get the sleep they need.
About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.