Lights Out: Sleep for Health, Safety and Success this School Year

It’s that time of year again – time to prepare for the new school year. Soon-to-be kindergarteners are getting familiar with their new playground and are shopping for crayons. Older grade schoolers are guessing what teacher they’ll have and hoping their best friend will be in their class. Middle schoolers and high schoolers are anxiously awaiting their class schedule and are picking out an outfit for the first day. Meanwhile, parents are planning for the fall schedule and thinking about how to best set their child up for success in the new school year.

“Before parents get too far down the road of scheduling the carpool or adjusting their work schedule, take a minute to know what time your child’s school day starts. Some school districts have made significant changes to their bell schedule in a move to align the school day with the time of day that kids are the most alert and focused,” said Dr. Maida Chen, director of Seattle Children’s Sleep Disorders Program.

She shared more on the reason some districts are making changes to start times and provides tips for helping your child get enough sleep.

Bell schedule and body clock mismatch

In most areas, middle schools and high schools have earlier start times and elementary schools have later start times. This common schedule often results in young children being awake for hours before the school day starts, and tweens and teens struggling to get out of bed for school. The reason for this is that sleep needs and sleep-wake cycles change as children grow and develop.

“Decades worth of research, both in the U.S. and in other countries, have shown that the beginning of puberty brings a shift in the sleep-wake pattern of adolescents,” said Chen. “It’s not that tweens and teens are lazy, it’s that they are experiencing a legitimate biological change that shifts their sleep pattern, making it difficult to go to sleep before 10 p.m. and difficult to wake up in the morning.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 9 to 12 hours of sleep for kids age 6 to 12, and 8 to 10 hours of sleep for teens age 13 to 18. Based on the body clock change and sleep needs of tweens and teens, the AAP has been advocating that middle and high school start times be 8:30 a.m. or later. Sleep doctors, researchers, teachers, parents and others in some communities have heeded this recommendation and worked with their school districts to change start times. The hope is that families in affected school districts will find it easier for their child to get the sleep they need to be ready to learn during the school day.

“Remember, later start times don’t put more hours in the day so you still need to manage your child’s evening for them to get the sleep needed by morning,” said Chen.

Sleep matters

Sleep, good nutrition and daily physical activity are needed for growth, development and overall health. Kids and teens need enough sleep to pay attention, learn and retain information, make good choices, solve problems and perform well in athletics.

Lack of sleep in adolescence can cause academic challenges and an increased risk for car accidents, being overweight, and having anxiety and mood disorders. Lack of sleep is also associated with high-risk behaviors, like smoking, drinking alcohol and using drugs.

Reigning in bedtime and developing a routine

Many parents relax bedtime over the summer months, but now is a good time to transition back to a school night bedtime. Have your child avoid caffeine and big meals in the evening. Start moving bedtime 30 minutes earlier every three to five days until they are getting the recommended sleep for their age, based on when they’ll need to wake up on school days.

You may think of bedtime routines as being for babies and young children, but even teens benefit from them. Starting at least 30 minutes before bedtime, have them turn off screens and park them somewhere other than their bedroom. Encourage them to switch to soothing activities, like taking a bath or shower and brushing teeth, followed by reading or listening to music.

Keep the routine going – try having your child go to bed at the same time each night to help develop good sleep patterns for life.

“As kids and teens get older, adding more responsibilities along with the activities they enjoy, it can be a challenge for them to see sleep as a priority,” said Chen. “Get your teen on board with getting enough sleep by discussing the benefits of being well rested. Make a plan together for how they’ll get enough sleep this school year. Let’s all prioritize sleep!”