All you parents know what’s right around the corner, if it hasn’t already happened: the start of the new school year! At least for us in the Pacific Northwest, school doesn’t start for another week, so we have one more glorious week of sun and freedom before the beginning of fall classes. But for many of you elsewhere, school has already started in earnest.
One of the many concerns parents have as they transition back into the school year is how their children’s sleep habits will change. Many of us know the drill, from our children’s experiences or our own: all the staying up late on weekends, sleeping in ’til noon on Saturdays and Sundays, the Herculean effort necessary to get out of bed in the morning, especially on Mondays. Though this ritual is very common, particularly for teenagers, the stress and conflict arising from this chronic problem can wreck your family life, not to mention your grades.
This pattern, called delayed sleep phase, arises from the adolescent brain’s natural tendency to cycle its sleep-wake rhythms in a timing scheme that is longer than the 24-hour day. Many of us recall what it was like to be younger and wanting to stay up later and sleep in later if given the chance. The problem with this tendency is that children and teenagers usually engage in activities (i.e., school) that obligate them to entrain their sleep-wake behavior to the 24-hour clock. This conflicts with their biological inclination to go to bed later, resulting in sleep deprivation which makes it more difficult to awaken early in the morning and be awake and alert for classes. Friday night comes ’round, they stay up late, sleep in big-time on weekend days, and then find it impossible to fall asleep early Sunday night because their body clock’s sleep-wake phase has now been delayed from all the sleeping in, so all the sleep debt and sleep deprivation then roll into the new school week, perpetuating the cycle.
There is ongoing controversy about what can and should be done to improve this problem for young people and their families. Though some schools around the country have options of starting classes later in the day, many or most of us parents are obliged to ensure that our children are out of bed and ready for school at times earlier than what they, and their body clocks, “want.”
So what can be done? We can’t change our kids’ brains, though sometimes it’d be great if we could, right? Here are a few tips to help weary parents get their kids sleeping better as we kick off this new school year. As you will see below, these recommendations may be quick to read and absorb, but whether they are easy is another matter. The unfortunate reality is that making these sleep problems substantially better likely will be difficult, at least at first, requiring communication, motivation and insight from the child and patience and support from the parent. Ready? Here goes.
1. Minimize the “sleeping in” on non-school days by setting the alarm clock for reasonably similar times each day to the extent you can. Kids hate this most of all. Sleeping in dysregulates your body clock, causing nocturnal insomnia and daytime fatigue. Sleep schedule dysregulation is why we have jet lag, for example. If your child has to awaken for school at 6 a.m., say, but sleeps in ’til noon on weekends, and then tries to go to sleep early Sunday night, such abrupt changes in the brain would be the equivalent of flying from the west coast to the Bahamas, for example, and back, every week. Regulating the wake-up time may well require a hard sell to the teenager; I’d rather the teen sleep in until 8 a.m. than until noon. This lifestyle modification (and it’s a big one) gets substantially easier if done diligently for a couple weeks, but I won’t lie, it’ll be painful for all involved at first. The child may need some, er, parental assistance in getting up on weekends. A second alarm clock is also an option. Put one alarm clock on the nightstand, and then put the second one further away, set for 2 minutes after the first clock, so that your teen will need to physically get out of bed to turn it off. Make sure the second alarm clock is loud, and the more obnoxious the better.
2. Don’t go to bed until substantially sleepy. If the first step is done properly and done the same way every day, then this second step should fall naturally into place eventually, because the resulting sleep deprivation should make your teen become drowsy gradually earlier in the evening on weekends. Force your child to go to bed too early, however, and residual insomnia results. Taking advantage of children’s sleep needs allows them to fall asleep quickly and earlier (including on Sunday nights) and at the same time get proper amounts of sleep (which for children and teens can be 9-10 hours per night), both of which are important in physical and cognitive development and proper performance in school.
3. Declare a curfew from light and technology. Light exposure greatly impacts our levels of wakefulness and alertness; add to this the perceived need to always be constantly “plugged in” socially through mobile devices, and you have a recipe for “up all night.” Shield your child’s bedroom from outside light and noise, such as with black thick curtains, particularly as these summer months continue to wane. Start dimming your home’s ambient light several hours prior to the projected bedtime. And, finally and importantly, I recommend laying off lit-screen gadgets (including iPads, laptops, and smart phones) 2-3 hours prior to the projected bedtime.
Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this last recommendation is actually what kids hate the most. But complete these 3 steps, and utilize them consistently, and chances are your child will sleep better.
Best of luck to students and parents alike this upcoming school year!