Dr. Rachel Kramer
August 18: Supporting Healthy Sleep
Mid-August seems like a good time to offer a reminder about the important role that sleep plays in supporting social and emotional well-being. As you soak up the last few weeks of summer, I recommend that you take a moment to think about your child’s sleep schedule and any adjustments you hope to make prior to the start of school. It’s very common for families to experience a shift in sleep routines in the summer. If your child is staying up later right now and perhaps sleeping in a bit, know that many families experience this sort of change of habits in the summer. I’m hoping this message will support you as you make a plan for a gradual transition to school year bedtimes and wake-up times.
What’s the best way to decide what time your child should go to sleep during the school year? Begin by considering the total amount of sleep your child needs, then think about a realistic wake-up time that will allow you and your child ample time for morning routines. Next, based on this wake-up time, make a plan about an ideal bedtime. This chart from the American Academy of Pediatrics provides information about the hours of sleep children need at different ages:
Note that ideal sleep times are presented in a range to indicate that every child is unique. I find that most parents have a good sense of where their children fall in terms of the optimal amount of sleep they need each night in order to be at their best. If your child is getting less sleep than they need, this is a good time to consider solutions to that problem. When I’m working with children we often look at sleep charts together. I find that providing children with facts from sleep experts helps them buy into the idea that getting enough sleep is an important part of taking good care of your body and your brain.
This is also a good time to review bedtime habits and routines with an eye towards establishing good sleep hygiene – that is, employing evidence-based strategies to develop healthy sleep habits:
Establish a calm, predictable bedtime routine. Parents of younger children often have a well-established routine. Not sure how long your routine should be? Experts recommend a routine that consists of three to five quiet activities that occur in the same order each night and take a total of 20-45 minutes. For example: bath or shower, brush teeth, read stories, lights out.
Bedtime routines are actually helpful for people of all ages – you can explain to tweens and teens that having a routine helps soothe and relax their bodies and prepare them for sleep. If your tween or teen doesn’t currently follow a routine at bedtime, brainstorm together about soothing activities for before bed such as reading, drawing, listening to soft music, meditating, or doing some gentle bedtime yoga.
Note that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends removing all screens from children’s bedrooms including phones, tablets, and other electronic devices. This is a blanket recommendation that is not specific to bedtime: the guideline is no screens in bedrooms at any time of day. If that is not your family’s rule, be aware that removing screens from bedrooms at bedtime is especially important.
Turn off devices 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime. Preferably, children and younger adolescents should park their phones with parents 30-60 minute prior to bedtime. If you have an older adolescent and you have decided to allow devices in the bedroom, they should be turned to silent or do-not-disturb mode 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime.
Provide a quiet, comfortable space for sleep.
Remind your children that beds are for sleeping. Ideally beds should not be used for activities such as reading, doing school work, or using devices. We want the body to associate being in bed with sleeping. If your children typically like to study or use devices in bed, brainstorm with them to find other cozy, quiet places at home where they can comfortably engage in these activities.
Engage in exercise/physical activity every day – and, if possible, spend time outdoors every day.
If your children like to be active or rough house after dinner, be sure that dinner is early enough to allow ample time between energetic activity and transitioning to a calm bedtime routine.
If you are planning to introduce a change in routine or a change in bedtime over the next few weeks and your child is old enough to be aware of time, I recommend talking about this directly with your child. You might say something such as, “One of the really important ways that we keep our bodies and our brains healthy is by getting enough sleep. Right now we’re still having a lot of summer fun, and we’re going to make some changes to our evenings so everyone is getting in bed a little earlier.” Note that you don’t need to tie these changes to the start of school since that will not be helpful for some children. Instead, you can just inform your child that your family is making a change.