For most families, the most difficult adjustment to the beginning of the school year is sleep.  Teenagers who are used to staying up late, school age kids who have had too many sleepovers, and parents who dread getting up early all suffer when school starts. What people don’t realize is that sleep is perhaps our most importance “performance drug”.   Studies show that sleep deprivation contributes to attention problems, anxiety, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug abuse, and obesity, whereas consistent bedtimes and better sleep decrease these risks.  A study in college athletes even found improvements in athletic performance with more sleep.

The Academy of Pediatrics recommends 9-12 hours of sleep per night for children 6-12 years, and 8-10 hours per night for teenagers. If children are getting up at 6 a.m. for school, that means bedtimes between 7 and 9 for elementary students, and 8-10 for teenagers.  You may think that impossible, but it can be done.

The first thing students need to do is adjust their clocks for the beginning of the school year. This starts with going to bed a little earlier each night starting a couple of weeks before school starts and getting up earlier each morning as well, with the goal to be on a school day schedule by the weekend before school starts. Falling asleep earlier can be difficult for some children, but following these steps can help.

Children need routines, and at no time is this more important than bedtime.  Start with shutting off all electronics, including games, TVs, and — most importantly — phones. Then take a bath or shower.  Brush teeth, go to the bathroom, and climb in bed with a book or magazine. Ensure all needs are taken care of so there can be no excuses to get up later. Then give a 5, 2, and 1 minute warning before lights out, and kiss them goodnight at a consistent, predictable time.  Quietly repeat the same mantra if they get up; “Shhh, its time to go to bed”. If they get out of bed escort them back calmly and with no positive reinforcement. After a few nights of sticking to your guns things will get easier.

Maintain consistent bed and wake up times on the weekends as well. Staying up or sleeping in a little is fine, but don’t let the kids stray too far from their routine, don’t let them take unnecessary naps, and ensure they go to bed on time Sunday night.

Consistent bedtime routines and getting more sleep have been proven to improve student’s performance and mental health. Take advantage of this free “performance drug” by starting out the school year on a good note. Now if we could just make it easier for parents to adjust to those early morning school days!

— Jeff Glass, M.D., FAAP

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