Blog Behavioral/Mental Health

Back to school and back to sleep…zzzzz

Written by Karla Keaney, M.D., pediatrics specialist at Esse Health

It’s that season yet again! Getting the school supplies ready, the clothes laid out, and juggling multiple schedules are just the beginning of the back-to-school rush. There are a huge range of emotions that many experience – from enthusiasm to anxiety and for some, even indifference.

As a child, I remember the sheer excitement in the days leading up to the start of the school year, trying frantically to have everything ready. Looking back now, while I had my backpack ready and clothes laid out for the first day of school, the one thing I didn’t consider was if I myself was ready to learn. Was I rested? Was I giving myself the best chance to be alert and engaged in the classroom?

As a pediatrician, one of the topics I often discuss is sleep. “Do you think you’re getting enough sleep? What time do you go to bed? How hard is it for you to fall asleep?” Parents and patients often tell me they are lax in the summer and have a different approach to sleep than what they have during the school year. They tell me they will just “switch back” once school starts. The problem is we are creatures of habit. We have to make an effort to develop a good sleep routine.

Why is sleep or having a good routine so important? Recently the Pediatric Consensus Panel,13 of the nation’s leading sleep experts, developed a series of recommendations specifically about sleep in children. They found that good sleep hygiene can help control hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and even depression.

Think of sleep as food that nourishes our brain.

During sleep, critical processes in our body occur that help us grow and heal, regulate our mood, manage our stress, improve our attention, and control our behavior. Sufficient sleep helps provide our children with the opportunity for a positive educational experience. It’s not hard to imagine that school performance or even performance on the field can be affected if a child is drowsy or inattentive, is unable to problem solve, or unable to adjust his or her emotional response to a challenging situation.

For those who have teenagers at home, inadequate sleep also poses a legitimate safety concern as it can impair a person in a similar way that alcohol can. In addition to making sure that your child is buckling his or her seatbelt and not texting and driving, it’s imperative that they are awake, are aware of their surroundings, have quick reflexes, and are focused on the road.

Make Sleep a Priority

To help your child be school-ready and mentally alert, make sleep a priority. Below are some suggestions:

  1. Aim for the right amount of sleep.  School age children may need 9-12 hrs/night while their teenage peers need 8-10 hrs/night.
  2. Keep screens (phones, TVs, computers, etc) OUTSIDE the room.  The light from these devices keep you awake rather than help you wind down.
  3. While exercise is definitely encouraged, it’s much better earlier in the day–not within a few hours of sleep.
  4. Avoid caffeinated beverages (soda, tea, coffee, chocolate) within a few hours of sleep.
  5. Try to establish a routine before bed. For instance: bath or shower, brush and floss teeth, read a book, lights out. Goal: routine lasting no longer than 30 minutes.
  6. While your child may sleep in over the weekend, try not to let them sleep in too long.  This may upset the sleep cycle (remember it’s a habit) and make Monday morning wake-ups more challenging.
  7. Be aware that teens do have a biological shift in their sleep pattern, pushing them to get to bed later.
  8. Contact your pediatrician if these strategies aren’t helping. Remember, do not start any medications without first consulting with your pediatrician.