Getting your child back into a school sleep routine
There’s a lot to think about before your child goes back to school, from buying uniform to packing the school bag. But one of the most important things to do is get them back into a proper sleep routine.
Normal sleep habits often go out of the window during the summer break. ‘Holidays, the heat, excitement about being off school, late nights and a lack of routine can disrupt the sleep of even the most consistent sleepers,’ explains Hannah Tranah, childcare development manager for nursery group Storal Learning.
‘Children might well be going to bed later and sleeping in later in the mornings. They are also likely to have had a disrupted bedtime routine with holidays, sleepovers and so on.’
Cathy is one such parent who has let her children’s sleep routines drift over the summer. ‘Our current routine is non-existent,’ she says. ‘We tend to have a series of late nights followed by some early ones. I’m hoping that once school routines kick in, they’ll naturally adjust.’
Why a good sleep routine matters
While wayward sleep patterns aren’t a big issue during the holidays, once children go back to school, it’s essential they get enough sleep.
‘It’s really important to get back into good school sleep habits because children’s bodies and minds need time to adjust to the shift in timing,’ Hannah explains. ‘Children who don’t get sufficient sleep have a higher risk of experiencing behavioural problems at school, and often have trouble learning.’
Indeed, sleep deprivation can lead to underachievement at school, and even lead to a drop in grades when children take exams. They may also be irritable, aggressive or hyperactive at home.
How much sleep your child should have depends on their own individual needs, but as a guideline, children aged three to six need 10-12 hours a night, and those aged seven to 12 need 10-11 hours.
When to get back into a school sleep routine
Although it’s tempting to let the summer vibe continue till the last minute, getting your child’s sleep patterns back on track usually takes a bit of time.
‘It’s absolutely vital to start easing your child back into a school bedtime, regardless of their age,’ says Hannah. ‘Try to start moving bedtime forward by five to 15 minutes every night.’
Mum of two Michelle is planning to bring bedtimes earlier gradually. ‘My six- and 10-year-olds are usually in bed around 7.30, with the elder one reading for a while, but at the moment, they’re not going to bed till 8.30 and are sometimes still awake at 9.30,’ she says. ‘I’ll start putting them to bed earlier and waking them earlier for a week before school.’
There’s no hard and fast rule about when you should start the back-to-school preparations, says Hannah.
‘Children are all very different, with different needs. However, I would recommend that they should be back into a good bedtime routine at least a week before the start of term.’
If your child is going to bed later than usual
Moving bedtime back to normal usually needs an incremental approach. ‘In this instance I’d recommend a steady transitional routine, bringing bedtime earlier by about five to 15 minutes every day,’ Hannah suggests. ‘This will allow them to adjust in manageable chunks.’
If your child is getting up later than usual
School mornings are rushed enough already without having to peel a sleepy child from their bed, so it’s important to gradually prepare them for an earlier start.
‘Begin by moving your child’s bedtime earlier at night, and the next morning, wake them or set the alarm for the same number of minutes earlier,’ Hannah advises.
‘Continue this process every night until your child is waking at the time required for school. Remember that children usually need nine to 11 hours’ sleep a night, so you need to plan a sleep schedule that allows for this.’
When sleep routines are a problem
After a summer of few rules, it’s natural for kids to rail against going to bed and getting up earlier, but consistency is key when you’re trying to get back into a school sleep pattern.
‘It’s important to continue to enforce routine, even in the face of resistance, and to remain consistent with your expectations,’ explains Hannah.
‘Get your child involved in setting these expectations and talking about why they are important: if they’re active participants in decision-making, it’s more likely that they’ll get on board with what you’re trying to achieve.’
When you're trying to get back to normal bedtimes, being firm and consistent is the way to go.
‘Get your child to stop any stimulating activities 60 minutes before bedtime, such as watching TV, playing video games, or using their phone or tablet,’ Hannah advises.
‘The artificial blue light emitted from screens can suppress the body’s release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, so it’s vital to enforce this rule before going back to school.’
Letting your child help set their own bedtime routine can be helpful, too. ‘Your child can't decide when to go to bed, but you should give them some control in their bedtime routine, for example by deciding whether to have a bath or shower, or choosing which book to read,’ Hannah says.
Give your child some wind-down time before bed, such as having a bath, putting on their pyjamas, and reading a bedtime story, and make sure the bedroom is calm, cool and dark. Using a picture timetable could help them learn the new routine, showing the various actions.
Struggling to get your child out of bed, and their ensuing bad mood, sets the day off on the wrong foot, and this can be a problem as your child enters the pre-teen years.
‘Changes in hormones can cause the internal body clock to reset, telling older children to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning,’ explains Hannah.
To some extent, it’s important to be accepting of the fact that sleep needs change. Generally, it’s unreasonable to expect an older child to still go to bed at 7.30pm, and spring out of bed at 7am, so be prepared to adapt the sleep routine as your child grows.
One tip for less stressful mornings is to give your child a ‘buffer’ of 10 minutes or so between the time they wake and the time they actually have to get up. Few of us like to leap out of bed, so giving them a little time to wake up slowly can prevent some of the morning grumbling.
When you wake your child, open their curtains: being exposed to daylight helps us wake up naturally.
You might decide to use an alarm clock at this stage, too. A neat trick is to put it on the other side of the room so they have to get out of bed to turn it off. If a loud alarm is too jarring, you could get your child to put together a morning playlist for an Alexa or similar device, so they wake up to their favourite music.
Keeping up good habits
Getting into a good back-to-school sleep routine can be tricky, so once it’s in place, try not to let it slip. ‘Once your child’s sleep schedule is established, stick with it, even at the weekends where possible,’ advises Hannah.
It might be tedious, but if it makes for calmer bedtimes and happier mornings, it’s well worth the effort and consistency.