Don’t wait until the first day to whip that sleep schedule into shape.

By Maggie Seaver
August 20, 2019

It’s easy to let your sleep habits shift over the summer. Maybe you have a different job with different hours, you’ve been traveling like crazy, or the kids have been at camp with a later start time than the typical school day. Or maybe you’ve simply gotten used to staying up late and sleeping in without the pressing need to wake up at 6 a.m.—there’s no shame in that game. 

The tricky part comes when summer starts winding down and it’s time to get in gear for a busier, or simply different, fall schedule (late-August is basically the Sunday of summer, let’s be real). Earlier alarms, school-packed days, and activity-packed evenings make an earlier bedtime imperative for both adults and kids; but it’s scarily hard to force everyone into a new routine at the drop of a hat. That’s why it’s so important to begin reestablishing a healthy and consistent sleep routine, like, yesterday so you can work your way gradually toward the right bedtime for your necessary wakeup time. 

“Ideally, we should be keeping a consistent sleep schedule year round, but we all know it can be challenging to do so with travel plans, camp, and summertime activities,” says Andrea Lopez-Yianilos, PsyD, a New York–based licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine expert. “It’s especially important to get back to a consistent sleep schedule before the school year in order to maximize learning for kids and effectiveness at work: Muscle repair and memory consolidation are two important processes occurring when we sleep.” 

Experiencing some August anxiety over how in the world you’re going to rein in those summer sleep habits? Lopez-Yianilos offers straightforward sleep tips to try right now so you and the fam can, slowly but surely, reset your internal clocks for fall.

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Keep a Consistent Wake Up Time…

People often think that forcing a specific, consistent bedtime should come first, but Lopez-Yianilos says it’s all about your wake-up game. “Wake up at the same time seven days a week,” she says. “If you wake up at the same time every day, a domino effect will start to happen that leads you to finding your perfect bedtime.” 

If you know everyone will have to start waking up earlier once school starts, try to get everyone out of bed a little bit earlier every day as the summer winds down. That way the first few days of school (or work or whatever’s dragging you out of bed) won’t bring such a drastic change—you and your family will be (somewhat) ready to roll at [insert unconscionable hour here].

...Yes, Even on the Weekends

In general, trying to “catch up” on sleep is counterproductive. “Many folks I’ve worked with catch up on sleep on the weekends or their days off,” she says. “However, they’re still engaging in sleep deprivation during the week, which affects their daytime functioning. Although you may be able to catch up on sleep and feel better on those days, your concentration, mood, and effectiveness during the week is still compromised when you’re sleep deprived.” This is one tip to take with you throughout the school year—and beyond. Week days will be much more bearable if you don’t let everyone sleep until noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Establish—and Stick to—a Pre-Bedtime Routine

Yes, there are those rare individuals who fall asleep the moment their head hits the pillow. For the rest of us, sleepiness comes a little more gradually, even if our bodies are actually quite tired. You have to give yourself time to switch into sleep mode. 

“Implement a wind-down routine,” Lopez-Yianilos suggests. “Try to create a buffer zone about 30–45 minutes before bed to give your mind and body a cue that you’re transitioning to bedtime. For example, read a book on the couch or listen to soothing music. And don’t go to bed if you’re not sleepy—read a book or engage in a soothing activity for 15 minutes, and then reassess your sleepiness.”

No Hanging Out in Bed

You may have spent some lazy summer mornings or evenings reading books to your kids in bed, but it's time to start thinking of bed for sleep only—otherwise the mind starts to associate bed with wakefulness. Remember to keep these wind-down moments away from your actual bed. “Use your bed only for the three S’s: sleep, sex, or when you’re sick,” Lopez-Yianilos says. “No reading, watching TV, eating, working, or social media in bed.” And she recommends keeping the bedroom “cool, quiet, dark, and comfortable to maximize quality of sleep.” 

If you need to, keep all phones and devices out of your own and the kids’ bedrooms, and make sure to limit screen use before bed (phones, tablets, TVs, and computers emit blue light that tricks your brain into thinking it’s time to wake up—which is the opposite of what you’re going for here.)

Can we guarantee you’ll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when the alarm sounds on the first day of school? Sadly, no. But if you follow this advice and take control over your family’s morning and nighttime habits now, the start of a new sleep-wake routine will be much easier to handle.

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