Healthy, Back-to-School Sleep Habits to Get the Whole Family on Track
Give your summer sleep schedule a fall makeover.
It’s easy to let your sleep habits shift over the summer, and possibly even more so this summer if you've been working remotely and hanging mostly at home. Maybe you have a summer job with seasonal hours, you’ve been quarantined at a relative's in a different time zone, or the kids' summer activities require a more relaxed 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 always comes when it’s time to shift back into a busier, or simply different, fall schedule. Earlier alarms, school-packed days, distance-learning and WFH obligations, and homework-filled evenings make an earlier bedtime imperative for both parents and kids. But it’s hard to force everyone into a new routine at the drop of a hat. It's important to reestablish a healthy and consistent sleep routine gradually before the back-to-school mayhem is in full swing. The earlier you start, the easier it is to move toward the right bedtime for your necessary wakeup time (and avoid feeling like you've been hit by a bus).
“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 anxiety over how you’re going to rein in those summer sleep habits? Read these straightforward bedtime tips to try right now so you and the fam can reset your internal clocks and stay rested throughout the school year.
People often think that enforcing a 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].
For anyone experiencing a school-from-home learning format for the first time due to the coronavirus, Roy Raymann, PhD, chief scientific officer at SleepScore Labs, goes a step further. He recommends families take this opportunity to develop a learning schedule that promotes the kids' circadian rhythms and sleep requirements. That means establishing and maintaining as regular a daily routine as possible, too. So in addition to keeping fixed wake times, try as much as possible to stick to consistent meal times, activity times, learning times, breaks, leisure time, and, of course, bedtimes.
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. Weekdays will be much more bearable if you don’t let everyone sleep until noon on Saturdays and Sundays.
Families taking on the school day from home right now should balance the kids' curriculums with healthy breaks.
"Keep some exercise and physical activity in your child’s daily schedule and plan activity breaks, [since] working from behind a screen can make them stationary for too long." Raymann says. "And make sure [they] still go outside and gets some outdoor light during the day."
Exercise and exposure to natural sunlight are key to maintaining not only everyone's sanity, but regulating your normal circadian rhythm. Anyone working and learning at home, adults included, should prioritize to spending at least 30 minutes outside (whether permitting) and getting 20 to 30 minutes of cardio every day (as long as it's not too close to bedtime).
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 to 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.”
You may have spent some lazy summer mornings or evenings reading books to your kids or watching Netflix 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 everything from work and schoolwork to nighttime wind-down rituals 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.”
Since online learning might already require extended periods in front of a screen throughout the day, a device-free routine before bed is even more important.
"Reduce screen time in the evening to avoid blue light, which can impact sleep, even more strongly in teens," Raymann says.
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 more rigorous sleep-wake routine will be much easier to handle.