How to Help Your Student Sleep Easy

Ask any parent; switching a child from summer bedtime hours to school hours isn’t pretty. And if you’re like most parents, the ability to sleep later the next day has resulted in a later bedtime most nights—and maybe even some relaxing your hard-and-fast rules about what happens before bed.

So how do you get back on track for school?

According to the experts, the key lies in knowing how much sleep your child needs to begin with—it varies with age.

“People are frequently surprised by how much sleep children need—they assume everyone needs eight hours,” says Dr. Mohsin Maqbool, a pediatric neurologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and Texas Health Diagnostics & Surgery.

Knowing how much sleep your child needs is actually very important, Maqbool says. “Sleep is not just a function of the brain, it’s a requirement of the brain,” he explains. “Sleep starts at 13 weeks of gestation,” he continues. “Newborns need 18-20 hours of sleep. It gradually goes down.”

Maqbool says that while sleep needs vary with age, children also vary when it comes to how much they need.

“There’s no straight answer—there’s a range,” he says. “For example, let’s take 3-year-olds. They need 11-12 hours of sleep. But some will need 13 hours, some will need nine hours.”

Maqbool says that as long as the child’s sleep schedule isn’t interfering with behavior or growth, and everything else is okay, parents probably shouldn’t worry if their child is an hour or so out of the “normal” range of sleep.

“If everything else is fine, the child is just a short [or long] sleeper,” he adds.

“The duration of sleep need changes over time,” Maqbool says. “Teenagers typically require 9½ hours.”

A National Sleep Foundation survey of parents found that 60 percent of children under the age of 18 complained of being tired during the day and 15 percent said they fell asleep at school during the year.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following ranges for school-aged children by age:

  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10 to 13 hours
  • School-aged children (6-13 years): 9 to 11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years): 8 to 10 hours

Maqbool says that besides making sure your child is getting enough sleep for his or her age, knowing how sleep works can also be helpful in understanding your child’s sleep needs.

“There are two things that determine our ability to sleep and stay asleep, and to be awake and stay awake,” he says.

The first is the homeostatic sleep drive, which works similarly to your appetite.

“The longer you stay awake, the more you need sleep,” Maqbool says. “You’re most fresh early in the morning, and most tired late in the evening.”

The second is the circadian process. “Many adults are the most awake between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., but this varies greatly from child to child,” he explains.

“We all have a dip in the middle of the day—from about 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.,” he continues. “The level of wakefulness takes a little dive.”

Does your child still need a nap? Depending on age, that can also be a sign of sleep issues at night, Maqbool says.

“There are ages where daytime naps are needed, versus optional, versus not even needed,” he explains. “At 4 and a half, naps are optional; at 5 and a half, not even needed.

“If [the child] is needing one, that’s a red flag—we need to look at how the child is sleeping at night. Are there interruptions, or [is] something like restless leg or even snoring happening?”

If a busy day and a late night the day before cause your child to take an unintentional nap, how long you let them nap is also important. Waking too early—or too late—can result in a nap that isn’t refreshing at all.

“Basically, 45 minutes to an hour is a short nap,” Maqbool says. “It doesn’t let them go into REM sleep.”

“If it’s been longer than an hour, don’t wake them up until they’ve reached hour three,” he adds. “After an hour, they’ve entered REM sleep, and waking them during that will result in a cranky, unhappy child who doesn’t feel rested at all.”

During REM sleep, the brain is active and dreaming is happening. “Our bodies become immobile, breathing and heart rates are irregular,” the National Sleep Foundation explains.

“Babies spend 50 percent of their time in each of these states and the sleep cycle is about 50 minutes,” the NSF continues. “At about six months of age, REM sleep comprises about 30 percent of sleep. By the time children reach preschool age, the sleep cycle is about every 90 minutes.”

So, knowing all this, what are some good ways to ease your child back into a school sleep schedule?

First, it literally won’t happen overnight. Plan on taking things slowly and incrementally, Maqbool says.

“The brain isn’t a switch. Sleep patterns and schedules need to be changed slowly,” he says. “Advancing a bedtime takes time. You cannot advance a sleep/wake cycle more than 30 minutes a day.

“When I am advancing a child, I do it in 10-minute chunks a time,” he adds.

To begin adjusting your child to the school sleep schedule, nudge bedtime forward 15 minutes every two days. Maqbool recommends planning it out based on what you want your child’s bedtime to be, and then looking at a calendar to determine when to start adjusting.

So if your child has been going to bed at 9 p.m. in the summer, and you want them to go to bed at 8, you’d begin adjusting bedtime about 8-10 days before school starts.

But for restful, healthy sleep year-round, Maqbool says he uses a simple acronym with his parents and patients: SLEEEP.

  • Schedule: “Have a set routine every day for sleep, and a predictable sequence of activities at night,” he says. “Try not to mess with the schedule—summer or school year. Sleep is not all about duration, it’s when you get the sleep. You should be getting that sleep at night, at the hours it is supposed to occur.”
  • Light: Provide bright light exposure at day, and an hour before sunset dim the lights and limit exposure to artificial sources like TV or computer screens. “The biological clock is extremely sensitive,” Maqbool says.
  • Electronics: “No electronics in the evening,” he says. “Besides the artificial light, when you couple excitement from a video or games with nighttime and bedtime, it’s an association that needs to be broken.”
  • Eating: “No heavy meals within two to three hours of expected bedtime,” he says. “Heavy meals cause reflux, which affects sleep quality.”
  • Exercise: Try for at least 15 minutes of aerobic exercise during the day, but try to avoid [it] within two to three hours before sleep.
  • Practice what you preach: “Parents have to follow the same rules,” Maqbool says. “If you’ve said no screens before bed, don’t be constantly checking your phone or watching TV while your children can’t. Set a good example.”

Other than that, Maqbool says a dark room and a comfortable bed should be the only other things needed for the average child to get a good night’s sleep. “You can use a dim light or a night light if the child is scared of the dark,” he added.

And establishing good sleep habits for your family will have benefits for all—your child should be ready for school after a refreshing night of sleep, and since the rules are good for grown-ups, you might just find yourself better rested for a day of work, too.

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