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Back to school? Here’s how you can shift your sleep schedule

by Nicholas M. Edwards, MD, MPH

Transitions of schedule, such as from summer to fall with accompanying changes of school, sports, and other routines, can wreak havoc on a young person’s sleep. It seems as if just when they start to get used to a summer sleep schedule, it is fall and all kinds of changes are coming!

I’m a pediatrician and sports medicine physician at TRIA. I’m also part of our TRIA Kids program. I’ve learned it takes time for the body to adjust to a new schedule, and that includes sleep.

Even though young people require more sleep than adults, they do adjust more easily (even though it may not seem like it at times!). Here are some tips for transitioning to a new sleep/wake cycle for you and your family:

Don’t wait until the last minute!

Try to start adjusting sleep patterns about a week before the change in schedule, or at least one day for each one hour in shift of wake time. As you start to shift your sleep schedule, focus on waking earlier each day instead of trying to go to bed earlier. This will help your morning routine as you transition to the school year.

Refrain from naps, screens and caffeine

As difficult as it may be, limiting naps, caffeine and screen time will have many benefits as you transition to a new sleep schedule. Avoid taking naps during the day during this transition period, as this will help your body be ready to sleep better at night. Try to avoid caffeine during the last 8 hours of the day. Make sure to limit screen time, especially within two hours of bedtime. I do not recommend any screens in the bedroom, and this is especially true during a shift in schedule.

Use light to help shift patterns

Our bodies respond to light and darkness. Open the blinds for some bright outdoor light in the morning to help you and your family wake up. At night, try to create a dark environment. Darkened shades can be very helpful during summer and fall nights when it may not be dark outside at bedtime.

Try to maintain routines around bedtime to promote transitioning into a restful state

We are creatures of habit. Establishing bedtime routines and staying consistent can help you and your family fall asleep more easily and get better rest. Some routines include a specific order, such as putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, and then reading a story before bed.

Be patient!

Even if “new school bedtime” doesn’t seem to be “working” right away, the changes above will have a benefit for you and your family. Consistency is key here!

Our most important responsibility as parents is to protect our children. One of the many ways we do that is to protect their time, rest and health. Families become “too busy” slowly, incrementally, one extra additional fun thing at a time. Avoiding this trap requires vigilance and ruthlessness – tough choices need to be made, including saying no to friends, coaches, other parents and teachers. Often it becomes a choice. We can either do many activities poorly, unhappily, stressfully and unhealthily, or we can do fewer activities well, in a balanced, fulfilling way. Getting adequate rest can and should be the wellspring of success in all activities during waking hours, but it requires maintaining rest as a high priority.

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