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Q&A: Adjusting sleep to school start

August 20, 2013 By Jenny Price

Getting ready for school includes shopping for new clothes, pencils and notebooks, but there’s another critical step parents can take to get their kids ready: focus on sleep.

Cami Matthews, a pediatric sleep physician with Wisconsin Sleep and an assistant professor in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, says families can make it easier for kids to get out of bed on the first day of school after a summer of late nights and sleeping in.

Photo: Cami Matthews

Cami Matthews

Inside UW–Madison spoke with Matthews recently to get her insights.

Inside UW: How much sleep do school-age kids need every night? 

Matthews: For school-age children ages 6 to about 12, the recommended total sleep time is about 10-11 hours a night. For teenagers, the recommended average sleep amount is about nine hours.

How soon should parents begin moving up bedtimes to get ready for the first day of school? 

I usually recommend adjusting bedtimes to the school schedule at least a week prior to the first day of school. However, for some families, this may need to start even earlier, depending on how different the school start time is compared to summer bedtimes and morning wake-up times. I usually recommend moving up bedtime by about 15-20 minutes every couple of days to reach the goal bedtime, and also adjusting the wake-up time about 15-20 minutes earlier during that same time period.

However, if there is more than an hour difference between bedtimes and morning wake-up times for summer and the school year, families should probably start adjusting their schedules two to three weeks ahead of the first day of school to allow enough time for their schedules to adjust. The most important factor in determining the sleep schedule for the day is the morning wake-up time, and that should also be adjusted earlier as the bedtime is adjusted earlier.

What can parents do to promote an earlier bedtime, given that it may still be light outside?

Having a regular bedtime routine that is followed on a nightly basis, no matter what the time of year, can help. Our bodies take many cues on when we feel sleepy, and the amount of light outside is only one of those cues. By maintaining this routine, it can be easier to make small adjustments to an earlier bedtime as school approaches. 

The bedroom environment should be relatively cool, quiet and as dark as possible. For some people, room-darkening shades can be helpful if the room is too bright. (I have had people use black trash bags as a temporary solution during specific times of the year.) Electronics or anything with a screen — TVs, video games, iPads, phones, etc.— should be turned off at least 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime, and should not be in the bedroom. Avoiding exercise and caffeine too close to bedtime also can be helpful.

What kinds of problems could kids have at school if they don’t get adequate sleep on school nights? 

Feeling sleepy or falling asleep in school are probably the most obvious signs of not getting an adequate amount of sleep on school days. However, an inadequate amount of sleep is seen in many aspects of daily life. This can include moodiness, irritability or acting cranky. Other behavior problems such as aggressiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness can also be seen. Attention, memory, decision-making — and even organization — are not as good with less sleep. Other potential health effects can include increased caffeine consumption and weight gain. Some people also develop headaches, stomachaches and even muscle aches.