Summer break is drawing to a close, and families are preparing for the start of a new school year. The end of summer can be a nostalgic time of mixed emotions for parents. You might feel more awareness of your kids’ growth and development, as the end of summer often marks the beginning of new phases, new grades, and sometimes new schools. It can be a wistful time of understanding how quickly kids grow and change. At the same time, summer can be a hectic juggling act, and you might also feel very relieved and ready to get back into a more predictable routine!
The last week or two of summer break is a good time to consider resetting your child or teen’s circadian rhythm for the school year. It’s typical for schedules to shift in summer, with longer days, later nights, and sleeping in. Putting a little effort into shifting your child’s sleep schedule before school starts will make the transition easier for everyone.
These 10 tips for supporting a back-to-school circadian rhythm reset should help your kids feel more rested and ready to transition into another year of school.
1. Calculate your child’s sleep requirement based on their age. This chart shows the average amount of sleep recommended by age from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The ranges are quite wide and will vary individually, so look for any signs that your child is not getting enough sleep such as: trouble getting up in the morning, frequent yawning throughout the day, and changes in mood, behavior, and focus. As a general rule, kids on the younger end of the age range will need more sleep than those who are older. Observe your kids overall energy & mood compared to sleep hours logged to get a better feel for how much sleep is ideal for them.
2. Once you know how much sleep your child needs in hours per night, use their school ‘wake up time’ to calculate their ideal bedtime. For example, a 9 year old child who needs 10 hours of sleep and must wake up at 6:30 a.m. would have a bedtime of 8:30 p.m. Keep in mind that this means they would ideally be sleeping by 8:30 p.m., not just getting into bed at that time. Aim for ‘lights out’ 15-30 minutes ahead of their ideal bedtime.
3. After calculating their ideal bedtime, consider what their current bedtime is now and how big of an adjustment will be required. I find it easiest to adjust kids’ schedules by gradually waking them up earlier each day in the last week or two of summer break. This way they are naturally more tired a bit earlier by the end of each day. Waking them up earlier by 15 min increments every day or two is a gentle way to help reset their internal clocks before school starts. Sunrise alarm clocks are a great way to wake kids up in the morning, because they take the parent out of the role of being their alarm clock, and they use light, which is the most powerful tool for helping our bodies wake up naturally.
4. Understanding the main hormones that govern our sleep/wake cycle, and working with them, supports better sleep duration & quality. Cortisol should be highest in the morning to help us feel awake and alert, and lowest in the evening so that we can sleep. Conversely, our main sleep hormone melatonin should be highest in the evening and throughout the night, and lowest in the morning.
5. As mentioned above, light is a powerful signal that helps set our daily rhythm. Getting outside into morning daylight is a very effective way to regulate our circadian rhythm. Even a quick trip outside to water a plant or get the mail helps our body recognize it’s time to awaken. Our main circadian pacemaker or clock is a cluster of nerve cells in the hypothalamus called the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus). When our eyes perceive light (even through the eyelids when they are closed), the SCN is activated to send a signal to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which helps us wake up and feel alert in the morning. Spending time outdoors during the daytime in natural light is linked with improved sleep at night. Since exercise is also linked with better sleep, encourage outdoor exercise during the daytime (walking, biking, and swimming are great for kids who don’t enjoy other outdoor sports).
6. Our body produces melatonin when our pineal gland perceives that we are in a dark environment, while light suppresses melatonin production. This includes lights emitted from electronics or from alarm clocks, which can be covered or turned away so they’re not facing your child as they sleep. Encourage melatonin production by keeping bedrooms as dark as possible. Blackout blinds or shades are also very helpful, especially when we change to daylight savings time.
7. Allowing time for winding down in the evening also encourages melatonin production. It’s a good idea to start a ‘wind-down’ process or bedtime routine an hour or so ahead of your child’s ideal bedtime. This involves disconnecting from electronics, dimming lights around the house, and doing relaxing things like bathing/showering, reading, etc. During this time, it’s helpful to shut off bright, overhead lights and use lamps instead. This time benefits older kids, teens, and adults as much as it benefits younger kids. Turning in phones, tablets, and other gadgets at night is helpful, as having these devices in kids’ bedrooms at night is linked to worse duration and quality of sleep. One study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that sleep was worse even for kids that had the devices in their bedrooms but did not use them during the night.
8. Keeping your home cooler around bedtime is another strategy to help kids fall asleep faster. A drop in body temperature is another important signal to our brains that it is time to sleep, and being in a cool environment will support this natural process. Our body temperature drops by 1-2 ℉ while we sleep, and rising melatonin plays a role in this cooling trend. Conversely, our body temperature begins to rise in the morning as part of our signaling that it’s time to wake up and start the day.
9. Staying hydrated throughout the day supports better sleep at night. Dehydration can impair melatonin production and can also cause uncomfortable symptoms including headaches, muscle cramps, and dry mouth/nasal passages. It’s best to maintain hydration throughout the day, rather than trying to catch up at the end of the day. Drinking too many fluids in the 1-2 hours before bed can result in trips to the bathroom which disrupt sleep. Read here for more tips on helping your child stay hydrated.
10. Timing of meals and snacks can also affect sleep. Eating a heavy meal close to bedtime can cause digestive discomfort, fullness, and reflux, which can impair sleep. On the other hand, having a very long stretch between the last meal/snack and bedtime can also disrupt sleep due to low blood sugar, which triggers a spike in cortisol and adrenaline to release stored sugar from muscle and liver cells. For those who eat an early dinner, a balanced bedtime snack with protein & fiber 1-2 hours before bed can keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the night. Examples include apples & nut butter, carrots/celery and hummus, leftovers from dinner, and smoothies.
I hope these tips will help your child or teen make a smoother shift to the school year schedule. Adequate sleep supports better focus, cognition, memory, mood, and problem-solving, and will help your child adjust more easily to the expectations and demands of a new school year.
Carter, B., Rees, P., Hale, L., Bhattacharjee, D. and Paradkar, M.S. (2016). Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA pediatrics, [online] 170(12), pp.1202–1208. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.2341.
Pacheco, Danielle. “Can You Change Your Circadian Rhythm?” Sleep Foundation, 22 Mar. 2023, www.sleepfoundation.org/circadian-rhythm/can-you-change-your-circadian-rhythm.
Paruthi, Shalini. “Recommended Amount of Sleep for Pediatric Populations: A Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, vol. 12, no. 06, 15 June 2016, pp. 785–786, aasm.org/resources/pdf/pediatricsleepdurationconsensus.pdf, https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.5866.