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Back to school sleep routine

The summer holidays could not have come quickly enough for parents this year. Lockdown and home schooling challenged parents across the world and now, here we are - it’s August and we’re thinking about the return to school. Where has this year gone?!

Needless to say, our routines have been a little shaky over the last few months and with the emotional rollercoaster of 2020 I think it’s fair to say - that’s okay! 

For some, the return to school is a relief - for parents and children alike. Teachers are ready to tackle the lesson plans and children are happy to be with their friends again. Of course, for some parents and children, going back to school in September isn’t the right time and home schooling will carry on - and that’s okay too.

Regardless of your stance on home schooling or back to school, like every year - now is the time to start tweaking those bedtime routines. It’s time to reintroduce the all-important restorative sleep which is needed to tackle the day ahead.

Why is sleep so important?

Getting the sleep schedule right for school is a huge priority. You don’t need me to tell you about the benefits of a good night’s sleep, because you’ve felt it yourself. But sleep is especially important for children.

Sleep deprivation is known to have huge consequences for children. It impacts their emotional wellbeing, behaviour, attention span and their ability to problem-solve. Sleep deprivation will directly impact your child’s performance in school and the way they feel about it. Whereas quality, restorative sleep will support your child’s mental and physical development for the better.

Before you implement a new routine, it’s important to know how much sleep your child needs. All children are different, but you can take a look at the guidelines provided by the NHS.

3 - 4-years old need around 11-12 hours at night

5 - 8-year-olds need 10 - 12 hours a night

Children older than 9 need up to 10 hours

Once you know how much sleep your child needs you can create a plan to get their sleep cycles back on track, meaning your children are waking up with enough energy to start the morning strong and get through a day of school. If you start adjusting the sleep schedule now, you’ll have a much easier time.

Go back to basics

Let’s start by bringing back all those good sleep habits that you were using before. Remember what worked for you and reintroduce them. Good evening routines include dimmed lights, bath time, calm family time or gentle activities like reading or puzzles.

One of the most important things that you can do as you reintroduce healthy habits is stop screen time at least an hour before bedtime. Screens include televisions, mobile phones, and tablets. They are a huge hindrance to sleep as the artificial blue light messes with the body’s natural clock, that’s the circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is coordinated by light and dark, and it’s the light and dark that impacts hormones cortisol and melatonin. The artificial light from screens will delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. As a result, the body will continue to be alert and awake - impacting with the circadian rhythm and pushing the natural sleep cycle later and later. 

This applies to adults too, but it’s arguably more important to protect a child’s natural body clock, as it’s likely that their circadian rhythm is still naturally developing and shifting. If you throw in artificial light that shifts the cycle it can get really messy.

Steadily adjust the sleep cycle

If the household is sleeping well during the summer holidays, it can be tempting to hold out on the sleep adjustment. But now you know about the science behind the natural sleep cycle and the circadian rhythm, you can probably see how an early start on adjusting sleep will make things easier. After all, we are adjusting a fundamental biological process.

Sleep is best adjusted incrementally. For children, I suggest you move bedtime in 15-minute blocks, adjusting the time every few days. Use their current wake up time as a starting point; in theory, if you move bedtime back by 15 minutes, then the wake time should be 15 minutes earlier too. Of course, as we adjust this biological process it probably won’t be as smooth as that. But if you start early then you’ve got time for the biological sleep cycle to adjust.

Planning ahead also gives you the gift of time. This can take the stress out of the situation, which will help manage those cortisol levels for you and your children. This makes for a more peaceful, calming process.

What if things don’t change as quickly as you’d hoped? 

Don’t fret if your child isn’t sleeping as easily as you would have liked. This is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight. Not only that but this year it might be a little more challenging. Your family has had a lot to contend where sleep is concerned. Our entire lives were turned upside down by the lockdown rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if sleep just fell by the wayside entirely as we navigated our way through a new way of living.

For many of us, lockdown meant we had less exposure to light, less exercise, fewer interactions with friends and family, increased worry, and anxiety and excess screen time. We’ve had to change our routines to get by, and keep everyone going during an unprecedented time. The consequence is that all of this impacts the circadian rhythm and the quality of our sleep. So, don’t be hard on yourself. 

So much of 2020 has been out of our control and now it’s just about controlling what we can to restore high-quality restorative sleep. Let’s reintroduce the sleep schedule and get children back to school, or starting ‘big school’ in September! A good night’s sleep will give them all the tools they need for a great day at school.

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