Phase in earlier bedtimes before school starts, experts say

August 21, 2012

Oh sweet, sweet summer evenings. When the air is just a bit more bearable, the tinkling of the ice cream truck is punctuated by basketballs meeting the pavement under the mellow streetlights. When fireflies gently pop through the atmosphere just begging to be caught by little hands, and . . .

ERRR. ERRR. ERRR.

Yes, that would be the alarm clock on the first day of school, which is approaching ever more rapidly. Are you ready for that wake-up call?

Schedules, bedtimes, routines are all out the window at the first hint of the cricket soundtrack. And so schedules, bedtimes and routines are all that much more difficult to get going again come the time new backpacks are slung over shoulders.

Berna and John Diehl’s three boys, Lucas, 10, Aaron, 8, and Jacob, 6, have been going to bed about 9:30 this summer, at least a full hour past their school bedtime. Like many of us, the Vienna parents didn’t want to cheat them out of those magical summer nights at the neighborhood pool.


But also like many of us, Berna moans a bit when thinking of that first week of school. “When Lucas first started kindergarten, we were pretty concerted about” getting him back on a schedule before school, she said. They eased into it, bumping up his bedtime by 15 minutes every night before school, so he was on a schedule again come the first day. Now? “Any sense of discussion and planning around it just gets overruled by just wanting to enjoy summer, because it slips through your fingers so fast.”

She’s found what works for her boys just as well is a Band-Aid approach: When school is in session, it’s time to get to bed by 8 or 8:30. That first week might be a little rough, but the boys are so tired that the schedule just falls into place.

This might not be the case for everyone.

Smaller children tend to be early risers, so getting them up isn’t much of an issue, said Craig Canapari, physician and director of pediatric sleep at Massachusetts General Hospital. Those on the cusp of adolescence have the biggest issues. “They can really end up on a fairly shifted schedule,” he said. “Every teenager has this biological drive to go to bed later and get up later.”

Mostly, he suggests moving toward a school schedule about a week before school starts, moving bedtime up by 10 or 15 minutes every night or two. And start to leave blinds up as a “cue to redirect their body clock,” he said.

Patti Cancellier, education coordinator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) based in Kensington, didn’t exactly follow her own advice for her now-grown children. “It was the ‘get used to it and go back to school sleep-deprived’ ” practice, she said. “It would be easier if parents would start a couple weeks ahead of time.”

And just like when our children were babies, a quiet-time routine is a good idea. She and Canapari both said it’s important to shut off all electronics at least an hour before bed. The light from iPads, iPhones, televisions and computers hinder melatonin production and cause sleeplessness.

But don’t forget to involve children in the process. Particularly with teens, “it tends not to go well if it’s unilateral,” Canapari said.

The other important piece of the sleep puzzle is to be consistent, said Jessica Brodey, a child sleep coach with Eat-Sleep-Love consulting company in Bethesda. If you tell children they can stay up late one night, then the next night it’s early to bed, “they don’t know what to expect from you,” she said. “Consistency also helps internal clocks get reset.”

Enjoy those fireflies while you can, and try not to dread the new schedule. It will happen. “Most children do function on a particular routine,” Cancellier said, “and it just takes their bodies time to change that routine.”

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READ MORE:

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Teachers tell parents how to help their kids be better students

Amy Joyce is the editor and a writer for On Parenting.
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