The new school year has begun, so getting back into a healthy sleep routine is essential for maintaining energy and focus in the classroom. However, transitioning from summer to a new school year can be difficult.

“It’s like being jet lagged from summer,” says Helena Molero, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Pediatrics Department in the Division of Pediatric Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine. 

How much sleep does a child need?

The younger the child, the more sleep they need. For newborns, this could be up to 14 hours a day. Teens particularly need nine hours of sleep a day. The amount of sleep needed is something that goes down usually over time. In general, if a child can wake up on their own without struggling to wake up or fall asleep during the day, that is a sign that they’ve had enough sleep.

Transitioning to a back-to-school routine

“Sleep is a circadian control, meaning that there are certain systems and hormones in our body that will determine when we fall asleep and wake up at the same time of the day,” says Dr. Molero. “It’s a system that is controlled by light exposure.”

Dr. Molero recommends changing the sleep schedule two to three weeks before school starts to allow the child enough sleep. To do that, try moving the bedtime and wake-up time an hour earlier and maintain that daily. It is essential upon waking up to get a lot of light exposure that tells the brain, “it’s time to wake up.” 

The same goes for bedtime; it is crucial to minimize light exposure at night, especially for electronics that contain blue light. Our brains are sensitive to it and will delay our circadian sleep.

“What I recommend to families is that where they are in their sleep [schedule], try to choose nine hours of sleep that are consistent and then move them an hour early in bedtime and wake up time once a week while keeping good light exposure in the morning and no light exposure at night,” explains Dr. Molero

“Typically wake-up time has the most dramatic effect on this change, so maintaining the same wake-up time every day and avoiding napping aside from those nine hours, can help our bodies adjust a little easier,” she adds.

The circadian cycle gets misaligned when children go to bed too late relative to the time they should fall asleep. This is called the delayed sleep phase. Dr. Molero recommends starting at where the child’s bedtime is now and moving it progressively but consistently. The body responds best when we do routines consistently for sleep.

Try to avoid anything that could disrupt sleeping in any way. These things include caffeine, especially in the afternoon hours, and, as mentioned earlier, electronic use at least an hour before bedtime.

When to see a sleep doctor

If, the child is still having a hard time falling asleep after trying all the sleep hygiene recommendations, there could be other reasons they are experiencing sleep difficulties. 

“Sometimes they could have insomnia out of physical problems like having restless leg syndrome, where children will have body discomfort that makes it hard to sleep,” Dr. Molero explains. “Sometimes mental health problems like anxiety could result in more difficulties with falling asleep.”

Dr. Molero says if children are not having trouble sleeping, but there are still concerns that the child is not resting well, this could be more of a problem in their sleep quality. “Whether it is sleep apnea or frequent awakening, that will probably require further evaluation,” notes Dr. Molero.

“A sleep routine is a good place to start with all of us, but if they're still having trouble falling asleep, and if they fall asleep and feel like they are not resting well or they're too sleepy, then it will be important to see a sleep doctor,” Dr. Molero says.

Getting back into a routine

Another tip from Dr. Molero is to not delay or change children’s sleep schedule too much on the weekends. “A common misconception is that on the weekends, you get to stay up and not wake up early, which is true, but then if you’re trying to make your body change to a schedule and you’re not consistent on the weekends, it can easily return back to having a later bedtime,” Dr. Molero cautions.

“I usually recommend not to have more than one hour delay on bedtime and wake-up time on weekends, so it’s easier to transition from weekends to weekdays,” she adds.

In the summer, it’s common for children to stay up late and oversleep the next day after exhausting and long days in the sun. However, it’s crucial to stick to consistent bedtime and wake-up routines during the school year to maintain focus and energy for the classroom.