Back-to-school tips to reset kids' sleep routines

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Back-to-school tips to reset kids' sleep routines

Staishy B. Siem

Sleep schedules often get altered during summer vacation and holidays, but having a consistent bedtime routine creates less stress for families and sets up children for a successful school year.

“Ideally, caregivers will have started a sleep routine at four to six months, but it’s never too late to establish healthy habits,” said Teresa Ward, a UW associate professor of family and child nursing and pediatric sleep expert.

Inadequate sleep results in a child being tired and inattentive in class. Hyperactivity is also a common symptom of inadequate sleep, and may be misconstrued as attention-deficit disorder or ADHD. Tired children also may feel more anxious in school and at home.

Teresa Ward is a pediatric sleep expert and an associate professor in the UW School of Nursing.
picture of Teresa Ward

“Changing sleep habits is hard for families,” Ward said. “If the child is not sleeping, neither are the parents. Often the second night is worse than the first, but with consistency, children will adapt to a new routine within a week.

“Benadryl is not the answer,” she added. Ward offered tips for creating or transitioning to a sleep routine:

  • Set a specific bedtime and don’t vary by more than 20 minutes on weekends and school breaks.
  • Be consistent. Do activities in the same order each night and allow plenty of time to avoid rushing.
  • Ensure that all caregivers, including extended family, friends and babysitters, know and adhere to the routine.
  • Implement a new routine two to three weeks before the start of school to make the transition easier.
  • Reward children for sticking with the routine. Consider a sticker chart and a small prize at the end of the week to motivate children. 

Sometimes habits do not improve despite a consistent routine. Research indicates that many children have unrecognized and untreated sleep-disordered breathing. As well, chronic conditions such as asthma, allergies or juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) can disrupt a child’s sleep; this is often overlooked clinically.

Families should consult their child’s primary healthcare professional and, if problems persist, seek a referral to a pediatric sleep center.

These centers can identify physiological disorders as well as behaviors such as bedtime resistance and situations in which a child strongly associates sleep with an environmental factor such as being rocked or being in the parent’s bed, and becomes anxious in its absence.

“It’s important to get expert help for their child to establish healthy sleep habits early in life, before poor habits become chronic,” Ward said.