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Kids and Sleep: Back to School and Beyond

The Sleep Club Editors

School is back in session or about to be, I suppose. For most of us in the US, the return to bastions of education usually happens by the week before Labor Day — as a child, this always confused me because I thought, “Why not just wait instead of dangling a holiday right after we go back to school?” Or maybe that’s just me, of course.

Regardless, getting back in the rhythm of having a good night’s rest to absorb all that learning coming your way after an entire summer of not having to think about it — for most kids — takes some time. There are general things you do as a parent to prepare your child for the return to the school routine, the most prevalent being gradually adjusting sleep times with the key word here being “gradually”, but in all honesty, no matter the time of year, no matter the circumstances, helping kids get their rest is important.

We tend to forget that the same tips and tools we use as adults for our sleep routines hold true for our children. After all, kids are simply young humans and while the number of hours they may need differ from our own, their environment and prep are basically the same.


Everyone sleeps

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of those books EVERYONE POOPS and THE GAS WE PASS. Just as our bodily functions are pretty much the same the world over, so it is true that everyone sleeps. Everyone. We may not all sleep well, but we all certainly do it and every body definitely needs it. 

The amount we do it changes based not only on our age but our gender. Weird, isn’t it? But for our purposes in this particular article, we’re looking at age specific needs and how we can best support the young people in our lives to ensure they get a good night’s rest. And remember that the numbers we share here are generalities. 

Preschoolers — kids age 3-5 — need 10 - 13 hours of sleep

Elementary school kids — ages 6-13 — need 9-11 hours of sleep

Teenagers — ages 14-17 — need 8-10 hours

College-aged kids — 18-22 — need 7-9 hours

As we’ve discussed and highlighted in the past, kids in school regardless of their ages are getting short shrift when it comes to slumber. Their lives are so overscheduled and pressure prompted with school, extracurricular activities, homework, and sometimes after school jobs for the older ones, those all-nighters are the norm as early as elementary age. 

We really don’t want to keep beating you over the head with this but we can’t stress enough how important it is for all of us to get the rest our body and mind need. To that end, we want to just roll out these really easy tips for you as an adult and the little ones in your life. Fast, easy, and totally doable. Really.

Okay, let’s go.


Dump the blue light

We really can’t stress this enough. Computers, phones, televisions, tablets — off and even out of the room. Yeah, the kids won’t dig it, but they’ll be rested and refreshed in the morning and may come to appreciate it.

Maybe. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.


Keep the room dark (if you can)

Our bodies naturally prepare for sleep when the sun goes down — circadian rhythm, remember? Sunlight means we wake up, sundown means we prepare for sleep. It calms us down and the chemicals in our bodies that we produce to bring sleep about are triggered by it. HOWEVER…

Fear of the dark is real. It even has a name: Nyctophobia. It comes from the Greek words nyktos (meaning night) and phobos (meaning, well, fear). There is no age limit on this true anxiety response to the dark. It appears that our brain is naturally startled when we are faced with dimly lit or unlit areas. While many of us learn to manage that response, some of us simply do not. Hence, nightlights, keeping some type of illumination in hallways, open closets, or hotel bathrooms when we travel, and so on. 

There are some nightlights that work very well to alleviate fear while also helping people sleep that do not radiate the blue light that is known to hinder snoozing. Regardless of the type of product you go for, the colors that are recommended are either red or orange. These have been shown to support your circadian rhythm. This means that while it’s optimal to keep the room dark for you or your child, if you can’t do so out of fear, that soft red or orange light may even help you sleep.


Incorporate a wind down routine

The reason parents read books to their kids before they go to sleep is to — yep — calm them and wind them down from the day. A soothing voice lulling you to rest with a relaxing story is like a tonic. But there are other things kids of all ages can do to bring their energy down and get ready for some much deserved slumber.

A warm bath with lavender or calming scents can work wonders. If your child is into sports, an Epsom salt bath is fantastic. It relaxes the muscles. 

Meditation or simple deep breathing exercises can help. Singing or playing a soothing song or relaxing music for your progeny is also good. And when we say “soothing” and “relaxing” it’s all relative, right? Whatever works for you is what works. Don’t get too caught up in what it “should” be. I used to sing “Sally’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas for my sons and it put them right to sleep, but playing “Shout” by Tears for Fears for my nephew did the same thing. Knocked him right out. Go figure.


Beds are for sleep, not work or play

Just as we adults need to remember that our beds give us the best bang for the buck when we use them for their true purpose, so it is with our kids. Doing homework on our bed or playing on it isn’t ideal. That means, creating a great sleeping space for your kids and a designated work/play space for them. 

While it is true that many of us aren’t in a position to have a bunch of separate spaces set aside throughout our house for our children to do their thing, you can create areas in their bedroom for work and play. This will keep the bed clear for sleep and rest, and even allow you to turn it into a bit of a dreamy haven.

It doesn’t have to be an expensive fix or set up. Comfy pillows and blankets on the bed, a great nightlight if that’s their thing, a simple desk and chair to do homework or even set them up outside of the bedroom to do that and keep their play to another room or even in a corner of theirs. We’re not here to tell you how to create that special sleep space for your kids, just letting you know that setting beds up specifically for rest and letting the other parts of their room or the house be where they do their other activities will help them sleep. Really.


Don't push the "sleep tight"

We all need our sleep. Of course. As our children grow, they need it in different amounts to support where they are in their physical and emotional lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s in preparation for going back to school, coming off a holiday break, or simply because they can’t get the hang of a good night’s rest, helping our young ones get their much required zzzzz’s is vital. These are just a few little tips and tools, and we’ll share more throughout the years and beyond, because getting a “good night, sleep tight” always seems to have new and exciting ways to do it.

One last thing. Reverse psychology works wonders for getting kids to sleep. It also mitigates getting frustrated with them for NOT going to bed when you want them to. You can’t force someone to sleep, right? I mean, you can give them bedtimes and such, but actually having them fall into a delicious slumber is completely on them. Telling them to stay awake actually works. You stop pushing, the moment relaxes, and suddenly…

The breathing evens out, the eyes close, and they are gone.

The quintessence of this and one that never seemed to fail me is what I’d like to leave you with. There is a song the character “Mary Poppins” sings to Jane and Michael Banks in the film. I’ve probably referenced it before but it’s worth mentioning again because it works not only because of the soothing way Julie Andrews presents it but the lyrics are all reverse psychology.  It’s called “Stay Awake.”

“Stay awake don't rest your head

Don't lie down upon your bed

While the moon drifts in the skies

Stay awake, don't close your eyes.

“Though the world is fast asleep

Though your pillow’s soft and deep

You're not sleepy as you seem.

Stay awake, don't nod and dream.

Stay awake, don't nod and dream.”

Good night, children. Stay awake. Don’t nod and dream.

Night Sky Night Sky