Fort Worth, Texas,
14:29 PM

Parents, Don't Send Zombies Off to School: Work on Sleep Schedules Now

Pediatrician with four tips on getting your children their rest

Let’s Not Send Zombies Off to School: Work on Sleep Schedules NOW

My kids are currently out of town for their annual summertime week with my mother, and that leaves us parents with some time to relax, eat out, watch Game of Thrones, and —drumroll—strategize about our parenting strategies. Yes, I know, that last bit sounds redundant and altogether less fun than the others. But —let’s face it—this parenting thing doesn't quite happen by itself—it takes total, multilevel “stategery.” This week, my husband and I must rethink the ever-changing and ever-challenging media rules in our household, reassess our approach to sibling tensions and our kids’ overly astute eye for even the slightest inequity between them, and, of course, discuss the sleep plan.

The sleep plan— OMG, I almost forgot! Yikes—we are just 3 weeks away from the start of school, and our kids are sleep-schedule disasters. We let it happen. We let them gradually follow their tween and teen circadian rhythms right into the swirly whirl of unstructured summer existence. We allowed for the full release of their inner night-owl. Recently in fact, our kids have tucked us parents into bed, they themselves dropping off much later (or sometimes really early the next morning), only to awaken around lunch-time the following day. Oh, Nellie.

So now, I’m calling on all parents with a sleep conundrum on their hands like we have. I’m calling on all parents who allowed their children to drift onto a late schedule. I’m also calling parents of rising kindergarteners, who up to now have let their job-schedule dictate family sleep patterns, but who now must have their kids alert and ready for circle time at 8am! I’m calling on all parents who perhaps have never had a good sleep schedule for their kids, or at least not as good a schedule as they would like. And I’m calling on the Sandman, that character of myth who sprinkles the gift of sleep and good dreams. Because, together, we have got to take action. We must rearrange the timing of our kids’ sleep, and we have no time to spare. The consequence of inaction is a big one, for without our intervention, school drop- off could look like a scene from the Thriller video, complete with the plodding, the stumbling, and the blank-eyed stares but without any good dancing. Let’s go.

1. Set a goal for optimal hours of sleep. First we must figure out just how much sleep to strive for. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, whose guidelines are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a grade-school child should sleep for 9-12 hours, while teens should sleep 8-10 hours at night. To know exactly how much our individual children need, however, we need to do a little observing and tweaking. Even if children have — (ahem)— less-ideal sleep habits this summer, it is helpful to calculate how many hours they have slept on the average, during periods when they have seemed well-rested overall, in order to awaken refreshed. My kids are ages 12 and 14, so they per the guidelines should sleep 8-10 hours. In fact, in watching them it does seem they awaken pretty chipper with 9-9.5 hours of sleep, provided they are not sleep-deprived to begin with (ie post- science project or sleepover), in which case they need 10 or 11. Of course, children’s needs can vary based also on the amount of exertion in a day, so be open for minor variations— they (and you) will have to follow their bodily and behavioral cues. If you have a younger child, take note of fussiness as a true signal that your child needs more sleep. My kids always tease me for blaming everything on sleep, and— in the course of occasional emotional outbursts, my kids have been known to preemptively say, “And, no, the reason I’m reacting this way has nothing to do with being sleepy— you always blame sleep.” Note: I see my tendency to blame bad attitudes on sleep deficits not just as smart (and based on known truths about sleep and its link to behavior) but also as compassionate— wouldn’t my kids prefer I blame their orneriness on a sleep deficit rather than on their having a character flaw or generally being troll-like?

2. Translate those goal hours into a target bedtime and wake-up time. Knowing the number of hours we want our children to snooze, we next need to plot out a reasonable bedtime and wake-up time to achieve these goals. This can be trickier than it sounds, as many factors are at play such as school start times (maybe for more than one sibling and at more than one school), how long it takes your child to get ready and eat breakfast in the morning (a plug for breakfast, which is proven to help learning), and how long it takes to get to school. And this is without even mentioning how your will fit your own hygiene and responsibilities into the picture! In the case of my kids, sleeping from 9:30pm until 6:30am (or from 10pm until 7am), will get them the 9 hrs of the sleep they seem to need. Thankfully for our family, these hours work pretty well with our distance from the school and with the school’s start time—phew. I know that for some families, taxing work obligations and bus schedules may make such a schedule impossible. As with everything in life, we must simply do the best we can. Where this schedule puts the squeeze on my family is in the evenings, as we sometimes get home late from work or sports games and then get a late start on dinner, which makes a bedtime of 9:30 a challenge. Still, sleep needs to be a priority. It just has to be. So maybe we need to eat some tuna fish for dinner, or maybe we need to plan ahead for those nights and have some frozen or pre-made options on hand. If we want our kids to be happy, well-behaved (or at least behaving at their best), and alert for good learning and school performance, they need to get as close to their optimal night’s sleep as possible.

3. Take 15 minute baby-steps from the current bedtime to the target bedtime. This step is the heart of our plan and the reason for our need to start our sleep plan ASAP. You see, while procrastination may work in other circumstances, sleep patterns change only as fast as a 15 minute nightly increment, or so the sleep specialists say. So, let’s consider my kids, one of whom currently has a self-imposed bedtime of—again, gulp—something like 12:30am (don’t judge). We need to move that 12:30 am bedtime back 3 hours to 9:30 pm, and to do that the most effectively and with the least consequence of his turning into a zombie, we need to move his bedtime 15 minutes earlier each night. Being 3 hours off-target means being twelve 15-minute steps away from the goal bedtime or twelve days of sleep preparation away from reasonable. We have cut things close! My son’s first night home, he should go to bed at 12:15am, the next night 12 midnight, the next night 11:45pm, etc. Ideally, he would also move the wake-up time 15 minutes earlier each day, so that he would he still get his 9 hours nightly— that is, wake-up at 9:15am on day1, 9am on day 2, etc. That said, I will be totally honest and admit that he actually has pre-season sports obligations at school for some days before school starts that will start at the school start time of 8am. SO, he will be getting less sleep than we wanted, and we really should have started this plan two weeks ago. Oh well. He may slowly turn into a bit of a zombie, but hopefully the worst of his sleepy haze will be over before school starts. We will all just have to do the best we can. He may have to throw in a cat-nap here and there (nothing longer than an hour, which might completely wreck our efforts), or he may have to follow his body’s cues to get to bed a bit earlier than the schedule. And that is fine.

4. Prioritize good sleep hygiene. In addition to trying to get onto a good schedule, we will all need to apply principles of “sleep hygiene,” or healthy habits to promote sleep.These principles are not rocket-science, but they require some forethought.

  • No screen time in the hour before stated bedtime. This means having no TV even anywhere nearby, since the lights of the TV will awaken the mind even if out of view. And definitely no video games.
  • Digital devices should spend their nights in some other room altogether—not the bedroom. Use an alarm clock to wake-up rather than a smartphone, and don’t buy that bit about night-screen lighting and “Do Not Disturb” settings—the devices are still better at a distance. People still glance at their phones for texts and checks, and that means a part of their brain is still “on” (and interested in how many “likes” or hearts a post has gotten) rather than shutting down
  • Plan on a minimum of 30-45 minutes to get ready for bed and to calmly wind down.
  • Consider reading an enjoyable, non-school-related, non-stressful, not-too-exciting book or magazine. Or choose downright dry reading material, for that matter (would you like to borrow a medical journal?).
  • Consider listening to calming music or sounds of nature (not peppy music!).
  • Consider scribbling a short list of gratitudes for the day— peaceful thoughts!
  • Consider meditating or breathing deeply— an app like Headspace or CALM can be very helpful in achieving this goal. If new to meditation, you might also check out Goldie Hawn’s book Ten Mindful Minutes, which is aimed at introducing kids to these concepts and skills.
  • Consider enjoying a bedtime story with your your parents (even if they are big kids now).
  • Consider a warm, relaxing bath, which can really help relaxation (but may add time to the projected bedtime preparations, so you must account for that).
  • Make your room dark and preferably a bit cool, and then consider total quiet vs white noise based on your personal preference.
  • Exercise earlier in the day will help your quality of sleep, but do NOT do any high-energy, cardio exercise right before bed—endorphins will start flowing and wake you up.
  • Eat a healthy diet with dinner preferably not immediately before bedtime (if necessity requires such timing, then a lighter meal will allow for better sleep).
  • Do not discuss big life questions or worries right before bed! Parents, keep in mind that kids often ask big questions (such as “What happens after someone dies?”) just as you are kissing them goodnight. But don’t fall for it! Tell them you value their question and will discuss it in the morning.
  • Try visualization of one of your favorite places—even imagining walking around there and entering different rooms can be a pleasant descent into dreamland.
  • If your child tends to run through a list of worries at night, consider making a “worry box.” Have your child write a few concerns on strips of paper and put them in the box. Then explain that these concerns should be thought about only in very small and deliberate doses at ANOTHER time (for example you can offer to take one strip of paper out tomorrow in the day, to allow the child to worry for 5 minutes max). Let us limit worry time if we can, as thinking about worries makes worries grow, doesn’t solve anything, and shortens sleep.

We all want to be sure our kids are awake and alert for the start of classes, so let’s get right to work on this. Or, shall I say, let’s get right to sleep! I certainly don’t want any zombies anywhere near me! But all this talk about sleep makes me feel like yawning. I mean, doesn’t your pillow call you, too? What time did I go to bed last night? It was only. . .only. . . ZZZZZZ.

4. Prioritize good sleep hygiene



Get to know Daphne N. Shaw, M.D.

Dr. Shaw is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Fort Worth (Henderson), board certified in pediatrics. To make an appointment with Dr. Shaw, call 817-760-2096 or click here. Dr. Shaw graduated with honors from Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., before earning her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. She followed with internship and residency at Baylor College of Medicine’s general pediatrics program at Texas Children’s Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital. She wrote and illustrated a children's book called No Shots for Me about a little girl confronting her fear of getting vaccines. Her outside interests include spending time with her husband, two children and two dogs (as well as some fish and even a gerbil), as well as traveling, reading and writing.

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