Whether you’re back-to-school online or in a classroom, just say no to falling asleep during school

The first weeks and months of school can be a huge struggle between parents and kids at bedtime. This guide explains why, and teaches parents what they can do about it.

The Back to School Blues 

For many families, the first part of the school year is rife with bedtime struggles. Kids have gotten used to falling asleep late after having the freedom of a structureless summer, making it downright painful to get back into a regular schedule come September.

Pair sleeplessness with the anxieties and moodiness that many children go through during the new school year, and you have a recipe for disaster for kids and parents. At a time when worries are at an all-time high due to COVID and other worries, it’s no wonder experts note anxiety is a major contributor to sleeplessness.

Why this school year is different 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought on immense struggles for families across the world. Individual states and counties have decided on different ways to handle back-to-school, either virtually, in person with masks and social distancing or a hybrid version of these two methods. 

Children already had to adjust to a summer spent largely indoors, with playgrounds closed and other outdoor time widely limited due to social distance measures. The start of the new school year also places an increased focus on being indoors, with virtual learning taking place in front of a screen, often while parents are trying to work at the same time.

As a child, being indoors for an extended period of time can lead to issues such as using less energy throughout the day, obtaining less natural vitamin D, and an increase in their amount of screen time. All of these problems can cause mental roadblocks and pent up energy, so the inability to get a good night’s sleep comes to a head when it’s time to go back to school.

Get On Top of This Year’s Sleep Struggles 

Whether your child has already gone back to school or you’re counting down the days until they do, it’s never too late to take control of this year’s bedtime struggle.

Communicate 

One of your biggest allies is your child: start the conversation with them about developing some new bedtime habits. Incorporating change is always easier when you generate buy-in through a conversation, rather than issuing an ultimatum. 

For older kids, let them know that sleep deprivation can impact both their studies and their mental health. In fact, research shows that even pre-school and early-school aged children have issues with memory and problem solving when they don’t get enough sleep.

Make A Game Plan

You should also frame your conversation around wanting to help your child feel their best. Explain how you can work together to create a game plan so they can get the sleep they need and stay on top of their studies. Encourage your child to open up about any sleep problems they’re currently facing. Understanding what’s keeping them up or waking them up in the night can help you pinpoint the right changes to make for a better sleep schedule.

Once you do create a plan together, be consistent with the changes you make. A good sleep routine isn’t just for the beginning of the school year. It should be a long-term change. That’s why it’s important to set realistic goals in the first place. 

The Whole Day Impacts Our Ability to Sleep at Night 

Preparing for a good night’s sleep (for both kids and adults) doesn’t just happen in the minutes before you lay down. Different factors throughout the day also have an impact. Good sleep hygiene is being mindful of certain practices throughout the day so you’re more prepared to fall asleep at night and receive quality rest. 

Incorporate some of these tips into your family’s daily routine to help your child get a full night’s sleep.

    1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week. It’s common for kids to have a set bedtime on weekdays, then stay up much later on weekends. Keep their bedtime consistent to encourage healthy sleep all week long. Hosting family breakfasts are one way to entice older kids to wake up early on the weekends.
    2. Eat to promote sleep. While it’s unwise to try to sleep on an overly full stomach, give your child nutritious food to encourage a better bedtime. Eating protein paired with a small amount of carbs, for example, can trigger sleep-inducing amino acids. 
    3. Create a comfortable environment. Make sure your growing child has a mattress that is comfortable and the right size. Also ensure the room is dark enough and that others in the house aren’t too loud after the earliest family member’s bedtime. You may consider providing them with noise-cancelling headphones, or simply moving their bedroom furthest away from shared living spaces to help.
    4. Avoid caffeine (and nicotine) late in the day. Drinking caffeinated beverages too close to bedtime makes it difficult to sleep and can even exacerbate anxiety. Studies show that children who drink caffeine experience both sleep and behavioral problems. While smokers typically don’t light up near kids anyway, make sure your children aren’t exposed to nicotine products right before bed. 
    5. Encourage adequate exercise. While major physical activity right before bedtime can overstimulate kids, get your kid to exercise throughout the day so they’re more tired at night. According to medical research, the more sedentary a child is during the day, the longer it takes to go to sleep. 
    6. Get adequate sunlight exposure. Because bodies are designed to react to certain times of day, not getting enough sunlight early in the day can impact a child’s ability to fall asleep later. Plus, research shows that a vitamin D deficiency can lead to sleep disorders later in life.  
    7. Limit screen time. No matter the age of your children, consider putting a time limit on how late they can use their screens in the evening. Also limit how much time they use screens throughout the day. Studies find that for every hour of screen time each day, kids lose between 15 and 26 minutes of sleep nightly. 
    8. Skip naps during the day. Kids may feel compelled to nap during the day out of boredom or stress, but this can make it hard to sleep at night. If your kids are over the age of five, avoiding naps can promote a  better nighttime sleep

Make a Kid-Friendly Bedtime Routine 

In addition to positive daytime habits, a consistent bedtime routine can also help your child get better sleep. It can help kids wind down for the night, go to bed in a calm headspace, and encourage quality family interactions.

Kids of all ages will benefit from exercising earlier during the day. As bedtime approaches, you can incorporate light stretches or a quiet yoga practice. Furthermore, taking a warm bath in the hour or two before bedtime lowers the body’s temperature, a natural signal that it’s time for sleep.  

If your child is suffering from anxiety or general fears, try practicing gratitude or keeping a gratitude journal. This can be a great way to connect with each other and focus on the positive things in life, even during hardship. You can also try a centering exercise like the Brain Dance.

Teens may benefit from more specialized bedtime routines. If they do continue screen time in the evening, encourage them to wear blue light glasses to help increase their melatonin. Also, a weighted blanket (though potentially unsafe for smaller children) may contribute to more rhythmic breathing and better sleep patterns. 

Chamomile tea is also shown to induce sleep, in addition to incorporating a new routine which can cut down on screen time. Additionally, playing ASMR videos, though potentially involving a screen, can provide relaxing audio sounds that may promote sleep. While conclusive studies haven’t been completed yet, many people anecdotally report better sleep with relaxing ASMR noise in the background. 

There are just a few ideas for creating a healthy bedtime routine, but feel free to explore other options that are best for your family. 

Make Time to Talk About the Scary Stuff 

30.9% of Americans report experiencing more sleep disturbance since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. It’s likely that kids face the same types of fear and uncertainty from the news, and a potentially tense atmosphere at home. Anxiety and stress are already linked to sleep difficulties including insomnia, and children are just as susceptible to this correlation. 

That’s why it’s so important to be a sounding board for your child’s feelings and stress. Even if they’re unwilling or unable to verbalize these emotions to you, help them process their feelings through a journal, or for younger kids, drawings. Take the initiative by asking questions such as:

    • What was the most interesting part of your day?
    • What frustrated you today?
    • What’s something you’re looking forward to?
    • What’s something you’re nervous about

Also ask questions about who they are interacting with. It can alert you to any loneliness issues or potentially negative relationships. 

Image: Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi

Think Critically About Screen Time 

Research shows that electronic screen devices cause insufficient sleep in children. And while screen time has been on the rise, it’s become a more prevalent part of families’ daily lives during COVID-19, particularly because of virtual learning. However, using the TV or internet is a frequent way for kids to unwind after school. Rather than trying to completely remove their devices, follow these tips to better manage screen time. 

With older kids, talk to them about the research surrounding screen time and its impact on sleep. Helping them make their own healthy choices will serve them better as they grow up. 

Also, try to reduce their screen time and lead by example by putting your own devices down in the evening. If you have difficulty reducing your child’s screen time and maintaining their mental balance, consider blue light glasses to reduce the negative impact on sleep. 

Put Mental Wellness First 

All parents want what is best for their kids, especially when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. But in the age of COVID, all families are facing unprecedented struggles in terms of physical health, mental well being, and jobs or money. Being overly strict with rules about any of your child’s sleep habits probably isn’t the best approach for you or your child. Be sensitive to your child’s mental wellness during these times — which will be good for yours as well. 

There are resources available when you feel like you need extra support for your child’s persistent sleep issues. You may want to reach out to either a medical or mental health expert to uncover and address the underlying causes. 

Finding a Mental Health Professional

Start with one of these three tools to find a mental health professional for your child.

    1. Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist Tool: Search for local therapists, psychiatrists, treatment centers or support groups in your area.
    2. SAMHSA National Helpline: This national helpline is a free referral service that is available 24/7, 365 days a week. You can get recommendations on where to find treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations that can help your child.
    3. Mental Health America’s Where To Get Help Tool: If you don’t know what kind of help your child needs, try this free quiz to get pointed in the right direction.

If you or your child are in a mental health crisis, seek help immediately by calling 911, going to the nearest emergency room, or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Mental Health Tools for Bedtime

For managing anxiety on a day-to-day basis, encourage your child or teen to try one or more of these mental wellness tools. It’s a great way to incorporate devices while still promoting relaxation before lying down. 

    • Smiling Mind is a free meditation app with almost 1,000 reviews averaging 4.3 stars. You can customize your plan to target kids, sleep or other categories. Each practice takes just 10 minutes a day.
    • Headspace for Kids is another meditation app that can be used for a variety of themes, including sleep, focus, kindness, calm and wake up.
    • Calm is a bedtime app designed to help kids sleep better. These bedtime audio stories incorporate music and sound to help everyone wind down at the end of the day.
    • Yoga for Kids is a yoga app that combines both fitness and relaxation.
    • Lightning Bug Sleep Clock is an app that combines white noise with customizable nature ambience sounds. 

For more ideas, check out our Bedtime Stress & COVID: 19 Wellness Tools For Kids guide.

The bottom line 

Developing positive sleep habits isn’t going to happen overnight. Start off small by choosing one or two new habits to incorporate into your child’s day. Keep in mind you’ll both enjoy it more if you join in. While the school year ahead is full of uncertainty, cultivating a positive home environment both day and night can help ease your child’s anxieties. Also, remember to communicate regularly so you understand their feelings and how you can help. Together, you’ll become happier with a better night’s sleep for everyone.

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