Thursday, September 2, 2010

Back to school sleep adjustments can be helpful for children

As the summer days wind down, many parents prepare to ready their children for the changes that a new school year brings. Among the things parents may want to do is help their child adjust to a new sleep schedule prior to the first day of school.

According to Gene Beresin, MD, medical director of the MGH Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic, children, adolescents and teens could benefit from slowly incorporating small changes to their sleep schedules and bedtime routines during the weeks before the start of school. Changes include going to bed earlier and waking earlier; for younger children, parents might create a calming bedtime routine to help them settle down; and teenagers who tend to stay up very late could modify their late-night habits and waking time.

"Parents need to understand that every child's sleep patterns are different and children at different ages have different sleep needs," says Beresin. "For example, some 10-year-old children will walk upstairs and go to bed on their own when they are tired, while other children will stay awake until told to go to sleep. If the parent lets the child stay up later during the summer and wake up later, then it's true that they need some sort of preparation to get the child ready for a new sleep schedule when school starts."

Beresin suggests that for younger children, parents may decide to gradually put the child to bed earlier and wake them up earlier beginning at least three weeks before the first day of school. This helps the child become slowly accustomed to the change.

"It is easier to adjust a young child's sleep schedule because their bedtimes are laid out for them by the parents," he says. "For an adolescent, the parent will have to make more of an intervention in changing their child's sleep schedule. Teenagers, who have an established sleep cycle, will have to the most difficult time resetting their sleep schedules, so would benefit the most by slowly adjusting their bedtimes and rising times."

Parents can begin by having a discussion with their child so the child can understand the reasons for the change.

"If parents meet resistance, with younger children in particular, they may need to have some incentives for kids to go to bed. For example, bedtime rituals are important, such as reading stories, listening to music and quiet conversations. Incorporating routines into the bedtime ritual is helpful, because kids do well with structure. Even in the summer, which is perhaps loser than the school year, children respond better to structure at bedtime. If there's a structure to bedtime in the summer, it's easier to just shift the schedule when the school year begins. For teenagers, it's more difficult because parents can't really make them go to sleep. But, parents can assist their teenagers by suggesting the teen read, listen to relaxing music or even learn to incorporate meditation into their bedtime routines.

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