The Essential Back-to-School Supply: Sleep

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Today we’re kicking off a regular series with certified clinical sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN. In her first post, Cralle explains why sleep is so essential for children and how to get your kids on a solid sleep schedule to start the school year on the right note.

Shopping for back-to-school supplies can be overwhelming: pencils, paper, notebooks, rulers, backpacks, and so much more. Sure, it’s sometimes a chore, but we do it because we know these are the tools that will help our children learn.

There is one essential supply that I’m betting isn’t on your list, even though it’s critical for your child’s growth, brain development, and cognition. That often overlooked item? Sleep.

Why sleep should top your list

It may not be as trendy as the latest smartphone or as stylish as a new pair of kicks, but once you realize the critical role sleep plays in learning and education, you’re going to want to bump it to the top of your list.

Here are just some aspects of a child’s functioning that sleep can impact:

  • memory consolidation
  • language development
  • attention
  • decision making
  • problem solving
  • emotional maturity
  • judgment
  • cellular repair
  • release of growth hormone
  • immunity
  • strengthening of the nervous system
  • regulating metabolism
  • weight management

Just as the right amount of sleep can help a child succeed in school, too little sleep has the opposite effect. A sleep-deprived child is less mentally alert, inattentive, impulsive, and forgetful. Resilience, outlook, and motivation are all compromised when sleep is in short supply. Physical activity, coordination, motor skills, even safety suffer too.

How to establish a healthy sleep schedule

Starting a new school or a new grade is a huge step in a child’s life. To prepare children for the changes and challenges ahead—as well as the growth and accomplishments—it’s imperative that parents help them make sleep a priority. Granted, that’s not always easy. Between after-school activities, play dates, and last-minute homework crises (we need ingredients for volcano lava right now!), parents’ own sleep often gets squeezed.

As a registered nurse certified in clinical sleep health, I’ve developed strategies to help ensure that sleep is a well-stocked back-to-school supply as well as a household staple. Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks.

Preparation

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to sleep. The more every family member knows about sleep, the more likely they are to protect it, prioritize it, and benefit from it themselves. Talk with children early and often about the importance of sleep and the ways it strengthens their minds and bodies, the same way eating healthy food and getting exercise does.

Bonus tip: Have your conversations about the value of sleep during the day, not at nighttime or while trying to get a tired child to bed.

Positivity

Going to bed should always be cast in a positive light. Instead of telling children that they “have to go to bed,” try spinning it as “you get to go to bed.”

Be matter-of-fact but firm about enforcing bedtimes and staying in bed. Never use going to bed as a punishment or staying up late as a reward. Bedtime can become a battleground when all parties are tired and irritable, and a child quickly figures out that negative attention at night beats no attention. Instead, try offering something special to look forward to in the morning, such as TV or a video game.

Bonus tip: Even young, tech-savvy children seem to understand the concept of needing to “recharge”—as in, just like plugging in a device, sleep helps your body recharge.

Planning

Gradually re-establish your child’s school-year sleep routine, ideally beginning about two weeks before the first day of school. Start waking children earlier in the morning, in 15-minute increments. Move bedtime 15 minutes earlier too (even on weekends), until sleep and school schedules are aligned.

Be sure that on the weekends they don’t revert to staying up super late and sleeping late by keeping weekend sleep schedules within one to two hours of school week wake-up times.

Bonus tip: Exposing children to plenty of light in the morning hours will help reset their body clock, making them more alert in the morning and helping them to fall asleep earlier at night.

Participation

The best way to get your point across is to invite children to participate in their own healthy sleep lifestyle. For example, if your back-to-school shopping list includes a pillow, pajamas, sheets, or even a mattress, let your child help pick them out. Participation gives children some control over bedtime and encourages them to make good sleep choices.

The same goes for bedtime routines. Allow a child to make choices as appropriate. Deciding what pajamas to wear and which book to read will help them feel empowered in the process. (Learn about the benefits of reading to children before bed.)

Bonus tip: When children feel they’ve had a good night of sleep, let them celebrate in the morning by awarding themselves a sticker, say on a wall calendar or poster. That way, they (and other family members!) will be able to see and reward their progress.

Predictability

Children thrive on structure, schedules, and predictability. Regular bedtimes strengthen circadian rhythms and ensure that your child is getting enough sleep.

A calming, positive, and predictable nighttime routine helps ease the transition from wakefulness to sleep. Through repetition children learn what to expect, and bedtime becomes a non-negotiable part of the day. Institute a reliable set of steps, in the same order, leading up to bedtime, to serve as a cue that it’s time to prepare for sleep.

Bonus tip: Be sure that relatives and babysitters know the routine and stick to it when the child is in their care.

Perception

Children often perceive bedtime and sleep as a huge “time out.” Explain to your child that in order to grow, younger children have to go to bed earlier than adults. Reassure them that nothing exciting is happening after they go to sleep. That will keep them from feeling like they’re missing out on fun activities.

Bonus tip: Respect everyone’s sleep schedule, whether it’s a daytime nap for Grandpa or an early bedtime for Junior. Keep household noise levels low when people are trying to sleep.

Sleep habits to last a lifetime

Hopefully you now understand why I consider sleep to be the essential school supply. And there’s no better time than the start of the school year—which most kids consider more of a “New Year” than January 1—to start sending the message that sleep is a key to success, both in and out of the classroom.

Children are happier, healthier, better students, better athletes, better siblings, and better friends when they get sufficient, quality sleep. Making it a habit now isn’t just a good idea—your child’s very ability to reach his or her full potential may depend on it.

Your child’s bedroom can also play a role in how well they sleep. That’s why we’re sharing tips on how to create a bedroom siblings will want to share.

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Terry Cralle, MS, RN, is a certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva's sleep consultant. She is the author of Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle, the first nonfiction book directly messaging the benefits of sufficient sleep to young children, and Sleeping Your Way to the Top, the ultimate guide to success through better sleep. A nationally recognized sleep health and wellness advocate, her work in the field of sleep medicine has ranged from patient care to clinical research and continuing education for nurses.