This article appears in August Family magazine.
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Over the summer kids tend to get into bad sleep habits. With the start of school just around the corner, it’s time to get back to a healthy sleep schedule.

But first something parents already know: The school system has it backward, sending older kids to school earlier and letting little ones start later, said Dr. Cheryl Tierney, associate professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine and chief of behavior and developmental pediatrics at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.

“Parents, have some empathy. If they’re pushing back and saying they can’t fall asleep and then they have trouble waking, it’s not their fault. Their natural biology is to stay up later,” Tierney said. “Regardless of any bad habits accumulated over the summer, gradually start to change sleep habits about two weeks before the start of the school year.”

How to do it

Slowly push bedtime forward in anticipation of the school year, said Chris Brantner, founder and certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo.com.

“Trying to switch from a 10 p.m. bedtime to an 8 p.m. bedtime in one night simply won’t work. Your child will wind up fighting you at bedtime and being groggy and grumpy the first day of school, which isn’t exactly a great way to start the year,” Brantner said.
The seasonal change is on your side, as the days get shorter and darker earlier, Tierney said. Push bedtime and wake-up times forward 15 to 30 minutes every few days.

“Yes, it may prove painful at first, but if you wake them up earlier, they’ll have an easier time going to bed on time,” Brantner said.
To help kids get to sleep, cut out caffeine after noon or 1 p.m., Tierney said.

“We’re all a little more lax over the summer with parties and barbecues, soda and chocolate. Parents may not even be aware their children are having so much caffeine,” she said.

A healthy cardiovascular workout will also encourage sleep as long as kids have 30 minutes to an hour to relax and shower before bed, Tierney said.

“Being more active and outside in the summer is good for helping kids get to bed,” she said.

Avoid electronics for one hour before bed because the light frequency decreases natural melatonin production, Tierney said. For high school kids really having trouble getting to sleep, a temporary, two-week program of low-dose (1 to 3 mg) melatonin an hour or so before bedtime can be used, she said. Just be sure to purchase it at a reputable grocery or pharmacy because melatonin, like other supplements, is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Set the mood

Simply setting a bedtime isn’t always enough. Make sure your child’s bedroom is set up for sleep with curtains that can block out the light, Bratner said.

“I also recommend dimming the lights about 30 minutes before bed and starting your bedtime routine early. This will help your child wind down a bit earlier,” he said.

Once the day starts, help your child wake up by getting him or her out in the sunlight as quickly as possible.
“The sunlight will actually help reset their circadian rhythm, which can help their body start feeling more tired once the sun goes down,” Brantner said.