Who doesn't love the sunny days and starry nights of summer? As late summer days grow shorter, back-to-school preparations grow more demanding. New shoes, fresh supplies, open houses and 'what to wear?' dilemmas fill hours with a nervous, excited energy for the pending school year.
In this bustle of activity, it's easy to overlook establishing a bedtime/wake up routine until the night before school. And by then it’s almost too late.
Transitioning into a bedtime routine is necessary for getting your child to bed earlier to wake more refreshed and to give their growing bodies the rest they need for physical, psychological and emotional growth. "A lack of quality sleep can lead to a number of other health issues in children, such as poor attention, behavioral issues, hyperactivity and can worsen current diagnoses like ADHD," says Dr. Benjamin Fields, Ph.D., M.Ed., Child and Adolescent Psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Establish a Bedtime Transitional Period
Moving from the openness of summer days to a more structured school schedule takes time. Children, or adults for that matter, do not maintain a new behavioral expectation without a period of time where the new behavior is practiced and becomes part of a regular routine. Demanding kids get into bed two hours earlier the first night before a new school year starts is setting up a potential disaster. Instead, start the process two or more weeks before school begins to get children used to the idea of ending daily activities earlier.
Even better, Dr. Fields suggests the idea of keeping a regular bedtime throughout the summer months to help improve success. “Keeping a range of consistent bedtimes, within an hour either way, will make things easier on families when the time comes to adjust,” he advises. This is a good practice to adopt for weekends during the school year as well. Creating and maintaining positive bedtime routines helps foster your child’s ability to practice self-relaxation skills and learn the value of calming themselves down, both excellent skills.
Create A Regular Bedtime Routine
Just as kids rely on behavioral clues from teachers to know what comes next in the classroom, they will look to you for bedtime routines. They may test your resolve (”Ten more minutes at the computer, please!”) or naturally want more time with friends or social activities, so making the transition time a non-negotiable item will relay the seriousness of the expectation.
Interruptions to the routine, especially in the beginning stages, drag out the process. Don’t be afraid to be firm. Building, establishing and maintaining a consistent bedtime routine increases the hormonal cues within the body to start winding down. Disturbing that pattern can result in insomnia or a lack of quality sleep.
Keep in mind, too, that every child internalizes and develops independence at an individual rate. "Some children take two weeks, some longer," according to Dr. Fields.
Make the bedtime routine a joint venture between you and your child. Discussing what they like to do to wind down or what they feel helps calm them gives great insight. Then, add in a habit or two they enjoy. You want to create a routine that children look forward to. Experiment and ask for feedback from your child about what works and what does not. Praise and encouragement go a long way in making the habit a pleasant one.
One way to signal the transition to bedtime is with a cornerstone activity. The cornerstone activity is always the same, and cues your child that bedtime is about to begin. It is critical to set up the cornerstone activity as a positive action within itself, not as an end of the fun of the regular day. A few cornerstone activities to consider are closing curtains, gathering and preparing things (backpack, lunch, coats, boots) for the next morning and assembling them near the door, taking a shower or bath, putting away and shutting down electronic devices to charge for the night (in a specific location outside of bedrooms), having a cup of tea together or turning off the television.
Along with the cornerstone activity, offer verbal and/or emotional connection by asking how their day went, their goals for tomorrow, or what lessons they learned today.
Following the cornerstone activity, add a physical action that induces relaxation. Choose meaningful activities that you and your child enjoy doing together. Find a quiet spot not in the bedroom for this activity. Some ideas include:
Read a mutually-chosen book (even older children enjoy being read aloud to). Pre-determine a length, such as five pages, a chapter, or fifteen minutes, to counter the ‘just one more page!’ argument.
Listen to them read to you. Not only is this excellent at reinforcing academic skills, it affords you an opportunity to see their reading progress without pressure.
Tell an ongoing, creative story. Carry this further by setting aside non-bedroom time to write down the tale and have your child draw illustrations.
Gently massage their shoulders, back, and head. Slow strokes from the forehead and down the bridge of the nose relax facial muscles and encourage sleep..
Journal in words or pictures. Start a new journal each school year or each season to fill with stories and memories.
Review their plan/schedule for tomorrow. What are they looking forward to?
Share gratitude or prayer. You could also choose an element of character each week, such as honesty, loyalty, creativity, etc., and discuss who displayed that trait during the day.
Learn a new, low-key activity, such as yoga poses or meditation. Before bedtime, use a video to try a singular pose then try to replicate it together.
Share emotional reactions to their day. This is also a good way to have them think through events where they had options. What if had chosen to do something differently?
Study an educational topic together, based on interest. Gather picture books in advance and compare facts and new knowledge.
Each new school year begins with a combination of excitement and anxiety—but bedtime routines should not. By creating a solid foundation of activities for unwinding, transitioning into earlier bedtimes can be an enjoyable process for both you and your child.
Dr. Fields stresses the importance of developing a habit of sleep hygiene to improve a child’s quality of sleep once they are in bed. Considerations for this include:
-the importance of developing a bedtime routine
-ending all screen time (even ebook readers and tablets) at least one hour before bedtime
-nothing except sleeping to take place in bed. This means no eating, reading, television, toys or games in bed
-keep the lights low in the bedroom
-keep the room cool
-if your child (or you) awake during the night and struggle to go back to sleep within 15 minutes, get up and do something monotonous or unexciting to get your body to return to sleep.
Beth Morrow is a freelancer and middle school teacher in Columbus, OH. Connect with her on Twitter: @BethFMorrow
Dr. Benjamin Fields, Ph.D., M.Ed, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio. (614) 355-9580