Sleep patterns to start school

Summer’s long days are beginning to shorten and the first day of school looms on the horizon.

School-aged children treat every day as if it were their last.

Parents, meanwhile, are gearing up for the annual fight to re-establish sleep schedules and cope with groggy, grouchy mornings.

So, what better time than late summer to take a few tips from University of Michigan pediatric sleep experts and start the school year off on the right note?

Now’s the time to help children and adolescents make gradual changes to improve their sleep habits – and to take note of whether they have serious sleep problems.

Steadily adjust to earlier sleep and wake schedules 10 days to two weeks before school starts. This will adjust biological clocks to the new schedule.

The issue of “sleep hygiene” is crucial year round for kids, whose daytime alertness, school performance, growth and development can suffer without proper sleep, University of Michigan medical experts say.

But many children and teens experience sleep disturbances that go uncorrected.

Experts say it’s rare to find a child who doesn’t have occasional problems with insomnia, bedtime struggles, waking up groggy or oversleeping.

Many of these problems occur only once in a while and can be corrected.

More severe problems are tougher to diagnose, but if observant parents and doctors catch them, the disorders can often be treated successfully, experts said.

Young children

As children grow from infants to toddlers to preschoolers and kindergartners, parents face a constant evolution of their offspring’s sleep patterns. The newborn who needed 16 hours of sleep and naps interrupted by feedings develops quickly into a youngster who can sleep through the night but needs a nap or two to achieve their nine to 13 hours of needed sleep.

In these little ones, struggles at bedtime and nighttime waking are common as children try to exert their independence. Expert advise parents to establish a pleasant bedtime routine at a regular time that includes such activities as brushing teeth and tucking in, but to set limits and respond consistently to demands, tantrums and stalling.

Worries about the dark and monsters can be fought with nightlights and reassurances.

Parents should leave their children’s room when bedtime comes, experts say, to avoid having the child become too dependent on having a parent present in order to sleep, and to allow the child to develop his or her own “settling down” abilities.

Elementary/middle school

As children grow older, their push for control over their sleep routines, and their need to get up early and stay alert all day in school, makes good sleep hygiene habits even harder to establish – but more important to stick to. If they aren’t, the child’s daytime behavior can be affected.

School-age children obtain less sleep than they did only a few years earlier, often getting by on eight to just over nine hours – which is often less sleep than required for optimal daytime alertness and performance. Their schedules increasingly become their own during the day and evening, so they may try to exert the same control at bedtime.

This is a time when kids will sometimes push the limits. Parents who try to impose naps may even make the problem worse.

Sleep walking and talking, and night terrors that provoke crying and screaming without waking or nightmares, also arise more frequently at these ages. So can apnea, in which breathing interruptions during sleep can cause both physical and behavioral problems.

Parents should consult their child’s physician about these issues.

To confront sleep deprivation and other problems, University of Michigan health experts advise a mix of common sense and scientific approach.

These include:

– Do not allow too many stimulating activities just before bedtime, like video games and vigorous athletic pursuits. These can make it tougher for a young person to gear down and be in a relaxed, quiet state.

– Try to keep bed times relatively regular because it helps govern the body’s rhythm.

– Keep the child’s bed reserved “just for sleeping” instead of homework, reading, web surfing and TV. If somebody is not feeling sleepy, they should get up, leave the bed, and be allowed to do something quiet until they feel drowsy.


As kids grow into adolescence, sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness take center stage due to rebellion against parental control, packed school and activity schedules, and natural changes.

Teens will very often have irregular sleep habits. They may be balancing schoolwork, jobs and family activities that may have an impact on their bed time.

Experts say teens are natural “owls,” with a body clock that makes them alert and energetic during the evening and inclined to sleep later than younger kids and adults in the morning.

Combine this with irregularity of bedtimes, and early school start times, and some adolescents develop something called “delayed sleep phase syndrome.”

Body rhythms keep such teens from being tired until the wee hours of the morning, and morning schedules prevent them from getting the eight to 10 hours of sleep their bodies would normally demand.

Some school districts have started to change their high school start times, to allow students to sleep later in accordance with their natural rhythms.

However, experts said that not enough evidence has come in to say whether or not this improves attendance and alertness.

Still, teens should heed the advice given to their younger children: Try to get to bed around the same time each night after a “wind down” time of quiet activity.