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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceSleep routines for a good school year — Good Parenting

Sleep routines for a good school year — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My second grader has been a night owl since birth. When she started school it was always a struggle to get out on time in the morning (I’m a night owl, too, so that doesn’t help) and many days she’d fall asleep in the car on the way home. Since the new school year began, we are having frequent bedtime stalling tactics — she needs a drink of water, she has to go to the bathroom and or her dolls are talking and dancing in her bed. Needless to say, the mornings are such a struggle.

Last night, after I took the dolls away, my daughter said that she couldn’t fall asleep and her teacher would be mad if she came in late. She was so distraught that I spent a half hour at her side getting her to calm down enough to close her eyes and finally fall asleep. Her older brother, by the way, has always been an early bird (like his dad) which convinces me there’s a genetic component to sleep rhythms. What can we do to help her with this problem?

Not a Morning Mom

Dear Mom,

As a night owl and mother of one, I sympathize. The problem is that unless you home school, school schedules don’t allow for variations in daily sleep-wake rhythms. It is good that you recognize her (and your) limitations for fitting in with the rhythm of the majority who have no difficulty being ready for a typical 9 a.m. school start time.

Routines are very helpful for winding down toward bedtime, especially for those who are fighting the clock. My daughter and I learned to do everything possible the night before — pack food and papers, lay out clothes, and review plans for the next day — so the morning is quick and easy. Following a rough morning, a short nap or afternoon meditation break can add an energy boost to get through the rest of the day.

Adequate sleep is very important for health, growing and learning. A “fuzzy” brain literally has not had enough time to get toxins, built up from a day of thinking, cleaned out. The National Sleep Foundation has some recommendations for helping school age children get the sleep they need.

  1. Talk with your child about how sleep helps our brains and bodies. Use yourself as an example, pointing out how you caught a cold because you stayed up too late for a few nights, and how refreshed and sharp you are after getting a good night’s sleep. Help her notice such effects of good and poor sleep in herself.
  2. Pick the right time to start the bedtime routine. A school-age child, 6 to 11 years old, requires from 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night. If you’re not sure how much sleep she needs, just keep track of what time she falls asleep and wakes up on her own on days there is no pressing schedule. Say it’s 10 hours and she needs to wake up at 7:30 a.m. to have breakfast and leave the house on time. That’s a 9:30 p.m. “fall asleep” time. Add an hour or so for a cozy routine — bath, reading books to her, quiet talk about what she enjoyed that day and what she is looking forward to, a kiss on the forehead and some soft music.
  3. Make her room a quiet cave. Dim the lighting as part of your routine and check that the temperature is “cool” since overheating is a cause of waking up during the night. (The brain interprets warmth as a daytime temperature.) Your daughter’s bedtime is also the time for all of the noises in the rest of the house to be turned down or silenced so as not to distract her from drifting off. (Light music or the hum of a fan can help block out noises, too.)
  4. Keep TV, computers and other electronic playthings out of the bedroom. The short wavelength “blue light” of computer screens is particularly stimulating to the brain, interfering with sleep. As the day comes to an end, and natural light (or the artificial lighting in your house) gets dimmer, the brain increases its secretion of melatonin which makes us sleepy. The peak for melatonin secretion is about halfway through the night’s sleep. If blue light has been absorbed late into the evening, it has a delaying effect on this daily pattern and causes excessive drowsiness in the morning. So have a strict time limit for screen time each day — stopping well before bedtime.
  5. Keep caffeine away from children. Caffeine is a stimulant that can become an unhealthy habit. Naturally found in certain leaves and seeds, but also artificially concocted, caffeine has found its way into many foods, medicines and daily habits for people of all ages. It gives a jolt to the nervous system — elevating blood pressure and decreasing heart rate, followed by a drop in energy when it wears off. Obvious sources include: coffee and coffee flavored ice cream, yogurt or candy; dark sodas but also some brands of orange soda; “energy” drinks; some headache remedies and other over the counter drugs; and anything with chocolate in it – the darker the chocolate, the more caffeine. The National Sleep Foundation has observed: “Children who drink caffeinated beverages sleep less than those who don’t.”

Helping your daughter to get a good night’s sleep will benefit her health and growth, and make learning so much easier for her. Since sleep also affects mood, you can expect a happier, more cooperative child, too.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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