Back-to-School Transition: Sleep Smarts

Angela Jamison knows what’s going on when her 8-year-old daughter is talking back or misbehaving. Jamison has seen a direct link between her daughter’s sleep schedule and her behavior. “The only time she has an attitude or doesn’t behave is when she is sleep-deprived. And she will often catch a cold when she hasn’t had enough sleep,” says the Wake Forest mom. Sleep is crucial for keeping kids healthy, mentally aware and stress-free, especially when kids are headed back to school. The sleep crisis A Google search on “Americans and Sleep” yields almost a million hits in a handful of seconds, and most of the news is bad. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2008 Sleep in America Poll found that one-third of the respondents got a good night’s sleep “only a few nights a month or less.” A 2006 Sleep in America Poll that included teenagers found that 45 percent of adolescents “get an insufficient amount of sleep on school nights (less than eight hours).” And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, younger kids — like their parents and older peers — just aren’t getting enough sleep. Heather Norman-Scott, a Durham mother of two and licensed psychologist, says, “Sleep problems are one of the most frequent complaints from parents.” Even in her own family, Norman-Scott has worked on sleep issues. She says, “Sleep definitely affects my children, and all children. They are cranky, whiny, more easily frustrated, poor listeners and more rude when they are overtired. I think it absolutely affects schooling.” Health considerations According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a common misconception that sleep is a passive process. In fact, our bodies release hormones that impact physical well-being while we sleep and, during the deepest levels of sleep, our brains are extremely active. The consequences of lost sleep are common problems seen every day, such as drowsiness and irritability. But studies have been released that also link decreased sleep to increased risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes. Scientists at the University of Chicago who studied brain hormone output and sleep even saw a direct link between substandard levels of sleep and production of several hormones that signal hunger and satiety. Not surprisingly, we feel hungrier and we eat more to get full when we are sleep-deprived. Pediatricians at Duke University Medical Center have seconded these findings. Getting insufficient sleep makes us more likely to overeat and be overweight. In children, sleep has been linked to growth and immune system response as well. Lack of sleep increases the likelihood of catching colds. The link between sleep and stress Recent research has looked at the relationship between sleep (or sleep deprivation) and how kids cope with stress. As children start a new school year or transition from being “tracked out” of school to “tracked in” for year-round students, their stress levels and anxiety may already be high. Adding a disrupted sleep routine on top of that only compounds the stress on everyone. When the school year starts, or when traveling or daylight savings time changes hit, the sleep issue becomes even more critical for Cary resident and father Edward Brown. “What makes it worse during those times is that after [the kids] have been trying to get to sleep for an hour or so, they realize how tired they are going to be in the morning, and they start to worry about that,” Brown says, “so they get more stressed and have a more difficult time getting to sleep.” The cycle of disrupted sleep causing stress and other emotional problems is well-documented among clinicians, parents and teachers. A Chapel Hill mother of two, Jane Riepel remembers her children’s teachers sending notes home asking parents to be very conscientious about children getting plenty of sleep during the school week. “She said it really made a big difference in behavior and attention in the class,” Riepel says. Welcoming the sandman For infants and young children, the best sleep aid is setting a sleep routine. “When a routine is in place since infancy, it sets the stage for what is expected and becomes the norm, much more difficult to fight,” Norman-Scott says. Miriam Patrocinio, a Cary mother of two children, is a big advocate of setting a bedtime schedule and sticking to it. She also believes that teaching children to self-soothe is an important part of this routine. “Since my girls were newborns, my husband and I established their sleeping pattern,” Patrocinio says. Her technique to help her children learn to be self-initiating sleepers was to put them in their cribs when they were clean, well-fed and sleepy, but still awake. “For the times they called or cried, I encouraged them to learn to soothe themselves. In other words, I let them cry for while, came into the room and reassured them everything is all right, and left again. I didn’t pick them up,” Patrocinio explains. Her daughters, now in second and fourth grades, learned to fall asleep quickly and quietly without her help. For toddlers and preschoolers, Norman-Scott’s trick, which she uses with her 4-year-old, is creating games. She and her daughter “race” to the bedroom, and Norman-Scott counts aloud to see how quickly her daughter can change out of her clothes. “Boy, did she go fast to see if she could beat her previous night’s record,” Norman-Scott says. “We would make a big deal out of it saying, ‘Wow, you did it in 15 seconds!’” The remainder of her daughter’s routine includes a bath, books and some comfort time with mom. Then, lights out. Burlington mother Angela Kalo also recommends keeping kids hopping during the day so that they are worn out at bedtime. She says, “I have to keep them pretty active for a few days in a row to get them tired so they go to sleep earlier.” Adult participation in an older child’s bedtime routine can be more minimal. Although most teens and tweens don’t need their parents to read them a story, a hug, a goodnight kiss and a “sleep well” wish are probably still in order. Older children also may need quiet time. Many experts recommend reading in bed as a good pre-sleep activity. Anxious kids may find that making a list of things to remember for the next day can help. Quiet-time tasks to avoid include watching TV and using a computer. According to WebMD, a Japanese study found that the use of computers prior to sleep suppressed melatonin, a hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm (our bodies’ natural wake and sleep cycles) and also kept body temperature from dropping (another pre-sleep signal). Pediatricians may recommend additional methods for kids who have a particularly hard time getting to sleep. Lenora Hunter of Chapel Hill offered her slender older son bread and milk at bedtime and allowed him to read in bed for up to 30 minutes to help him settle down. “We have also used melatonin in small doses on the advice of our pediatrician, which seems to help,” she says. “He also has an alarm clock for school mornings, which helps reinforce the need for earlier bedtimes as he is almost never naturally awake when he needs to be on a school day.” Starting a school year If you have had a later bedtime during the summer vacation, Chapel Hill mom Kristen Carmouche recommends slowly phasing the bedtime back to the time that will allow your child to get enough sleep during the school year. “As we approach the beginning of school, I bump up the bedtime by 10 to 15 minutes every week. It’s not a huge jump from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m., but a gradual [transition],” Carmouche says. Carmouche is also a big fan of having a nighttime routine that is dependable. “Kids usually do better when they know what to expect. If the routine is the same, they know what comes next and there should not be a battle,” she says. Although her kids will try to tempt her with an extra book or five more minutes for sleep, she’s not budging. “Their bodies and minds need rest, and so does mine!” Carmouche says. Make sleep a priority for all ages Parents, too, need to pay attention to their sleep needs. Just as kids function less sharply and with more stress when they are sleep-deprived, adults don’t fare any better. And finding a consistent bedtime for kids creates parent time, reducing parental stress loads. Don’t be tempted to cram in too many extra activities during those quiet hours after your kids are in bed. Adult sleep is critical, too. Durham mom Justine Wayne recognizes the importance of getting into a routine of an early bedtime for herself, as well. She says, “[I] also plan a nap on the weekend to catch up from the week. Sleep is cumulative, which many people ignore and then suffer from deficits. I know I’m crankier, forgetful, and just not fun when I miss out, which is no way to prepare for learning anything new.” Robin Whitsell is a freelance writer and mother of three who lives in Chapel Hill. She can be reached at

Age Group: Infant/Toddler Common Problem: Night waking: Your baby wants to cuddle or play in the middle of the night. Hours of Sleep Needed*: Infants: 15; Toddlers: 12-14 (including naps) Solution: Resist the urge to engage, which makes your child more interested in nighttime awakening. Comfort your child in her crib or toddler bed and then quietly walk out. Age Group: Preschool Common Problem: Cranky and overtired: Starting preschool may mean disrupting or eliminating naps. Hours of Sleep Needed*: 10-12 Solution: Make sure that the amount of overnight sleep your child gets will be adequate. Start getting ready early with a simple routine like bathtime and reading. Age Group: Elementary School Common Problem: Fighting bedtime: Your child may resist bedtime, especially if it’s still light outside. Hours of Sleep Needed*: 10-11 Solution: Stay consistent with the bedtime routine. Although some older kids can have a little more flexibility, younger kids tend to get out-of-sorts. Add the incentive of pre-bed cuddles and parent attention to make bedtime less odious to your child. Age Group: Middle School Common Problem:Getting back on track with sleep: Middle-schoolers may have had the chance to stay up late or sleep in during the summer; now they need to get back on track for school. Hours of Sleep Needed*: 8-10 Solution: In 10 to 15 minute increments, gradually work back to a school-year bedtime and wake-up time. Pick a time to wake up that allows your child enough time to get ready for school, and decide on a bedtime eight to 10 hours earlier. Age Group: High School Common Problem: Finding enough time for sleep Hours of Sleep Needed*: 8-9 Solution: With busy school schedules, homework, after-school activities and possibly work commitments, high school students rarely get enough sleep. Help your child with time management so that he can set a bedtime that allows him to get the rest he needs to do his best. *According to

Categories: Early Education, Education, Elementary Years