I don’t know about you, but in my house, we have exactly two weeks before my littles start their school year. In their district, school starts a few days before Labor Day weekend, and while the early start might seem a bit unfair, I think it’s a sweet blessing for their teachers to have a long weekend right away! Not that they "need" it, since ALL of the children are docile, mild, calm beings in the classroom. (Mine are not always included in that group, especially my oldest, ha.)
With that being said, I’m pretty confident that I’m not the only mom that has some work to do in order to get my kids ready for their first day of school, and mom to mom, there’s zero judgement coming from my end.
I know... I work as a sleep coach for babies, children, and adults, and it’s easy to think that I’m going to judge you for the late bedtimes, unenforced rules, inconsistent schedules, or any of the many "bad habits" that may have taken place over your summer vacation.
But I won’t. Because I was doing the same thing. Summers are short, and your kids are little for a short period of time, and when left with the choice of missing out on fun events, trips, and activities because of sticking to the early bedtimes, or letting bedtimes slide late or skip the bedtime routine to do those special things, it’s really no choice at all.
So let’s enjoy the memories of the summer and turn our focus to getting our children ready for school, by helping them get back on their “normal” sleep schedule so they can head into the school year feeling rested and ready to hit the books. Check out my list of six things for you to do that will help your child start the school year on the right foot.
Set A Bedtime
This is one of the most common questions I get from parents of school-aged kids: What time should my kids be going to bed? This may sound surprising, but I recommend somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00 PM at night. In addition to that, I also suggest that your child should keep that bedtime until they are about 12 years old.
There are two reasons why I think kids should be in bed, and to be specific, I mean sleeping, by 8:00 at night.
First, kids need at least 10 hours of sleep a night. An extra hour or two on top of that is never a bad thing, but you would need to make adjustments if you’re seeing a need for something different.
With that said, if your toddler needs to be up by 7:00 A.M. in order to get ready for school, at bare minimum, they should be asleep by 9:00 at the latest. What is important to take into account, is the amount of time it takes them to get to sleep after they get into bed, which include the endless request for more hugs, bathroom breaks, or my personal favorite: “Mommy, I need to tell you one more thing”. After you figure all of that into the timing of events, 8:00 is pretty much the latest they can get to bed and still get the sleep they need.
Secondly, you need to enjoy some child-free time a few hours a day. You need to be able to watch your favorite TV show, to be able to eat some junk food without fear of being spotted; to recharge those parenting batteries. It’s so important to your relationship with your partner and with your kids.
Alright, so now that we know when to put our kids to bed, let’s move on to the complicated issue of how.
Don't Wait Until the Last Minute
Hopefully you’re in my shoes, and there’s still a couple of weeks before school starts, because the easiest way to get back on track is slowly.
If they’ve been going to bed at around 9:00 PM for the better part of their vacation, move bedtime up by about 15 minutes every 4 days until you’re back to their normal bedtime. If this requires a little trickery on your part by adjusting the clocks in their room, go for it. Sometimes the ends really do justify the means, and in this case, it totally does.
Establish a Bedtime Routine
If you had an effective bedtime routine before the allure of summer vacation threw everything off track, then try to re-implement it as much as possible. Familiarity will help your child settle back into the schedule more quickly and with less resistance than trying out something really new.
On the other hand, if this is your first go at implementing a consistent bedtime routine, let me just say that a repetitive, predictable bedtime routine can make your life so much easier. When your child’s body and brain start to associate things like baths, stories, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, all done in the same order at the same time every night, it cues up their melatonin production, making sleep come easier. Bedtime routines are usually the ace up my sleeve when it comes to make bedtimes an easier process.
Use a Timer
In the world of our children, things like baths and stories are super fun, so there is a tendency for your toddler to try and negotiate for more time in the tub, or “one more book”. If you find yourself constantly having to play “bad guy”, a simple timer can be your best friend for keeping things on schedule, and as silly as it may sound, takes the blame off of you and puts it on the timer. Mom or Dad can be reasoned with, but the timer is the line.
Turn Off The Screens
Along with the relaxing of enforcing bedtimes during the summer, we also tend to ease up on the rules surrounding the TV, playing video games, or staring at screens leading up to bedtime. After all, there’s no homework to be done, so maybe we can allow a little leeway for an extra episode of Vampirina or Paw Patrol.
The thing about screens, regardless of whether it’s the cellphone, TV, laptop, or tablets, is that they put out a incredible amount of blue light. Our brains associate blue light with light from the sun, meaning daytime, so screens before bed can actually have the unwanted effect of firing your kid’s system back up when it should be powering down. Try to avoid any screen time for at least an one hour before bed. (Side note, this also applies to adults, so if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, try reading a paper book or magazine instead of watching TV before you turn in.)
It's Gotta Be Dark
And while we’re on the subject of light, for us living in the northern areas of the planet, it’s not hard to miss that it doesn’t get dark until significantly later than 8:00, and the only thing that simulates sunlight better than a TV screen is the actual sunlight. If your child’s bedroom is still lit up when you’re putting them to bed, recommend investing in a set of blackout blinds. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or really expensive. You can get a cheap set on Amazon, or even something called non-adhesive window film, which is just plastic you can cut to size and slap up over the glass. If you’re concerned about aesthetics of your child’s room and are willing to spend the money, there are plenty of color options besides black that still block out the light. Whichever way you choose to do it, block that sunlight out of your child’s bedroom. It really works, trust me.
One final thing to add here: Having experienced some flexibility regarding bedtime can suddenly yield a child that is astoundingly sharp about the changes surrounding bedtime. This can lead to heated discussions (i.e. arguments) regarding why they should be allowed to stay up later to be heard for at least a few days or (Or in my case with my oldest) the next eight or ten years. Lucky for me and you, parenting is not a democracy. It is a wonderful time of where we get to make all the rules. Don’t give in to the pressure, especially since this 8:00 bedtime is going to be in place for several years. The sooner they accept that as the norm for the school year and their summertime hours as a special circumstance, the easier this whole bedtime thing will be for everyone.
In the end, I hope you and your families had a wonderful summer break, and that your littles are looking forward to starting school again. No matter what grade they’re going into, getting the sleep that they need will help them go into the new school year with a positive attitude, and they’ll be happier (1.), more socially outgoing (2.) , and ready to learn (3.).
If this is your first kid getting out of the house since you became a parent, or your youngest is finally old enough to go to school, leaving you with an empty nest for at least a few hours, I’ll be right with you hiding my tears behind my oversized aviator sunglasses at school drop-off/bus pick-up. Then I’ll be celebrating the peace and quiet of the house and do absolutely nothing. At least for a few hours.
If you feel that you need some more specific tips or guidance for your situation to help your children get ready for the school year, or are concerned about naptimes centering around the pick-up/drop-offs, my Advice Line service would be a great fit for you – we’ll get on the phone and you get to pick my brain for 45 minutes and develop a plan that can help make the transition from summer to school much easier.
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.