Helping children get back into a sleep routine for school

As children head back to school this month, it may be harder than ever to get them back on a schedule for proper sleep after learning from home the past five months during the pandemic.

We turned to Dr. Chester Wu, the Director of Sleep Medicine at Menninger Clinic, for important advice.

"We're all creatures of habit, and it's important to have regularity! It can be challenging, especially when you're working with your children to make that adjustment. Normally you would give yourself at least one to two weeks to make that adjustment, because abrupt changes can be really difficult for sleep and daytime functioning. So there's, what we call, sleep hygiene, which at night entails trying to have a good wind-down routine, doing some relaxing things, like maybe taking a bath or reading a book and avoiding stimulating activities, like having big meals or that screen time. Not doing so can keep you awake 30 to 60 minutes," states Dr. Wu.

Schedule, schedule, schedule. It can be hard to pull off, but studies show it definitely helps a child function better.

"I think a lot of people don't recognize how much sleep can really impact their physical health. We know with poor sleep, children can have an increased risk of attention issues like moodiness, anxiety, sometimes even increased suicidal ideation. So really it's important for us to make that connection that poor sleep at night can really impact the day. We need to know it can really affect their behavior, and if you're having some of those problems, maybe we need to look at their sleep," explains Dr. Wu.

Now the question is, how do we help make sure children are getting quality sleep at night?

"I think one of the first things is education and understanding what really affects our sleep, specifically with screens. So screens increase our light consumption, and that reduces our amount of melatonin that we produce in our brain that only tells our body when we should be falling asleep. The content of screens is usually pretty engaging and stimulating. This sets our brain into an activated state, and it makes it more difficult to quiet our minds, once we actually do when they go to bed," says Dr. Yu.

Menninger Clinic realizes that sleep deeply affects a child's mood and behavior, so they have starting closely monitoring that with sleep studies.

“We are evaluating and treating all sleep disorders like insomnia, restless sleep, nightmares, bedwetting, and we can do so with comprehensive in lab studies or convenient home tests as well. Our goal is really just to get our kids feeling into top shape mentally and physically with better sleep. We know that it helps their mental status so much, when they get that right amount of sleep," states Dr. Wu.

There are also psychologists who specialize in changing behavior related to sleep that can help, like Dr. Mary Rose, who is board certified in behavioral sleep medicine at Menninger Clinic.   

The American Academy of Sleep recommends children 12 years and under get nine to 11 hours of sleep and teens eight to 10 hours per night. 

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