Back-to-school bedtimes: Off to a good start

Beth English on sleep times and school starts

Beth English
Associate Editor

If you have school-age children, maybe they’ve already returned to structured bedtime schedules. By the time this publishes, mine will have been in class for approximately two weeks. They’ll be dealing with homework and teachers and friends. Hopefully, all will be positive.

Here’s one thing I’m dreading: Getting their sleep patterns to mesh with school start times.

There has been a host of research about delaying school start times to give students a chance to get adequate sleep. Most recently, a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that fewer than one in five middle and high schools in the United States start at 8:30 a.m. or later (recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics).

Fortunately for my teen, his middle school begins at a highly respectable 8:50 a.m. And when he starts high school next year, he will keep that 8:50 a.m. start time. I’m thrilled that our school system took the AAP recommendation for adolescents to heart. I rarely have to worry about him being late to school. There’s more than enough time for him to wake up, dress and get breakfast before heading out the door. If I can make sure he goes to bed and puts up his iPad at a reasonable hour, all is good.

Now, my elementary school daughter, on the other hand, is a different story. Her school starts at 7:45 a.m. Guess what time the bus arrives to pick her up for school? 6:40 a.m.

Years ago, long before I knew as much about sleep research, I declared that was far too early for a small child. I was right. Children her age need an average of 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Unless I got her to bed promptly at 8 p.m., she wasn’t getting enough rest. And with evening activities such as Girl Scouts or her brother’s basketball practices, it was hard to hit that target consistently.

I opted to drive my children to elementary school to give them an extra half-hour of sleep. Having a well-rested child is essential for making the most of the school day. I know when my children haven’t slept well, they’re irritable and emotional. How can children take in new information when they’re tired?

In a study published last summer, the American Psychological Association found that early start times were associated with lower standardized test scores, poorer attendance, lower school rank and school

But here’s what I found most interesting—Peggy Keller, the lead researcher, cautioned against delaying middle and high school start times at the expense of elementary school start times.

“Our findings suggest that these policy changes may simply be shifting the problem from adolescents to younger children, instead of eliminating it altogether,” she said.

It’s a quandary.

In the meantime, I’ll take all the back-to-school readiness tips to heart. Sealy and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine’s Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science program recently teamed up to help parents with the transition. Sealy conducted a survey of 1,000 parents about sleep routines and UNC NDSS came up with a list of tips including shifting bedtimes a week or two before the start of school, banning electronics from bedrooms, evaluating your child’s mattress, keeping wake-up times consistent (even on weekends), eating a good breakfast and getting sunshine soon after waking.

Sounds like good advice for all of us. Here’s to an easy back-to-school sleep adjustment and a great new school year!

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