Thoughtful Parenting: Back to school, back to sleep

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— The anticipation of the new school year is exciting, but the transition can cause anxiety for children and parents. A healthy night’s sleep is a critical factor for your child’s success at school.

Sleep particularly is important for kids because the brain organizes what is learned that day to more efficient storage regions of the brain. Neural connections are strengthened, memories are enhanced and inferences and associations are drawn. The more you are learning, the more you need to sleep.

Most kids go to bed later during the summer. An abrupt change in bedtime the night before school starts is hard on everyone, so start early to ensure a smooth transition.

Begin a few weeks before school begins by moving your child’s bedtime five to 10 minutes earlier each night until you've reached your desired bedtime for the school year. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that preschool-age children get 11 to 14 hours of sleep and school-age children get 10 to 11 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. If you have late sleepers, begin waking them a bit earlier each day, as well.

Next, establish a healthy bedtime routine that starts at the beginning of the school year. REST is a framework to help families establish bedtime rituals. It stands for routine, empowerment, snuggle time and teach children to relax.

Routine

The ritual of a healthy routine prepares children’s minds and bodies for sleep. When children know what to expect, they are much less likely to resist changes and easily can transition from one activity to the next. Unpredictability can cause feelings of anxiety, and the result is resistance. A healthy routine starts at dinner and can include playtime, bath/shower time, cleanup, snack, books, snuggle time and other soothing activities. Limit screen time, especially after dinner. Even educational programs can elicit a stress response in your child’s brain, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep easily.

Empowerment

When children begin to realize they are independent beings, they develop a need for control. This is a normal part of development. By offering your children opportunities to take on a leadership role in a developmentally appropriate way, you can satisfy their desires, build their self-esteem and, most importantly, avoid a whole lot of power struggles. There are many opportunities to empower your children during their nightly bedtime routine.

Let your child help create the routine with a little guidance. Lay out pictures of the elements you would like to include in the routine (dinner, playtime, bath, brush teeth, books, etc.) and let them create their own chart for nightly events. Allowing your child to help create the routine gives them the control they desire and increases their desire to follow it. Ask them, “What is next?” when it is time to transition from one activity to the next.

Give young children tons of choices. When you give children choices, offer them two options, both of which you will be OK with them choosing. For example, “Would you like to pick up the Legos or the train tracks first?” “Would you like to wear the red or the blue pajamas?” and “Would you like to go to bed now or in 10 minutes?” Plan ahead by asking the bedtime question 15 minutes prior to their bedtime. You know what the answer will be, but giving them some control can go a long way toward preventing power struggles.

Snuggle time

Our experience as children was vastly different than the world our children face today. As each generation passes, the amount of engagement that children have with adults decreases. Research in the field of resilience points to the child’s relationship with a caring adult figure as the most critical protective factor a child can have against the challenges they inevitably will face — big challenges like deciding whether to try drugs, have sex or get in a car with a driver who has been drinking. Research shows that children who feel more connected to the adults in their lives make better choices. Whether your child is 4 or 14, take time to engage with your child every night. This time can be spent reading books and discussing them, singing songs, telling stories or simply snuggling.

Teach them to relax

A great routine can make bedtime go smoother, but often, it is not enough to help your little one fall asleep. In an on-the-go world, it is difficult for all of us to turn off our minds so we can relax and fall asleep.

Learning to relax is a skill that your children will use to fall asleep, manage stress and perform their best. You can teach relaxation skills by having your kids listen to relaxation CDs, meditating with them, guiding them through a body scan or simply taking five deep breaths together. Learning relaxation skills early will provide your young child with lifelong benefits.

Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization dedicated to providing mindful solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions executive committee for the past five years. Find more information at www.mindfullifetoday.com.

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