Forget back-to-school shopping. It's back-to-school sleeping that's stressing out many parents this week as the first day of school looms large.
Unless their summers have been as regimented as the school year, most kids have been sleeping in and staying up late to enjoy the long days of sunshine, leaving parents to fret: How bad is it going to be when that 6:30 a.m. alarm buzzes for the first time next week?
"It's wicked in my house," says Andrew Lynk, president-elect of the Canadian Paediatric Society and chief of pediatrics at Cape Breton Regional Hospital. He's the father of two teenagers, arguably the hardest demographic to recalibrate.
As research sheds light on the causes and effects of sleep deprivation – especially the negative effects on a child's ability to learn – experts are offering ever more specific tips for parents, ranging from pre-emptive alarm-setting to clamping down on screen time.
Dr. Lynk suggests the maximum parents can hope for is dialling bedtime back 15 minutes a night. Ideally, he says, the process will take two weeks, but late starters will catch up – because they have to. "School forces us into a routine," he says.
Others suggest parents should take a hard line on wake-up times in addition to nighttime routines.
"A week ahead, set children's [and adults'] wake times at or near when wake times will have to be when school starts," sleep expert Joseph Buckhalt said in an e-mail interview. "Some children may not be able to go to sleep a lot earlier if they have been staying up late, but they can lay quietly in bed until they sleep."
All agree that jump-starting the body's naturally occurring melatonin – the hormone that regulates our circadian rhythms – can speed the process.
Dr. Buckhalt, a pyschologist and professor at the College of Education at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., suggests opening the blinds in your children's rooms an hour before they need to be up. (Sorry, waking up even earlier than your kids is one of the downsides of being the advance squad.)
On the flip side, reduce artificial light around bedtime – especially the flicker and flashing of video games. Research is mounting on the perils of pre-bedtime screen time and cellphone use on the quality of slumber, so powering down is paramount.
Dr. Lynk says the year-round goal should be keeping electronics out of the bedroom, but September can be a good time to tweak the rules and make the parents' bedroom command central. Parents should flick off household wireless modems at a designated hour. And they should demand that kids' cellphones be charged overnight in the parents' room.
(While you're at it, try shutting off your own gadgets an hour before bedtime, too.)
Experts caution that families will face additional hurdles when schedules fill up as the fall unfolds.
Dr. Buckhalt says he has employed one great trick to rein in drifting bedtimes: "When my children, 13 and 15, ask to stay up later on school nights, I tell them they can stay up a little longer when they are able to wake up without an alarm clock when they have to get up for school."
Not a bad tip for us grown-ups, too.