The end of the summer holidays is approaching and in 10 days the new school year starts. Summertime is often characterized by an attitude of less ‘have-to’s’ and more ‘want-to’s’, especially with regard to kids. If you have 2 young children, like myself, with rather early-bird characteristics – waking up every morning around 6 o’clock no matter if it’s a school day or weekend – you actually look forward to those summer months when rules are loosened up. If your situation allows for it, they can go to bed a little bit later and as a result wake up a little bit later in the morning. They can have a campfire in the garden in the evening, play a bit longer on the swing and enjoy the summer evenings together in the garden. But unfortunately this time of year is ending in 10 days. *Sigh…*

Many families struggle with those first weeks of school, when children experience difficulties with falling asleep and/or getting up in the morning. Mood swings are all over the place, especially during breakfast, and fatigue is taking over. The combination of sleep shortage, mainly due to a delayed sleep phase rhythm, an increased cognitive activity during the day, more rules and ‘have to’s’, result in a highly flammable cocktail. So, have a look at the following tips and maybe this year the transition can be a bit more smoother and peaceful.

  1. Yes, although it is very nice if your children can go to bed a little later and as a result leave you be for a bit longer in the morning, this shift also needs time to reset itself to school time. Take that time! It will have a beneficial effect on the way the evenings and mornings will proceed during that first week. Moreover, this in turn will diminish the amount of stress you, as a parent, have to process in the morning before going to work! This will make you arrive at work more calm and resilient. There you have it, two birds with one blow!

    Approach: In young children It is advised to gradually go to bed 15 minutes earlier per night. Not more, otherwise there is not enough melatonin in the body (the ‘you-can-go-to-sleep’ hormone) which then results in difficulties with falling asleep. You can start this routine 10 to 14 days before school starts. For older children like adolescents, this needs to be combined with gradually restricting wake up times in the morning. They need to get up every morning 15 to 30 minutes earlier. Many adolescents tend to sleep in during weekends and holidays, sometimes even until noon. This is partially the result of the normal shift in the circadian clock during adolescence, but partially also because of the opportunity during summer holidays. If your child suddenly needs to get up around 7 am, it will result in a serious jetlag. Like going halfway to New York and back (from Brussels).

  2. Implement a clear and predictable bedtime routine that doesn’t exceed 30 minutes. A clear bedtime routing prepares your child for what is coming. It makes it easier for your child to get off the cognitive highway and take the exit towards a more calm and relaxing state. A necessary preparation for the sleep system to be able to kick in. This bedtime routine consists of several steps that are taken in the same order every evening. Stick to this exact routine as a parent! It will teach your child that it is non-negotiable, that there will be no extra story, or 5 more hugs and kisses. In my home, it is the ‘toilet – pyjama – tooth brushing – story’ routine.

  3. Avoid screen time in the bedroom as well as 1 hour before bedtime. Screens have an inhibiting effect on melatonin production, our sleep hormone. Recent studies, however, show that it is actually the continuous cognitive activity that is elicited by screen time, that disrupts sleep. It makes is difficult or even impossible to get off the cognitive highway, resulting in sleep onset difficulties and shallow sleep.

  4. Make sure they have enough physical activities during the day. Physical activity, playing outside, going for bike rides, it all has a positive influence on your child’s sleep. It makes it easier to fall asleep in the evening, stabilizes their intern clock and results in good sleep quality.

Enjoy the final days of summer.

Good luck!

Aisha Cortoos
Clinical Psychologist - PhD in Psychology - Psychotherapist
Sleep/stress expert