Neuroscientist Reveals 5 Tips For Resetting Kids' Sleep Routines Before School

Back to school means back to a normal(-ish) sleep routine.
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It’s not long now until kids everywhere head back to school in their droves.

Students in Northern Ireland are expected to return to school on Friday 1 September, while in England and Wales, children will be heading back on either Monday 4 September or Tuesday 5 September.

If you haven’t started already, sleep experts recommend now is the time to start getting your kids used to a new sleep routine – especially if they’ve been staying up later, and sleeping in, over the summer holidays.

This is likely the case for a lot of families. A recent study from Silentnight found youngsters aged between four and 11 years old get an average of just six-and-a-half hours of sleep per night during the holidays. Whereas in term time, this rises to an average of seven-and-a-half hours.

If you’re wondering where to even begin with helping to get your child back into some kind of school-ready sleep routine, Dr Lindsay Browning, a psychologist, neuroscientist and sleep expert for And So To Bed, has shared a few helpful tips and tricks to getting started.

1. Get a pre-bedtime routine in place

“Doing the same things before bed in the same order can help prepare the brain and body for sleep,” says Browning. Several studies have shown that bedtime routines are associated with positive child mood and enhanced emotional–behavioural regulation. In fact, it’s a useful strategy for children and adults alike.

So, what might this involve? Stop screen time an hour before bed and try a peaceful activity instead, like a jigsaw or reading a book, accompanied by a healthy snack or glass of milk. Follow up with a shower or a bath (if they need one), changing into pyjamas, teeth-brushing and then getting into bed.

2. Expose them to sunlight first thing

Exposure to morning light is crucial for helping our bodies get into a good sleep groove. In fact, Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, recently told After Skool that one of his top tips for improving sleep is to expose ourselves to natural light for 5-10 minutes within an hour of waking up.

Browning agrees. “When we get light exposure can help to move our circadian rhythm. If your children are used to waking up late and staying up late, then you can start helping them shift this earlier by getting outside in the morning to the park or even having breakfast in the garden,” she said.

“This bright early morning sunshine will help make it easier to wake up earlier and fall asleep earlier.”

3. Gradually shift bedtime and wake times

Instead of simply hoping your child will adjust to a new sleep/wake routine on the day they start school, the sleep expert advises adjusting their bedtime and wake times slowly between now and them starting school.

For example, if your child has been used to going to bed at 10pm, but they need to go to bed at 8pm, gradually move their bedtime earlier by 15 to 20 minute increments each day.

“When you move their bedtime earlier, also move their wake time earlier by the same amount, which will almost certainly need you to set an alarm so they don’t oversleep,” she added.

4. Limit screen time

You might have disabled parental controls on tablets and phones during the summer holidays, and if that’s the case, now’s the time to maintain a bit more control.

Browning recommends reinstating screen time limits on the number of hours spent on the device, stopping the device automatically in the evening, and ensuring night mode comes on at six or seven o’clock each evening to minimise their blue light exposure.

5. Make time to speak about any worries

It’s natural that children might be a little anxious about starting or returning to school. With that in mind, the neuroscientist recommends spending time talking through your child’s worries earlier in the day, so they aren’t plagued by anxious thoughts at bedtime.

“It’s especially useful to do this somewhere other than the bedroom so that the child’s bedroom isn’t the place where they get used to worrying,” she added.

“You could discuss any concerns about going back to school over dinner, on the sofa between watching TV shows, or even better you could talk to them whilst going for a long walk in nature.”