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“Are we there yet?”
“How much longer?”
“How many days until Christmas?”

Our lives are punctuated by countdowns to special events. It is wonderful to have the next “thing” on the calendar–a trip to Grandma’s, Halloween, Christmas, that big vacation you’ve been planning. We all need that next fun bright spot.

Unfortunately, the countdown to the first day of school is a little less exciting for many people. After a glorious summer of late nights and late mornings, it can be difficult to adjust to a much earlier school morning alarm.

It’s understandable if you want to milk every last morsel of fun out of the summer, but waiting until the night before school starts to adjust the sleep schedule will likely make for a bumpy re-entry into school life.

The jump back into school life can be tricky for everyone. Before we look at tools to make this better, it is worth taking some time to understand some of the factors that make this transition difficult. It is not in your head!

  • Schedule. . .or Lack Thereof: In the summer, the days are long, and every day is different. While school days typically follow the same rhythm, summer thrives on unpredictability. Some days might be active from sunup to sundown, while others have lots of sleep and lounging. The lack of structure might be fun, but it can also be hard on our health. Good sleep at night often requires good structure during the day, and summer can be short on that.
  • Sleep. . . or Lack Thereof: While summer might drum up visions of sleeping in, it can also call up memories of late-night sleepovers, movie marathons, and lots of other sleep thieves. Sleep isn’t generally a priority during summer. The long days beg to be enjoyed, and getting to bed at a decent hour just isn’t realistic sometimes. Switching gears when the school bell rings can be a hard adjustment.
  • Lots of Screen Time: Hopefully, your summer is full of fun, sun, and outdoor activities, but sometimes summer also creates more pockets of unrestricted screen time. This can spell trouble for good sleep, especially if those screens keep glowing after sunset. Our bodies are designed to start shutting down after dark, and those lit screens send confusing messages to our brains, making it hard to shut down and go to sleep–especially for children.
  • Summer Food Fun: Hot dogs, s’mores, ice cream, popsicles, barbeque, chips, and more ice cream! Let’s face it: summer is DELICIOUS! Unfortunately, summer favorites are often high in fat and sugar, which can negatively impact sleep – especially if those favorites come out after dark.

With all these variables, it is no wonder that getting back into the school routine is hard on everyone! But, it can be a little easier with some small shifts and good habits. The biggest thing to remember here is not to rush things. Give yourself ample time to reimplement school night schedules.

We can learn a lot from nature. Nature changes gradually, and humans do better when they follow that example. Trying to change everything all at once can lead to frustration and failure. Instead, make minor bedtime adjustments over a longer period. Here are a few ideas for how to slowly modify your routine to accommodate school year sleep.

  1. Schedule: It will be hard to go from an inconsistent summertime schedule to a rigid school schedule overnight. About a month before school starts, try to structure just a part of each day. Then you can gradually add more structure until you get to the nightly schedule.
  2. Bedtime Routine: Several weeks before school begins, start shifting the bedtime routine forward five or ten minutes every couple of days. This gradual shift will make bedtime easier to manage. Don’t worry about waking anyone up early, just shift the bedtime routine.
  3. Morning Wake-Up Call: Once you have the bedtime routine at a more regular time, you can play with the wake-up call. Again, take it gradually, setting the alarm a few minutes earlier each day, easing into the school day’s wake-up time.
  4. Screens: Like everything else, take this slowly. If your child has been enjoying unlimited screen time, perhaps start here with some structure. Cutting off screens at least an hour before bed will help give a better chance for good sleep.
  5. Food: As summer wraps up, avoid sugary or fatty snacks, especially before bed. Food can get out of control in the summer, and that’s fine. But, sugar doesn’t just affect sleep; it also affects the immune system. Schools can be a petri dish of disease, so it’s a good idea to gradually start cutting down on the unhealthy foods and ramping up on the good ones, especially in the second half of the day. If your kid won’t sleep, it could have something to do with what they are eating or drinking during the day.
  6. Hydration: Hydration is happiness. It also means healthier sleep. Try starting your child’s day with a big glass or bottle of water. Offering water too late in the day can cause sleep disruptions, so try to frontload the water if you can.

These suggestions might feel overwhelming, but that’s only if you try to do them all at once. Maybe look at the list, prioritize which things are the most important to you, and then incorporate one or two things each day. That could mean putting out baby carrots instead of chips, limiting screen time by a few minutes each day, or gradually shifting the summer bedtime routine into the school year routine. The first day of school is coming whether you are ready or not, and every little step you take toward easing into good sleep will increase your chances of a great first day of school.