Light’s impact on sleep as children head back to school

Back-to-school time brings bedtime battles. Going to bed and waking up earlier is tough after a long, lazy summer. But light can be part of an effective plan to get back on track, if it’s managed properly.

Brett Kuhn Ph D-photo

Dr. Brett Kuhn

Dr. Brett Kuhn, director of the Behavioral Sleep Disorders Clinic at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, said parents can start by understanding how much sleep kids need in order to learn and function at their best. He recommends:

  • 11-13 hours for toddlers through early elementary school age
  • 9-11 hours for older elementary school age through middle school
  • 8-9 hours for high school age

“Look at their current sleep schedule, when they go to bed versus when they’ll need to wake up to get ready for school,” Kuhn advised. “How much of a discrepancy is there?”

Start in the morning; take advantage of daylight

Proper sleep habits begin in the morning.

“The biggest misstep parents make is to just start moving their bedtimes earlier. That typically backfires because you cannot fall asleep early if you’re well rested. Start by advancing morning wake times,” Kuhn said.

He said the goal is to get kids’ circadian rhythms, their daily wake and sleep cycles, back in sync with school hours. Light is the number one influencing factor. In the morning, there’s no substitute for natural daylight.

“Get outdoor light exposure immediately,” he said. “Open the shades or curtains before you even yank them out of bed.”

He recommends moving wake times, and then sleep times, back in half-hour increments each day – allowing as many days as necessary to get on schedule by the first day of school.

At night, limit electronic light exposure

Thirty minutes to an hour before bedtime, begin the nighttime routine. Dim the lighting, if possible.

More importantly, Dr. Kuhn said, move away from the television and shut off cell phones, tablets and computers. “The blue green wave length, which is dominated by our electronic screens, has a more alerting effect on us (than home lighting).”

This is also a good time to pick out clothing and get things ready for the next day, which will make the morning routine more efficient.

Teenagers have an added challenge

While they require less sleep than their younger counterparts, Kuhn said most teenagers are sleep-deprived.

“It’s a clash between electronics, society and biology.”

He explained, “Once kids hit puberty, there is a swing in their circadian rhythm where they have a tough time falling asleep late at night and a tough time waking up in the morning.”

Managing both daylight and electronic light better can help regulate their cycles. Dr. Kuhn says there are apps which automatically dim screens on cell phones or tablets at a certain time each night that could be helpful.

Consistency is key

No matter the age, consistency is important. Sleeping in on the weekends derails any progress made during the week.

“It messes up our circadian rhythm,” Kuhn said. “We get Sunday night insomnia. That’s why Monday mornings are so tough.”

Signs a child may not be getting enough sleep include:

  • Crankiness around the same time each day
  • Daytime napping past the kindergarten age
  • Sleepiness when bored or not engaged in an activity
  • Tough time getting going in the morning

Parents struggling to get their children back on track, despite best efforts, should consult with their pediatrician.

Jodi Baker

About Jodi Baker

Jodi Baker writes stories and shoots videos for The Wire. Jodi was a television news reporter before she came to work for OPPD as a media specialist in 2013. She's married with two children (a boy and a girl) and an allergy-ridden little Cairn Terrier.