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The Natural Environment and Our Sleep

You’ve probably heard of the “summer slide” in academic learning—the tendency for kids to fall behind in reading and math skills on summer vacation.

The summer sleep slide is real, too. Without the structure of school, kids tend to stay up later—sometimes much later—and not sleep in consistently enough to make up for it. Rather than spend the summer catching up on sleep, kids can accumulate sleep debt that affects their health, mood, and ability to learn.

In our house—with a 7 and 3-year-old—we’re trying to balance the joy and freedom of long summer nights, with the reality of two little kids’ sizable sleep needs. We visit with friends, we go out for dinner or to play basketball in the evenings, and often bedtime is pushed back.

Here’s how we’re making sure that while our family is enjoying the lenient summer schedule, my kids are also getting the sleep they need.

Watch total sleep needs

Preschoolers need 11 – 13 hours of sleep and school age kids need 10.5 – 12 hours. If bedtime is sliding later over the summer, make sure your child is capable of either sleeping in (installing blackout curtains or shades helps enormously), or has the chance to nap. My older child is able to sleep in to give himself the 11 hours of sleep he needs nightly. My preschooler has a built-in nap time so she always has the opportunity to sleep during the day if she needs it.

Keep sleep times consistent

Even if bedtimes are later over the summer, it still helps to keep them consistent. In our house, what was a 7:30 p.m. bedtime during the school year is often 8:30 p.m. in the summer. Consistent timing is powerful, because the internal clock (which affects health, mood, and cognition) works best with regularity. In fact, in a study of over 11,000 young kids researchers found that a regular bedtime—whether early or late—was linked to better math, reading, and spatial skills. Kids whose bedtimes moved around were more likely to have mood and behavior issues. Shifting bedtimes around is like giving a child a mini case of jet lag. An 8:30 p.m. bedtime every night is better than alternating between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

Gradually shift for fall

It takes time to truly shift a person’s sleep schedule and kids may need a week or two to fully adjust back to their school times. You can start putting your child to bed 15 minutes earlier each night for a week to get to the optimal bedtime for school, and if you really want to harness the power of the internal clock, keep her on that bedtime for a week before school starts (and throughout the school year). A good bedtime for a preschooler or school age child—especially considering early school start times—is 7:30 p.m.

While you’re making the shift, if your child has a hard time falling asleep at an earlier bedtime, wake her up in the morning 15 minutes earlier. This will affect the time she’s drowsy at night and help her shift to the earlier schedule. Now she’s got her internal clock on her side and a full tank of sleep. She’s ready to get a jump on the new school year.

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist who writes about child development and parenting. She's the co-author of the new book The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age (Penguin Random House). Heather's writing about childhood sleep has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @TheHappySleeper.

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