Psychologically speaking: Summertime bedtime blues

Every year, in summer, parents wonder how they can possibly get their children on a routine so that when school starts they can actually stay awake in class.

bedroom teen 88 (photo credit: )
bedroom teen 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Dr. Batya, School is about to start and my teenagers are keeping ridiculous hours. All summer long they have been going to bed well after midnight and have been getting up very late in the morning. What will I do once school starts? - A.K. Jerusalem Every year, by late August, parents wonder how they can possibly get their children on a routine so that when school starts they can actually attend and stay awake in class. Kids can be wide awake sending messages to their friends on Facebook half the night but look exhausted throughout the day. Over the summer many of these children have gradually developed a sleep phase shift. While during the summer break they get the sleep they need (unlike during the school year) by going to bed late and then waking up late, once school starts in the fall, this no longer meshes with their school schedule. As a result, children are tired and unhappy, and parents are exhausted while trying to police their kids. When left on his own, the average child would happily go to bed late and get up early in the afternoon. Most children have a 26-hour cycle, meaning that with each night they can go to bed progressively later and later, making the problem seemingly worse with time. It is not uncommon to find adolescents going to bed between 3 and 5 a.m. and then sleeping in until after lunch. Some schools in the US actually cater to this and start school mid to late morning. Sadly, many Israeli children "sleep" in class, get to school late or miss class altogether. Most children (and adults too) are in a constant state of sleep deprivation and one wonders how much this contributes to things such as anger, aggressive behavior and violence, stress, illness and various hormonal problems, in addition to delayed reaction times, inattention, memory problems, traffic accidents and poor social skills. How you deal with your children's sleep will impact on the entire family. Having them develop acceptable sleep routines definitely presents a greater challenge the older they get. Without proper sleep, they are likely to be moody, irritable, less alert, feel unwell and do less well in school. You are essentially asking your children to change their sleep patterns, which will mean giving up going to bed late - something they really don't want to do. The average teenager requires at least eight to nine and a half hours of sleep a night. For argument's sake, let's say they will need to go to bed at 10:30 p.m. and get up at 7 a.m. As you can see, the average teenager won't get the sleep he really needs because he will not go to bed this early. Assuming he goes to bed just after 11 and gets up closer to 6:30, he is still working on a sleep deficit. That said, given his summertime routine, he will still have to make major adjustments in his sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up much earlier than he is used to and would like. That said, one can make the necessary adjustments by moving his bedtime gradually backward or forward (depending on severity) and it can be quite successful. You would probably need about a month to totally shift his late sleep phase, but you can see improvements within a relatively short period of time. Success will depend on your insisting he consistently follow a schedule, even on weekends. This means that he will need to get up, have breakfast and go outside for some natural sunlight. Given a choice, he'd far rather stay inside and passively watch television, sit on the computer or talk with his friends. Your job won't be easy! In the meantime, here are a few general sleep suggestions that apply to children of all ages: * Sleep hygiene is often an issue for the whole family so you may need to set and enforce limits both in terms of sleep and socializing. Most children run on a chronic sleep deficit, lack energy and are exhausted during the day. They may even look or act depressed. Older children seem to want to party late into the night and are ready to go to bed just when you are thinking of getting up. Remember, children need more sleep than adults. * Don't let children fall asleep using "tools" that may not be readily available when they wake at night. This includes things such as the bottle, breast, parent or television. Have a bedtime routine, which for younger children may consist of a story, a bath and even saying good night to his stuffed animals. For older children, evening is a time to wind down, reflect inward and not be further aroused by things such as heavy exercise, a scary movie or excessive telephone and Internet socializing. Limit bedtime distractions such as the cellphone, television, computer and other gadgets. * Make sure the bedroom is sleep friendly with lots of fresh air, appropriate lighting, comfortable bedding and a quiet environment conducive to sleep. It's best to go to bed and wake up approximately the same time each day. * Limit caffeine, including soft drinks and chocolate, especially from late afternoon onward. * Sleep medications can be addictive, so use sparingly if at all. Consider instead a warm bath, relaxation, imagery and other sleep-inducing techniques. If you lie awake worrying, briefly write down your concerns, and actively decide to deal with them the next morning. While your children may not initially appreciate what you are doing for them, when they discover how much better they feel after a good night's sleep, you may all feel it was well worth the effort. Good luck. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.