How to get kids on a proper sleep schedule

The first few weeks of school may be marked by some bedtime challenges but if you follow a few simple rules, you’ll soon be enjoying some peaceful evenings. If you’re thinking, “I just can’t get my child to go to bed,” remember, you get your children to do lots of different things because they have to — like going to school — and that you have the ability to do the same for getting them to go to bed.

Many parents tend to underestimate the amount of sleep their child needs. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children ages 6 through 12 need an average of 10.5 hours of sleep a night and teenagers need an average of nine hours. Even just 30 minutes less sleep per night can impact a child’s learning, mood, compliance, attention and overall quality of life.

That said, establishing a regular bedtime routine that lasts no longer than 30 minutes and ensuring a consistent sleep/wake schedule across the seven days of the week are two of the best ways to get there. Consistency cues a child’s brain and body that it’s time for sleep. Once you establish such a schedule, we recommend not varying a child’s bedtime or wake-up time by more than 30 to 60 minutes, even on the weekends or vacation. With adolescents, you should make sure that they establish their own bedtime routine — a good habit that will last them into adulthood.

Eliminate distractions and delays

It’s vitally important to put away electronics — including tablets, cell phones, computers and TV — at least an hour before bedtime. We recommend this because these devices are not only mentally stimulating, but also emit blue light — artificial light that tricks your brain into thinking you need to stay awake. Many parents have a difficult time enforcing this rule, but it is one of the most crucial for getting a good night sleep.

If your children have had an adequate dinner, there’s no need for a bedtime snack. If they do ask for something, be sure to avoid sugary and caffeinated food and drinks. Be careful that children don’t start to think they must have a snack or drink in order to go to bed; that can turn into a big battle between you and your child, and become part of a child’s requirements for sleep.

Especially if your children are having trouble falling asleep, don’t let them read or play in their beds, rather have them engage in activities outside of their bedroom or on a bean bag chair in their bedroom, so they only associate getting into bed with falling asleep. To promote the best sleep, the bedroom should be cool — about 70 degrees — preferably dark or with a very dim nightlight and quiet. Soft music or white noise can be used to help children fall asleep.

If your child takes longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, have them get out of bed, engage in a low-level activity such as reading or playing a board game together on the floor and then try again. Tell your child, “You don’t have to fall asleep right away; just close your eyes and think about a place or activity that you enjoy.” Often the child drifts off to sleep without trying.

Anxiety over school, especially if your child is starting kindergarten or attending a new school, is a very common culprit for sleep disturbance. Encourage your children to talk about those worries during the day and not right before bed so they don’t associate them with bedtime. You can also try having your child draw a picture of their worries or write down words associated with the worry and then crumple up the paper and literally throw the worries away. Young children may also benefit from taking a transitional object to bed like a doll or stuffed animal for comfort.

A possible sleep disorder?

Certainly if sleep issues persist over several months or a sleep disorder is suspected, a discussion with your child’s primary care physician or a referral to a pediatric sleep clinic may be important.  There are several effective behavioral and cognitive therapies available to treat sleep disturbances in children and adolescents. Signs that your child’s sleep is interfering with their daytime functioning include falling asleep in school or on the bus, napping right after getting home, increased mood irritability and struggling with concentration or compliance.

Finally, let your children know that the “back-to-school sleep program” is for everybody in the family, including parents, who should be positive role models for good sleep habits.


Dr. Susan Calhoun is a licensed psychologist and pediatric sleep specialist at the Penn State Sleep Research and Treatment Center at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.


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