A back-to-school sleep story with some info that may surprise you

August 07, 2023
Child lies on pillow decorated with animals while sleeping. He is holding a stuffed animal.
This 5-year-old needs 10 to 13 hours of sleep each night. Photo by Sarah Pack

Every year around this time, articles come out explaining how to get kids back on track, sleep-wise, as the new school year approaches. Yes, this is one of those stories – but it’s also a plea from a sleep specialist that goes beyond children’s well-being.

“Sleep is so important. And yet I don't see that society really takes it seriously. We have so many distractions, right? So many other things that are more fun than sleeping,” said Maria Riva, M.D..

“But I think personally, even adults that are always so edgy and so angry, I think they should get more sleep. I think we would have a better society if everybody would rest at night and then be ready for the day. Sleep is as important as eating and exercise.”

It’s up to adults to police themselves, and Riva had some great information to help them do that. In a lot of cases, it’s the same advice she has for kids. 

Here’s what Riva, a professor of Pediatric Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and director of the Pediatric Sleep Program at MUSC Children’s Health, had to say.

Back-to-school sleep training

“During the summer, understandably, schedules are not as strict as during the school year. But I usually suggest that parents start working on the sleep schedule a few weeks before school starts because they have to gradually adjust the schedule for the school year,” Riva said.

“There is a misconception that you can do everything in three days. It’s not going to happen that fast.” 

Parents have to start by looking at how much sleep children need at different ages. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Babies need 12 to 16 hours a day.
  • One- to 2-year-olds need 11 to 14 hours.
  • Three- to 5-year-olds need 10 to 13 hours.
  • Six- to 12-year-olds need 9 to 12 hours.
  • Thirteen- to 18-year-olds need 8 to 10 hours.

“Most of the parents I talk to are really not aware about the sleep requirements for the different ages. And in fact, they always look at me like I am a ghost telling them how much a child needs to sleep in order to rest,” Riva said.

So, once they have the facts, Riva said they need to look at when the child will need to wake up and count backward to determine the best bedtime.

“A 6-year-old child will need up to 12 hours of sleep. So if the child has to wake up at 6, 6:30 in the morning, 12 hours before will be fairly early, right? Around 6, 6:30 p.m., the child should be ready to go to bed,” Riva said.

“But if they are going to bed at 9- or 10 o'clock now during summer break, we'll have to gradually move bedtime. Because otherwise the children will not fall asleep if you all of a sudden put them in bed at 6:30 at night.”

Start moving bedtime a little earlier each night so the child has time to adjust, she said.

Four factors that can affect sleep (for adults, too)

Bedtime isn’t the only factor when it comes to falling asleep easily. Riva said she sees the same four issues over and over when it comes to kids having trouble going to sleep at night.

  1. Naps. “A big problem in the summer is daytime naps. Children sometimes are bored; they take a nap. So that's a big no-no. Don't sleep during the day because then you're not going to sleep well at night.”


  2. Screen time. “Whether it's TV, phone, video games, we know that blue screens inhibit the melatonin release that we naturally have at bedtime. And so, when they spent a lot of time, especially in the evening hours in front of those screens, the melatonin level is lower. Plus, they are entertained, right? They have no interest in going to bed.”

  3. Caffeine. “Children that drink caffeinated beverages during the day, we encourage them not to do it because caffeine sticks around for 12 hours in your system. So if you want to drink coffee or something with caffeine and you have trouble falling asleep, drink the coffee in the morning. Because if you do it in the afternoon, that will affect your ability to sleep at bedtime.”


  4. Physical activity. ““Physical activity during the day helps improve sleep at night. However, it is better not to have very strenuous physical activity just before bedtime because children need time to unwind and calm down. Especially with young kids, I tell the parents to keep the environment quiet, possibly with dim lights, and follow the same routine every night.”

Why sleep is important

There are good reasons she has all of those suggestions. “We need our body to rest. If children don't sleep sufficiently, they're going to be tired, and they're going to be sleepy in school. And for the very young ones, they have difficulty controlling their behavior. So they're fussy all day long.”

But there’s more to it than that. “There is also a strong hypothesis suggesting that our brain cells clean themselves from the toxins that we accumulate during the day. And then there are hormones, like growth hormones and others, that are secreted during sleep that are very important for children’s growth.” 

Riva said some disorders can disrupt sleep. “Our pediatric sleep clinic treats all types of problems, including snoring, sleep apnea, excessive body movements, trouble breathing or restlessness during sleep. We also treat narcolepsy and other conditions such as hypersomnia.”

But while children with those conditions need a doctor’s care, most children’s sleep problems can be solved more simply. “Keep the environment quiet, possibly with dim lights, and follow the same routine every night,” Riva said.

“I suggest that teenagers put the phone and electronics up by 8, 9 at night. Ideally, two hours before bedtime but at least one hour before. There are other steps to sleep hygiene, like keep the pets out of your bedroom, having dark curtains. For young kids that go to bed a little bit earlier, they need to have a dark environment, cool bedroom and not too much noise around. In the summertime, the use of electronics and daytime napping are big obstacles to falling asleep at night.”

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