For many families, summer vacation offers a welcome respite from the rigid routines of school and work. It can be a liberating feeling for both parents and children when kids are able to sleep in past school bus time, or stay up late catching fireflies or playing with sparklers.
But while experts say that doing so on occasion is fine, they warn that parents shouldn’t stray too far from their kids’ usual bedtime during the summer. “Our clinic is filled in August with panicky families trying to figure out how to get their kids back on a school schedule,” said Laura Sterni, director of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center. “And that’s because if you let it go too far, it is not easy to do so.”
We talked to several sleep experts about how parents should think about summer bedtimes. But first, it helps to understand the significance of bedtime routines.
Establishing a good routine
Bedtime routines are valuable for kids and adults, because they signal to our brains that it’s time to wind down and make the transition to sleep. “Bedtime routines are one of the most common family activities. They affect children’s wellbeing, development and health,” noted a paper published last year by researchers at the University of Manchester in England. Yet despite the significance of these rituals, the researchers found “limited evidence and agreement on what constitutes an optimal bedtime routine.” So they decided to develop that consensus themselves.
The team consulted with 59 experts in the United Kingdom, from fields including medicine, psychology, dentistry, education and public health, and used a scoring system to determine the effectiveness of the routines. They came up with six key elements of an ideal bedtime routine for children ages 2 to 8, which, in order of importance, are: brushing teeth; having a consistent bedtime; reading a book; avoiding food and drink; avoiding electronic devices; and engaging in calming activities, which may include a bath or shower, or talking and cuddling.
With the exception of tooth-brushing, which heads the list because of its importance in health issues, parents don’t need to do all steps every night. After all, said psychologist and researcher George Kitsaras, who led the study, family life needs to be flexible. “But if you do half of them, if you do some of them, it’s still a benefit to the child compared to having no routine at all,” he said.
To decide when to start putting your child to bed, whether in the summer or during the school year, figure out when your child needs to get up, count backward to reach the appropriate number of hours of sleep and add an hour or so for the routine.
(If you’re not sure how much sleep your child needs, check the recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. These can range widely. For example, the guidelines says that children ages 6 to 12 should sleep 9 to 12 hours a day, so you may need to look for clues that tell you whether your child is getting adequate sleep. If, for example, your child doesn’t waken spontaneously in the morning, has tantrums, can’t focus in school or is sleepy in the afternoons, they might not be getting enough sleep.)
Yale Medicine sleep psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg has crafted a slightly different iteration of the bedtime routine than the Manchester team for children ages 3 to 10. The author of “Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach” and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine focuses on the five B’s: bite (a small, non-sugary bedtime snack); bath; brushing teeth; bathroom (using the toilet); and books (reading with a caregiver).
But she also suggests something else: a night light and a “bedtime basket” full of books and other quiet activities. After you read with your child, hand over the basket about 20 minutes before you hope they’ll fall asleep. Then, kiss them good night and tell them to use the basket until they feel sleepy. This allows your child to learn to put themselves to sleep rather than relying on you as a crutch. (A favorite stuffed animal – a bedtime buddy – also can help.)
What about teens? If you’ve managed to establish the importance of a bedtime routine, the hope is that teens will adapt it for their own needs as they get older, Kitsaras said. For example, perhaps they’ll listen to music to relax instead of reading. “I think that’s the beauty of the routine, is as you grow older, you learn more about yourself and what works, what doesn’t work for you” he said. “But, ideally, you will keep some elements like brushing teeth and avoiding screens.”
Dealing with summer disruptions
If you’ve established a bedtime routine that works for you and your child, all the experts cautioned against changing it too drastically in the summer months.
When asked how much later kids should stay up during the summer, the experts’ advice ranged from about an hour for younger kids to up to two hours for teens. During the school year, “We call it ‘school plus two,’ ” Schneeberg said, meaning that, on weekends, you shouldn’t let your child sleep in more than two hours beyond their school day wake-up time. “But I think it fits perfectly for the summer.”
Many parents reason that their teens can stay up late in the summer because they’re also able to sleep in. But the sleep experts had several concerns about that. Letting teens stay up all hours can lead to a disruption of their circadian rhythms and can encourage them to eat too many junky late-night snacks, Sterni said. In addition, she pointed out, when teens sleep in during the day, they are losing opportunities to exercise and socialize and spend time with their families.
When it comes to teens and summer sleep times, Scheeberg said, “I always say to parents, you can’t make them go to sleep” but you have a better chance of controlling when they get up.
She encourages parents to focus on circadian cues that help teens wake up: light; food; caffeine; activity; social interaction. So, if you’re hoping your teen will get up at 9:30, you might open their curtains, prepare breakfast and arrange for a friend to come over to play basketball.
In addition to urging parents not to stray too far from school-year bedtimes, sleep experts encourage maintaining as many other aspects of the routine as possible during the summer. “I’m a big proponent of limiting electronics at a certain time regardless of whether it’s summer or not. Encourage reading, encourage being outside, encourage something else,” Sterni said. “But I get it; I raised two boys. You’re going to stretch it a little; a little’s fine.”
You can also try to stick to the routine when traveling. Schneeberg suggested you still bring a bedtime basket when you’re on the road, for example, and Kitsaras suggested that instead of reading a book, you talk over that day’s adventures as a relaxing activity before bed. But don’t fret if kids are up late because of a delayed plane, or a visit with relatives. And you shouldn’t be so rigid about the routine that you get stressed when it doesn’t occur, whether during the school year or in the summer.
Bedtime routines are only productive if you do them “in a very proactive, interactive, positive way with your children,” Kitsaras said. “If you replace them with anxiety, stress, and a rushedness, that will go against everything that we are proposing.” The bond created between parent and child is “the vital element,” he said.
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