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Back to School Means Getting Back to Sleep

Woman sleeping

Determining the derivative of y times 23 to the 15th power is tough enough. Figuring it out on just a few hours of sleep could be almost impossible.

With a new school year beginning, families may be thinking more about school supplies and fall fashions than breaking summer sleep habits. But University of Florida pediatricians say easing into a school-year sleeping schedule before the first day of class is just as important as being armed with No. 2 pencils.

Children, particularly teenagers, tend to go to bed and wake up later during the summer. Breaking this cycle and getting back to a school-year sleeping schedule can be tough. It's best to revert to regular sleeping habits at least a week or two before heading back to class instead of the night before the big day, said Anne-Marie Slinger, M.D., a UF assistant professor of pediatrics in the College of Medicine.

"Sleep deprivation can have a pretty significant effect on concentration, memory and even mood," she said. "If a child is chronically sleep deprived, it's far more difficult for them to participate in classroom activities and learn new things. If they are tired, they won't be engaged."

Children generally need at least nine hours of uninterrupted sleep to be ready for learning, Slinger said. Too little sleep not only makes it harder for students to retain information in class, it also makes it harder for them to wake up, leaving little time for a good breakfast. A healthy breakfast is a key part of keeping the brain firing on all cylinders throughout the day, she said.

"If a child doesn't have enough sleep, waking up can be a very difficult process," she said. "If they're rushing and don't have much time to eat and can barely get everything in their backpacks, it can make getting to school in the morning a very stressful time."

The transition back to school can be particularly difficult for adolescents, Slinger said. Many teens tend to stay up late and often wake up at noon during the summer.

"Their whole sleep-wake cycle has to shift to a greater degree," Slinger said.

Busy schedules and early morning school start times often leave many teens yawning during the day even after they have eased back into the school year, according to the National Sleep Foundation. NSF studies have shown that only 15% of teenagers get at least 8.5 hours of sleep on most school nights, and most average just 7.4 hours per night. This lack of sleep also contributes to sleep debt, which many adolescents relieve on the weekend, sleeping in and throwing their sleep cycles off again, according to the NSF.

Research has shown that teens' bodies are wired to fall asleep at 11 p.m. and wake up around 8 a.m., and some high schools now open later to meet the sleep needs of teens. Medical research has shown that teenagers have a need for more sleep than the general public would assume, and that sleep has a direct impact on learning and emotions.

To help children and teens establish a healthy sleeping schedule, Slinger recommends parents schedule activities that assist the transition to bedtime. A routine such as brushing teeth, taking a bath and reading a story can help children wind down.

To give teens time to get ready for bed, it's best to set a 10 p.m. curfew for socializing on the phone or computer. Slinger recommends that children do homework earlier in the evening and that they avoid watching TV or playing video games near bedtime. Slinger also recommends keeping televisions out of children's bedrooms.

"They're better off reading or listening to music or a book on tape before bed," she said.

Starting a new school year can be stressful for kids, but establishing a routine before the first day of class can help, not only for sleep habits, but also for homework, afterschool activities and meals, experts say.

"To help them prepare for a new school year, it's important to talk to kids so they know what to expect and to familiarize them with their daily schedule before the school year begins," Slinger said. "There are a lot of things parents can do to ease that transition back to school."

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