For my family, one of the most difficult transitions about going back to school is adjusting to the new sleep schedule. Summertime camps generally start later than school schedules. This also tends to be when we fit in our vacations and trips so traveling across time zones or sleeping in new places play a big factor. All of these things change or influence our body’s circadian clock.
The circadian clock is “the internal timing system that interacts with the timing of light and food to produce our daily rhythms.”
~Dr. Sachin Panda, author of The Circadian Code
In whatever way your sleep schedule is disrupted over the summer, you may find that by the time school starts it can be hard to go back to a sleep routine, leaving everyone grouchy, irritable and exhausted.
Inadequate sleep affects everyone, including children. Well all have our own biological clock that keeps our circadian rhythms on a cycle. Scientists identified this as a small cluster of cells in the hypothalamus of the brain, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, that directly affect the body’s response to growth, stress and metabolism. .
Kids, and grownups, who aren’t getting enough sleep can experience:
Mood changes. Lack of sleep makes you more irritable, short-tempered and/or depressed. In children who are just learning to manage these emotions this can result in wider and more rapid reactions to minor events.
Difficulty concentrating. Sleepy people have problems finding the right words, coming up with ideas and coping with rapidly changing situations. When we are sleep deprived, focus and attention dip, making it more difficult to receive information and process it for recall.
Decreased motor skills. The body’s neural and muscle response system is fatigued. Balance is compromised, as is the brain’s interpretation of events, making us less able to judge a situation and react; which can lead to accidents and injury.
More colds and infections. During sleep, the body produces proteins called cytokines that are used to fight infection, illness and stress. Too little sleep affects the number of cytokines we have to support our immune defenses.
More sugar cravings. Fatigue increases cravings for sugar as the brain sends signals for energy. However, when we don’t have adequate sleep, we’re also at a decreased capacity to metabolize the sugar effectively.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends 10-13 hours for preschool; 9-11 for ages 6-13 and 8-10 hours of sleep for teens. .
In fact, a study published in Pediatrics in 2012 identified significant improvement to alertness and emotional regulation with the addition of just 27 minutes of sleep. 
When considering the sleep schedule, you’ll want to add 30-60 minutes onto your sleep window as “sleep opportunity.” Sleep opportunity is the amount of time it takes to get into bed, settle down and fall asleep. This means that if your kids need to wake up at 7:00am, you’ll want to target getting them into bed between 8 and 9:00pm.
How to shift schedules and improve bedtime
Getting back to a sleep schedule for school can be tough, but we have some tips to help make your transitions easier.
- Steer clear of all sugars before bedtime. Consuming more sugar is linked to a more disrupted sleep cycle.
⇒ If you need a snack, grab a spoonful of almond butter. Almonds contain magnesium, fat and melatonin.
- Turn off all screens 2-3 hours before bed. If you cannot, then disable blue light on devices by setting night mode on phones and computers.
⇒ Try the F. Lux app for Mac or Window PC.
- Read a paper book. Getting away from the rapid stimulation of screens helps to calm preoccupations and worries.
- Try to make the room as dark as possible. Avoid nightlights and use red lights in the halls or bathrooms.
⇒ Make sure you’re getting true long wavelength light from your device verses some types that simply add a red cover to short wavelength light. Check with the product manufacturer or try the EmagineA Red Night Light (also on Amazon).
- Make the bedroom temperature cool. Set your thermostat to where you’re most comfortable between 60-67 degrees F. Your body temperature naturally decreases to initiate sleep.
- Get moving when you wake up. This is going to help stimulate the natural rise of cortisol and make you more alert. This can be as simple as 1 minutes of vigorous exercise.
⇒ Do jumping jacks, run in place, or turn on some music and have a pajama dance party!
- Get sunlight early in the morning. If you live close enough you can bike or walk to school. If that’s not possible, park farther away and walk or ride a scooter/skateboard.
Teach your kids about the ways sleep is good for them. Check out the interactive web site provided by the National Sleep Foundation, sleepforkids.org to help kids learn more about sleep with some fun games and puzzles (preschool and elementary-aged kids).
Nutrients to help promote sleep
A diet rich in proteins, fibrous fruits and vegetables, whole grains and quality fats is important for sleep. Incorporating foods containing these valuable sleep-supporting nutrients will give your body’s sleep system a boost:
Magnesium helps to active the brain’s neurotransmitters that are responsible for calming the body and mind.
Magnesium-Rich Foods: Leafy Greens (especially Spinach), Cashews, Almonds, Pumpkin Seeds, Avocados, and Cacao
Tryptophan is a protein that increases serotonin which also helps to increase melatonin – your body’s sleep hormone.
Tryptophan-Rich Foods: Turkey, Chicken, Salmon, Eggs, Spinach, Seeds and Nuts.
*Tryptophan needs carbohydrate to boost transport into the brain so eat with whole grains, potatoes, beans or veggies
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Vitamin B6 is needed to help convert the tryptophan from foods into serotonin for melatonin.
Vitamin B6-Rich Foods: Chickpeas, Salmon, Chicken, Whole Grains, Potatoes
Sleep is one of the fundamental pillars of health. When sleep gets off track parents and kids become more irritable, have difficulty concentrating, make poor judgement and are more susceptible to illness. Incorporating a few dietary and lifestyle changes can help you get back on track and keep you healthy.
Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.