Back to School Sleep Tips

Start early to get kids back on track!
child sleeping on the bed in her bedroom
© Can Stock Photo / Kenishirotie

The days are becoming shorter and the first day of school is fast approaching. Getting back into a night-time routine and sleep schedule can be one of the most important parts of setting your kids up for success for the year ahead. A well-rested child is more likely to be attentive and flexible as they begin daycare or school for the first time or make their return to structured learning. Long summer evenings, social events and family fun likely resulted in later bedtimes and a more relaxed approach to sleeping in. How can you return to routine with less fuss? Here are some tips to help your kids get the rest they need to ease back into the academic year.

A gradual return to an earlier bedtime

Suddenly moving bedtime to an earlier hour can be confusing to kids, since their internal clocks and the brightly shining sun are both telling them that it’s still time to play! A slow approach is best, ideally by making sleep schedule changes at least 1 week before school begins. If you know that your child is easily upset by changes in routine, it may require a 2-week transition period. Each evening, roll bedtime back by 10-15 minutes and each morning aim to wake your child by the same amount of time. Keep at it until you reach the times that allow your child to clock the sleep hours they need.

Create a pre-bed routine

Cellphones, computers and TVs emit blue wavelengths of light, which tends to further reduce melatonin production. Exciting, heart-pounding or upsetting shows or games can also serve to energize your child. Try to nix screen time for 1-2 hours prior to bedtime, or as soon as homework is done and screens are no longer a necessity. Try a family game, outdoor playtime if weather permits or crafts as alternatives for after dinner fun.

A transitional sleep routine in an environment that supports winding down can help your child with moving from the busy, activity filled day to a calm, restful night. Here are some ideas that can make a difference very quickly!

  • A warm bath with one drop of lavender essential oil in a tablespoon of olive oil added to the bathwater (Note: Essential oils are toxic when used undiluted directly on the skin or in larger amounts in a bath. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about safe essential oil use.)
  • Story time or quiet independent reading time.
  • Listening to relaxing music, an audiobook, or nature sounds.
  • Meditation, gentle yoga poses, and visualization techniques.
  • Discussing the day in review: encourage your child to talk about at least one good thing that happened and one thing to learn from that day. Older kids can be encouraged to journal if they are receptive.

How much sleep is enough?

Now that you have a strategy for re-introducing a sleep schedule, you will want to ensure that your child is attaining an appropriate number of sleep hours for his or her age and stage of development. Guidelines recommend an average sleep time per night, but keep in mind that your child may need slightly more or fewer hours than those listed below depending on their level of activity, growth, temperament, and naptimes (noted in the chart below). 


Average Suggested Total Sleep Time

1-2 years

11-12 hours at night (+2-3 hours of naps)

3-5 years

10-12 hours at night (+1-3 hours of naps, if needed)

School aged kids
6-13 years

9-11 hours at night

14-17 years

8-10 hours at night

Source: National Sleep Foundation

The role of melatonin in sleep

Children should be falling asleep easily (within 10-15 minutes of putting them to bed) and should wake easily or on their own, are generally cooperative in the morning and do not fall asleep inappropriately during the day, unless a nap is needed at their stage of development (usually naps are dropped altogether by age 4).

Kids may also show their fatigue in a counter-intuitive way, becoming more wound up and hyperactive in the evening. Duelling hormones are likely to blame for this. A child should become drowsy and ready for sleep in the evening, fuelled by the production of the hormone melatonin. This is naturally made in the brain in greater amounts as light exposure wanes in the evening. It is also made based on the internal body clock when our normal wakefulness periods are drawing to a close. However, if bedtime is delayed, melatonin’s sleepy signal is ignored. The body undergoes stress and produces other chemicals, like cortisol and adrenaline, to help with keeping us alert and energized. This makes it harder for kids to calm down and fall asleep when they finally climb into bed, leading to bedtime resistance and night waking. Moving bedtime earlier can help by working with your child’s innate drive to fall asleep, while minimizing the production of stress hormones. Try using the gradual strategy suggested above and observe whether your child’s morning and daytime behaviour and ability to fall asleep changes accordingly.

The sleep environment

First, take a look at the environment where your child is sleeping. Ideally, it should be as dark as possible (remember, the production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, is significantly reduced with evening light exposure). A cool temperature is ideal, so prioritize breathable, lightweight covers and pyjamas for your little one and consider a fan for the bedroom in the warmer months. If your child has difficulty falling and staying asleep, white noise can be helpful as a constant calming presence. The fan can do double duty, or consider a white noise machine or app on an old smartphone. Depending on when your child’s last meal was eaten, consider a light snack before bed, consisting of a protein and carbohydrate. This will ensure that their blood glucose stays constant overnight (sudden drops in blood glucose at night can often result in nightwaking). Nut butter and apple, veggies and hummus or a small veggie/fruit and hemp heart smoothie are all good options.

    In certain cases, herbs or supplements are indicated if there is persistent difficulty with sleep. Talk to your naturopathic doctor or homeopath for individualized treatment recommendations that are safe, evidence-based and effective.