Family health

How to fix your kid's garbage COVID sleep habits now that we're back in school

We’re slowly getting back into the school routine—whether that means doing schoolyard drop-offs or logging into online classes bright and early.

For many families with young kids, the lack of a consistent bedtime or a predictable sleep routine has been a reality since mid-March, when everything changed. We’re anxious and juggling so much—it’s no wonder that consistent bedtimes, tear-free mornings, and a good night’s sleep aren’t easy right now. But the time for late summer nights and slow wake-ups has officially come to an end. It’s the first week of fall, and school—offered in many different formats this year—is already underway. 

It’s hard to know what the next few months will bring. We’re all worried about our health and safety, and that means sleep needs to be a priority. Quality shut-eye supports your child’s overall health.

To start, take a look at sleep environments and sleep hygiene. You’ll also need a plan that supports your kids’ emotional wellbeing and keeps them well-rested so that they can work through all those big “back to school” feelings

Here are seven ways that parents can set their child up for sleep success now that we’re off and running into the new school year.

1. Communicate changes with a family meeting

No doubt your children have heard you say for the last few weeks that bedtimes were going to be earlier when back to school arrived. But information changed quickly in August and September—many schools had staggered start dates, or last-minute delays in opening, and the official back to school date has fallen into a bit of a grey area for both parents and kids.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to formally communicate the new routines to avoid any confusion or frustration each morning and each evening. Have a family meeting to discuss why sleep routines are changing and what the new expectations are. Whether it’s your six year old or your teenager, talk to them about why we need sleep and what happens when we don’t get enough of it.

2. Bring back the bedtime routine

A bedtime routine that includes similar activities every night helps prepare the body for sleep and releases melatonin, our sleepy hormone. Get your kids involved in creating a bedtime routine that works for them. If your kids are younger, a visual chart might help.

Allowing enough time for wind down activities and connection after busy days can go a really long way in making bedtime more enjoyable for everyone. Some great wind-down activities include colouring, reading a book, writing in a journal, listening to soft music or doing some light yoga stretching.

3. Set their sleep environment up for success

When’s the last time you’ve really looked at your child’s bedroom and made sure it was set up for sleep success? Ideally, their sleep environment needs to be free of distractions and clutter, but should include elements that help create a positive sleep space.

  • Give them a proper alarm clock, not one on a handheld device or smartphone. 
  • Switch to seasonal bedding. Flannel sheets or a weighted blanket (if they’re old enough) can help create a cozy, safe, and comforting feeling.
  • Curtains or blackout blinds (they’re not just for babies!) can help kids and teens get to bed on time and sleep better when daylight lasts longer. They can also help kids who rise with the sun in the morning. 

White noise is a great tool if you have a child or teen that has trouble blocking out other sounds while settling to sleep. It can also make it easier to settle back to sleep if they wake in the night.

4. Separate sleep space from school space

If your child is doing online learning this year, try your best to create a separate space for school that is not part of their sleep space. If you do need to use their bedroom for online school, have a plan to clean up the space each night before bed and put things away. 

That means removing the laptop and stashing papers and books in a drawer. Leaving them out in the open while your child tries to fall asleep can make it much more difficult for them to quiet their minds. They may get stuck thinking about that assignment due the next day or what time their first online lesson starts in the morning.

5. Implement new routines for non-school related tech

This is especially important for middle and high schoolers. Create a family docking station so that electronics such as phones and tablets are not coming into their bedrooms at night. Try to have all tech docked an hour before bedtime as it can be hard to wind down after engaging in stimulating activities, like TV, computer games, and Internet usage.

6. Address back-to-school feelings 

There have been so many changes in the last few months that have required our kids to be flexible and resilient. The new school year is certainly shaping up to be no different. We can anticipate that the transition may result in an increase in anxiety and stress for some kids.

Here’s what parents can do to help their child work through it so they don’t carry those worries and stresses into bedtime.

  • Discuss the big feelings. Whether through books, drawing, journaling or just talking, help to guide them through those feelings and express them. 
  • Help build positive school connections. Ask your kids to be ready to tell you three great things about their school day when you see them after school. This helps them look for the good throughout the day and build positive associations about school. 
  • Help them build a positive social circle at school by taking a proactive approach. Plan some safe, distanced outdoor play dates or meetups with their cohort classmates or schedule video chats with their new virtual school classmates. 
  • Keep them in the know. While you don’t want to overwhelm your child, chances are they know more than you think they do. Share what you do know and what you don’t, invite questions, and share your own thoughts with them as they share theirs. Information is power, and can help kids feel in control and be ready for what’s ahead.  
  • Use breathing exercises at bedtime to help practice relaxing their body when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. 
  • For younger children, making a visual schedule or checklist (as mentioned above) of both the morning and bedtime routine can remove a lot of worry.
  • Help create positive associations. Come up with a list about what they are looking forward to this school year, including doing some goal setting for the year ahead. 

For teens who are social beings, less in-person schooling will be a tough adjustment. Work with them to help bridge those missing connections by looking at what they can still be involved in whether virtually or in person.

7. Keep it real, but keep it positive

Let’s keep it real and admit that the start of this new school year is not ideal for anyone. But if we’ve learned anything in the last six or seven months, it’s how well we can adapt. Yes, this academic year will look different, but we will absolutely find some positives in the process, too. 

As we all work hard to handle the changes, the new routines and the new rules, make it a priority to keep your family well rested. Not only will this help everyone manage stress and adapt to how different the school year looks this year, but you’ll be boosting your family’s overall health and wellness too, which can help ward off illness.

Alanna McGinn is a sleep consultant, mom of three, and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site.