School May Be Suspended, but Sleep Schedules Shouldn't Be


Mar 31, 2020

Parent waking teen, photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on on March 30, 2020.

These days, the school bell isn't ringing for most of our kids, and it's up to parents to ensure that children and teens get the sleep that they need during these stressful and uncertain times.

In the time before the coronavirus pandemic, I gave a TEDx talk, spoke around the country, and wrote about the importance of good parenting and good policies—specifically, healthy school start times—to make sure adolescents got enough sleep.

As parents, it's important to recognize the specific sleep needs of your child based on their stage of development. According to scientific consensus, toddlers need about 11 to 14 hours of sleep; preschoolers, about 10 to 13 hours; school-aged children (ages 6-12), about 9 to 12 hours; and teenagers, 8 to 10 hours. Adults need around 7-9 hours.

But it's not just about the amount of sleep. The timing of their sleep also changes as they grow. For example, the total recommended sleep durations for infants and toddlers includes daytime napping, which is expected during those developmental periods. Teenagers also experience a developmentally-specific change in the timing of their sleep, known as a phase delay. In short, teenagers are natural night owls, going to sleep later than 6-to-12-year-olds. Although school start times before 8:30 a.m. are a known contributor to adolescent sleep deprivation, parents play a much bigger role when school's out in making sure that teens' biological clocks don't continue to drift later and later.

Parents play a much bigger role when school's out in making sure that teens' biological clocks don't continue to drift later and later.

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People of all ages sleep better when they follow consistent daily and nightly routines. This is particularly important during stressful times when many of us no longer have the usual scheduling constraints of going to school or to work. Predictable routines send a message to people's brains that the world is safe and secure—a critical step to reduce anxiety, which can keep children up at night.

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Now's also a good time to set limits on technology use, particularly at bedtime. With our children home throughout the day and with many of us trying to work from home as well, many parents may be loosening up the usual rules on technology throughout the day. That's understandable. However, both the stimulating content and light exposure from using devices at night can disrupt children's and teens' sleep-wake schedules. Make it a family habit to collectively put your phones and devices to bed at least one hour before bedtime in some neutral place—that is, not a bedroom—such as the kitchen. Recharge your phones while your family is recharging itself with healthy sleep.

It's important to look for the silver lining during challenging times such as these, and one such benefit may be that we have an opportunity to connect with our families in a way that we normally don't have the space or time for. Feeling socially connected is absolutely critical for healthy sleep, no matter your age. There may be times when it feels like too much family time when you're all cooped up inside.

In the evenings, try to reserve time to share a meal together and bond in a meaningful way without technology. Play a board game, do a puzzle, go for a walk, or watch a movie together. As the parent of a high school senior, I know these moments are fleeting. Being present in the moment and being grateful for the time you're able to spend together is a great strategy to support healthy sleep and the well-being of the entire family.

Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, as well as an adjunct faculty member in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.