By Mary Teresa Bitti
“But it’s still light outside!” Longer days often bring on this common refrain from the school-aged crowd, who want to make the most of the daylight hours and extend bedtimes even if they have early wake-up calls for camp or daycare. The problem, of course, is that sleep is essential. And at this age, children need between 10 and 11 hours of it each night.
“Kids need their sleep,” says Dr. Evelyn Constantin, assistant medical director, The Sleep Laboratory of Montreal Children’s Hospital, and a researcher in the area of sleep disorders in children. “It’s important for a child’s health and well-being.” In fact, recent studies have shown that school-aged children getting less than nine hours of sleep are at increased risk of becoming overweight and obese than children who are getting the recommended amount. “Obesity can lead to such adult conditions as type-II diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr. Constantin. “Sleep is also important for memory, daytime performance, alertness and behaviour.”
Here, then, are some tried and true strategies to help ensure your child is getting enough sleep in the summer.
Keep the drill the same: tidy up, clean up, read, sleep, for example — and start the process at the same time each night. “Ideally, bedtime should be consistent every night, regardless of season,” says Dr. Constantin. “If there are different sleep/wake times it is difficult to get their internal clocks adjusted, and their sleep patterns become irregular.”
Jennifer Elliott of Toronto doesn’t have to convince her boys, Timothy, 10, and Michael, 7, that it’s bedtime. They each have a clock in their room that proves it. “Bedtime is one area we have always been strict about enforcing,” says Elliott. “Our goal is to get them up to bed at 8 p.m., and our oldest knows he can read for an hour in his room after that. They can check the clock so they know it actually is bedtime even though it’s still light out.”
“In addition to keeping Jack outside, running him ragged so that he was begging to get to bed, I had room-darkening shades when he was younger,” says Margie Grier of Oakville, Ont. “They helped, but he sometimes complained of the sun shining in through the corners, so I ended up taping the edges against the wall every night.”
It may take a little juggling but Elliott says in the summer she tries to have dinner ready by 5:30. “This gives the boys more time to play outside.”
Laura Ashdown of Richmond Hill, Ont., extends bedtime for her daughters, Katie, 8, and Rachel, 5, in summer. “They do have a later bedtime in the summer because they don’t have to get up early for school. During school bedtime is 8 p.m. and in summer it’s around nine. I do find when school rolls around again I have to start gradually putting them down earlier to ease them back into a schedule.”
“Keep the sleep environment calm and relaxing,” says Dr. Constantin, who recommends no TV, loud music, bright lights, video or computer games by one hour before bed. “This should be a winding-down time. The bright lights of TV and video games play a role in keeping kids alert, and awake.” Reading is fine — just keep the lights low.
How do you know if you have to get your kids off to bed earlier? Telltale signs your child is not getting enough shut-eye include drowsiness during the day, mood changes, irritability, hyperactivity and an inability to focus or concentrate. And when it comes time to wake children that resist getting out of bed, Dr. Constantin’s best advice is to let the sun shine in. “Draw the curtains, raise the blinds and turn on the lights.”