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Sleeping 101: How to Get Sleep Back on Track for School

By Dr. Michael Strunc, medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Medicine at CHKD, is a child neurologist and sleep doctor.

The pandemic and summer months may have wreaked havoc on children’s sleep schedules. Even without a pandemic, sleep problems can be an issue with children, especially teens, because of the prevalence of electronic devices, tablets, phones, TVs, and computers. These devices are so tempting, but they emit light and information that stimulates the brain, making it harder to go to sleep.

Now that back-to-school season is here, it’s a good time to make some changes so everyone gets a good night’s sleep.

If you’re willing to invest two weeks of time, I have a plan that can help your child get the sleep they need to feel better during the day. Start by committing to the plan and putting it in writing to follow every night, even the weekends, for two weeks.


First, figure out the amount of sleep your child needs. Everyone’s sleep needs vary, with most teens requiring close to nine hours. However, if sleep is troublesome, start with the smallest amount your teen is able to get right now, but don’t go below six hours. Once sleep is solid, you will increase this time.

Figure out what time your child needs to go to bed to get their specified amount of sleep before the alarm goes off.

The plan for going to sleep, as written out, is much like a pilot’s checklist:

  • Thirty minutes before going to sleep, turn off all technology, such as smart phones, tablets, TVs, computers, and video games.
  • Allow your child 15 to 20 minutes to brush their teeth, put on their PJs, and say goodnight.
  • Turn on a night light, but no other light source.
  • Get some white noise going, something that’s monotonous. No singing, talking, or vocal music. Think of the sound of an old box fan.
  • Don’t use a clock that you can see in the dark, including cell phones. Turn cell phones off, or at least to silent mode.
  • Have something for your child to read in bed if sleep does not come easily or quickly. But remember, this should be an actual book, with pages. No Kindles, electronic tablets, or cell phones. The reading material shouldn’t be schoolwork, and it shouldn’t be stimulating. The goal is a benign activity that allows sleep to arrive sooner.
  • If your child falls asleep, but then wakes up, they should stay in bed and read again until they’re back to sleep.
  • Encourage your child to do their best not to worry about things when they’re trying to sleep. Stress in any form is the enemy of sleep. Talking about stressful issues with a counselor can be very useful. Treatment for mood issues is sometimes worthwhile or necessary.


Establish a set time to get up in the morning. Help your child wake up by using an alarm, playing some music, and turning on the lights, radio, or TV.

Taking a shower or a bath may help your child feel more awake.

During this two-week period, don’t let your child take any naps.

Exercise during the day will help your child sleep better at night, so build in some physical activity to their day. But, do not let them exercise close to bedtime.

Once You Establish Solid Sleep at Night

Remember, this is a two-week plan, but most children will have pretty solid sleep at night much sooner. Once that is accomplished, you can expand their total sleep time.

This should be done slowly, in 15-minute increments. Have your child wake up at the same time every day but move up the sleep start time. For example, if your child first went to bed at 11:30 p.m. but they’re feeling sleepy during the day, move their bedtime to 11:15 p.m. When your child does this, they should rewrite their sleep plan as well.

Make sure they stick to their plan and modify their daily activities to make it work. It’s important to put the plan in writing. I recommend having the child sign their plan, like a contract, to emphasize their commitment. For a sleep contract that you can print out, click here.

Don’t start this type of plan during stressful, busy times like the first day of school or the week of finals. Remind your child that family and friends are their teammates and are here to support them. When children begin this commitment to better sleep, they will be getting less sleep than they need, on purpose, to help consolidate sleep at night. They should expect to have a few rough days, and moodiness is typical as they begin.

No one who is just beginning to get their sleep organized is a lovely person during the day. Everyone in the family needs to be aware of this and show empathy while staying the course. It will all be worthwhile.

Prioritizing quality sleep as a part of their lives will help your child be healthier and happier.

More from Dr. Strunc in this segment on WVEC-13NewsNow:

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About Children's  Specialty Group Children's Specialty Group is the only pediatric multi-specialty practice serving southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The physicians of Children's Specialty Group base their practices at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters and serve as faculty in the Department of Pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Learn more about our specialists here.