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Getting kids' sleep back on schedule

Back to school means back to a sleep

Back to school means back to a sleep routine. (2011) Credit: iStock

Back to school means back to a regular sleep routine. However, if you feel like the transition may be a battle of wills with your kids, help is on the way.

Newsday spoke to some Long Island sleep experts on the best strategies -- for preschool-age to high school students -- to get your little tyke, tween or teen back on track so everyone can finally catch some zzzz's.

PRESCHOOL (2 TO 5)

Sleep is incredibly important for children in terms of their growth and mental development, says Dr. Roya Samuels, a pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center of the North Shore- Long Island Jewish Heath System. "Children who get enough sleep are overall healthier, perform better in school and have fewer behavioral problems," she says. The amount of sleep needed varies from child to child and by age. Children of preschool age need an average of 13 hours of sleep. Samuels advises parents not to wait until the last minute to get back into a schedule. " 'Sleep hygiene' is the term we use, which is following a regular routine before bedtime so children know what will come next. This helps their bodies wind down and prepare for sleep."

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (6 TO 10)

"Getting kids back to sleep may take a few days. Establish the routine where a child goes to sleep the same time every night and gets up the same time every morning," says Dr. Frank Coletta, co-director of Pulmonary Medicine and Respiratory Therapy and director of South Nassau Communities Hospital's Sleep Medicine Center.

He recommends creating a serene environment where there are no distractions during the induction of sleep. A warm shower or bath before bedtime can help a child unwind. And it is no myth: A glass of milk, warm or cold, helps the brain relax so it goes into sleep mode.

"The bed is for rest," says Coletta. "There is a saying that the bedroom should only be used for sleep and everything else should be done out of the bed." Some activities that stimulate the brain and should not be done in the bedroom and before bedtime, he says, include watching television, playing video or computer games and even reading.

"When a child is young and falls asleep during a bedtime story, that is fine, but as a child gets older, reading in bed is not advisable. Your brain is in the mode of shutting down, and when you read you are trying to absorb information and, as a result, revving up the brain."

MIDDLE SCHOOL (11 TO 13)

Make bedtime a little earlier each night, and do the same with the morning wake-up, suggests Dr. Catherine Kier, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Stony Brook University. "This approach should be done in increments and not be drastic." Kier also encourages parents to set a good example for their children. "Parents shouldn't say, 'Go to bed early!' Instead, they should set a good routine and help their child unwind and make the process relaxing."

She also encourages parents to practice what they preach. "If you tell your kids to go to bed early then they see you at your computer at 1 a.m., this could send a mixed message." Kier recommends eating an early dinner and avoiding stimulating types of food and beverages two to three hours before bedtime. "Eating a later meal can interfere with sleep," she says.

To get back to the basics, she says, set a routine and stick to it. "In this age of technology, there are so many distractions that should be removed from the bedroom. A dark bedroom, comfortable bed and having the room just the right temperature can help."

HIGH SCHOOL (14 TO 17)

The circadian rhythm pattern of wakefulness and sleepiness a person has during a 24-hour cycle shifts in summer, says Dr. Michael D. Weinstein, director of Winthrop Sleep Disorders Center, who compares getting kids back to a sleep routine to dealing with jet lag. "The word we use in the sleep world is 'shifted.' You can't snap the circadian rhythm back to its previous pattern in one day. Your internal clock is not lined up to its desired rhythm, so it is better to do it gradually so it is not traumatic."

His advice to parents is to be patient. "Don't try to do it all at once. Be realistic." He encourages teens to make their bedroom a technology-free zone and to turn off all electronics two hours before bedtime, including the television. "I do not recommend watching television to put yourself to sleep. The television can be very stimulating and actually have the reverse effect." Other stimulants that could interfere with the ability to fall and stay asleep include excessive caffeine.

Bright light from a computer, iPod or a cellphone should also be avoided since it sends a signal to the brain to stay awake. Instead, wind down with soft lighting. As for wake-up time, he recommends using the opposite strategy. "Flood the bedroom with light and open all the windows. Light is helpful to wake the brain up."

SNOOZE HELPERS

Here are some neat products aimed at helping children achieve optimum sleep so they feel refreshed and recharged by the morning:

For the light sleeper, the sound conditioner is the perfect sleep mate. This white noise machine produces natural sounds of rushing air that masks out unwanted noise. It was invented by the National Sleep Foundation and Marpac and retails for $64.95 each. The new premium model will be available in the fall at Bed Bath & Beyond or at marpac.com.

The Zazoo Photo Clock is a nifty gadget that uses a digital screen to show a starry night when it's still time to sleep and a sunny, daytime photo when it's time to get up. It's meant for little people who may still be too young to tell time, $89, at zazookids.com, amazon.com, brookstone.com.

Wake up calm and happy with the Philips Wake-Up Light that simulates a natural sunrise. It wakes you up with light rather than a loud ringing sound. The light gradually gets brighter 30 minutes before it's time to get up. The light, which has 20 brightness settings, can be used as a bedside lamp. A product of the National Sleep Foundation, the Wake-Up Light retails for $99.99. Available at Target.com, CVS.com, BestBuy.com and Philips.com.

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