The Pandemic Broke Kids' Sleep Schedules. Here's How to Fix Them.

October 22, 2021

Millions of children across the United States have settled into something resembling normal school days after months of “Zoom school.” But for many kids, that's meant bleary-eyed mornings and a struggle to focus, side effects of the pandemic's harsh toll on sleep schedules.

"The most common problem is children and teens going to sleep very late and waking up very late; their internal clock is off schedule," says Carin Lamm, MD, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

We spoke with Lamm to get tips for parents struggling to get their kids back on a healthy sleep schedule.

How can we maintain a sleep schedule?

There are some useful rules of sleep hygiene that help reset the body’s internal clocks so your child can wake up in time for school feeling alert and ready to go. No. 1—have a consistent schedule with a fixed bedtime and wake-up time.

The child’s sleep environment is very important. It’s easier to fall asleep in a room that is quiet, cool, and dark. In a dark room, the body produces melatonin, a hormone that can make your child feel drowsy. In the morning, open the shades and lights, or even better, have the child go outdoors as soon as possible. Light is a powerful cue to the body that it is time to be up and alert.

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What about screen time?

A big problem is that kids are using devices with screens before bedtime or even in the middle of the night. These devices are very alerting to the brain and interfere with sleep. The best strategy is to turn off these devices an hour before the desired bedtime, or even better, take them out of the bedroom. Encourage your child to choose a relaxing activity before sleep: Read a regular book or listen to quiet music.

What if kids are awake worrying about the pandemic?

If your child seems anxious about the pandemic, it's best to discuss the problem truthfully in an age-appropriate way. I would also highlight all that we do to keep our children safe. If anxiety seems problematic, I recommend discussing this problem with your pediatrician.   

Should we set an alarm clock?

Yes, an alarm clock along with morning light is a good idea and can help your child maintain a healthy sleep-wake rhythm.

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How much sleep do kids need?

It's recommended that children 6 to 12 years old get from 9 to 12 hours of sleep a night and teens get from 8 to 10 hours. Studies show that these sleep durations are associated with optimal physical and behavioral health as well as school performance.

Be sure to avoid napping as much as possible. A long nap can make it difficult for your child to fall asleep early, but an occasional 30-minute power nap can help maintain afternoon and early evening alertness.

What if all this doesn't work?

Sometimes it's not so easy to get your child back to a healthy sleep-wake rhythm. If you've tried improving sleep hygiene, but your child still cannot fall asleep until very late, then discuss the problem you’re having with your pediatrician or consider consulting with a sleep specialist.