Q&A: Doctor gives tips for families adjusting to new school start times

Thursday, August 1, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013

*Correction: Ridgeway Elementary School will start at 7:50 a.m. this fall. An earlier version of this article had the time wrong.

COLUMBIA — New school start times require new bedtimes — not just for children, but for entire families.

Last year, all Columbia public elementary schools started at 8:50 a.m., a time that seems so much later than 7:40 a.m. when precious sleep is involved.

*This year, most elementary students will start 30 minutes earlier at 8:20, but children who go to New Haven, Midway Heights, Rock Bridge, Two Mile Prairie, Ridgeway, Benton and Lee elementary schools will have to wake up almost an hour earlier for school start times of 7:40 a.m. for the first four schools, 7:50 a.m. for Ridgeway and 7:55 a.m. for the latter two.

Munish Goyal, a doctor and assistant professor of clinical neurology at MU who specializes in sleep medicine, spoke Wednesday with the Missourian about adjusting families' sleep schedules and routines. Some questions have been tightened for clarity, but Goyal's answers are complete.

How many hours of sleep should kids be getting every night?

Goyal: Elementary students need about 10 to 11 hours of sleep. As teenagers, they only need about nine hours.

Some elementary school students will now have to start school at 7:40 a.m. What is an appropriate bedtime for elementary students with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up time?

If the wake-up time is 6:30 a.m., and they need 11 hours of sleep, then a bedtime would be between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

When should families start implementing new sleep schedules?

It may be good to start this new pattern one or two weeks before school starts because that helps to get in the pattern of waking up at a new time. When school starts, it would be difficult for students to have that kind of pattern.

On the school day if the kids have to wake up at 6:30 a.m. then on the weekends kids should also wake up no later than 7 a.m. because then it messes up the circadian rhythm. (Circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle in our bodies that influences sleep cycles.) It's better for them, and for everybody, even the adults, to stay on the schedule. It's better for their sleep.

No rule is hard and fast, but the weekend schedule should be very similar to the weekday schedule. It can maybe be off by 30 to 45 minutes, but no later than that.

How should kids with after-school activities that run late manage the earlier bedtime?

They have to work their schedule around their sleep schedule. After-school activities should end before their usual sleep time; going off by half an hour is fine, but not for two hours. If a kid normally goes to bed at 7:30 or 8 p.m., then we shouldn't have school activities going until 9 or 10 p.m.

Even adults should go by the same thing. Most individuals have a fixed wake-up time to go to work or whatever reason. Depending on the wake-up time, the bedtime should be calculated. On average, an adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep. 

Is it better for kids to be awakened by their parents or by an alarm on their own?

It depends on the age. It has to be individualized. If the kid likes to be woken up by the parent or if — (he or she) can wake up by an alarm that's fine, as well. I don't think there's any particular advantage for any of these methods as long as kids get a sufficient amount of sleep.

When should kids start being allowed to set their own bedtime and wake-up schedules?

There's nothing factual about that. The older kids, if they have more understanding and insight on getting up and getting ready, can do everything by themselves. It depends upon the kid.

Elementary school kids still need help doing everything, but that's also from my personal experience. I don't think there's any particular guidelines to when kids should be waking up by themselves. The key is getting an adequate amount of sleep on a regular basis.

What is an appropriate age to introduce kids to drinking coffee in the morning, a method some adults use to help themselves wake up?

The kids should not need caffeine to keep them awake during the day if they have adequate sleep at night. Caffeine has side effects like increasing heart rate, jitteriness, and, if taken later in the day, it can also make it difficult to fall asleep. There is no recommended age to start drinking coffee. Even for adults, caffeine is best used in moderation and best avoided in the evening.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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