Summer vacation for our kids is nearing an end. How is that possible? Wasn’t Memorial Day just last weekend?
It’s time for the start of another school year, which is a stressful time in my house and I’m guessing your home as well.
It isn’t exactly a secret when school starts; we’ve known the date for months. We’ve been hitting the back-to-school sales for weeks, so it’s not like we weren’t thinking about it.
One would think with all this advanced warning and preparation, we would have this down to an art. However, my fifth and 10th grade kids will tell you we don’t.
Why is the start of the school year so physically and emotionally challenging? Perhaps it is sleep, specifically the lack of it. Bedtimes for most students slowly drift into the late evening hours as summer progresses, and the kids never see a sunrise.
Despite the best of intentions, bedtimes do not adjust easily or painlessly when school begins. The two- or three-hour sudden change in bedtime amounts to a good case of Jet Lag; colorfully named “desynchronosis.”
The rule of thumb is it takes one day to adjust for every hour changed. Common symptoms of desynchronosis include fatigue, irritability, headache and mild depression. This describes how my kids feel on the first few days of school – and you thought it was normal!
But what time they go to bed isn’t the whole story. When they get up is important, too. “Sleep latency” is the medical term for being awakened and feeling like “something the cat drug in.” This depends on when in a sleep cycle you wake up.
Being awakened during deep sleep or REM sleep is disorienting and amplifies sleep latency (the cat thing). If you wake up during light sleep you feel almost human.
There are actually alarm clocks that monitor your sleep and wake you up only when you’re sleeping lightly. So a wake up range would replace the wake up time. Have to get up at 7 a.m.? Set your range for 5:30-7 a.m. and it might make you feel better. Counter-intuitive isn’t it?
But sleep patterns are not the only thing to consider when kids go back to school; change in activity is a factor as well. During the summer, kids move rapidly from interest to interest to keep themselves amused. They are working with an attention span that is as short as five minutes in young kids and 20 minutes for teenagers.
When school starts they are suddenly trapped like rats for hours on end. Their activities are chosen by their teachers, who share neither their restlessness nor their short attention span. This too takes several days to readjust.
What about summer meals? What summer meals? The kids are going five different directions and grab something when they occasionally make a pass through the kitchen.
Frequent small feedings, heavily loaded with “carbs” and taken at liberty, are the rule. Their young digestive systems tolerate this surprisingly well. With the start of school and scheduled, regulated meal times, blood sugars are predictably plummeting. The result is more restlessness, fatigue and irritability.
Like so many other things in life, the solution to adjusting to the back-to-school routine is practice, practice, practice. Think about the school day, wake up times, meal times and bed times. You can still fit in some fun and readjust your sleep and meal schedules at the same time.
A two- or three-day head start will make all the difference. No, that doesn’t mean you have to do homework before school starts. Let’s not be ridiculous!
Take care, and good luck with your new wake-up regimen.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic