Elizabeth Moore has spent more than a decade fine-tuning the everyday habits that keep her kids healthy and her family running smoothly. With four kids between the ages of six and 13, the biggest thing she’s figured out is how important it is to establish a routine. Little rules that manage screen time or mandatory outside time help her wrangle the little ones with consistency, while also keeping them away from sickness and fatigue. “If it’s a set schedule, then the kids will regulate themselves a lot more willingly,” she explains.
But figuring out how to create a routine filled with healthy habits fine-tuned for your unique child’s needs can take a lot of time, trial and error. Dr. Christine Darr, the medical director for pediatric emergency at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, says the process can take work, but forming healthy habits in school-age children is the best way to set them up for lifelong success.
Dr. Ricky Mohon, the medical director of the sleep program at Children’s Hospital Colorado, agrees that establishing healthy daily routines isn’t always intuitive. But with a new school year, it’s a prime opportunity to incorporate new daily habits that promote kids’ health and wellness. And rather than start building habits from scratch, Darr and Mohon offer their top recommendations for how and where to start building the healthiest routines for school-age kids.
1. Power down (at least) an hour before bed
One of the most important daily habits to establish, Mohon says, is to eliminate screen time before bed. “Whenever (kids) are on their screens and light is coming out of the screen,” he explains, “that light can suppress melatonin—the chemical that your brain makes as your natural sleeping pill that helps your brain go to sleep at night.”
It’s important to reduce all screens—not just phones, but also TVs, computers, and even FaceTiming sessions with relatives or friends, because any type of light emitted from an electronic device can distort melatonin levels and disrupt healthy sleep patterns, according to Mohon. That also means removing any and all electronic devices from bedrooms.
Exactly how long should screen use be restricted before going to sleep? “At least an hour before the anticipated bedtime,” Mohon suggests. “If you use any lights at all, use a dim light. Do calming activities, tell stories, spend time as a family.”
2. Get sufficient sleep each night
Restricting electronic use before bed is an essential habit to cultivate because it promotes healthier sleep. “The most common reason that kids have symptoms of fatigue in the daytime—sleepiness, poor concentration, and lack of focus—is because they have insufficient sleep at night,” Mohon says. Getting a full night’s rest ensures kids are alert at school and behave well. When a kid is tired, especially chronically, it’s harder for them to employ appropriate emotions and perform at their peak, meaning they can get frustrated more easily or act up out of context.
Darr agrees that sleep should be one of the most important priorities for kids. “One of the biggest things kids can do (for their ability to pay attention at school) is get enough sleep,” she says.
Sleep is very dependent on age, Mohon says, but, in general, most school-age kids will need “about 10 hours of sleep each night.” He emphasizes that quality of sleep is just as important as the length of sleep. Uninterrupted sleep helps establish a healthy circadian rhythm and can maximize the physical recovery that our bodies undergo while we sleep, he explains.
3. Establish a routine
Both Darr and Mohon recommend establishing a routine. “One really important thing is regular bedtime and a regular wake time,” Mohon says, pointing at how straining it can be physically for a child to go to sleep at 9 p.m. one night, then 10 p.m. the next, and midnight after that. “Whenever the kids are doing that it’s like crossing time zones,” he says. This can interfere with hormonal balance, especially cortisol levels, which, when balanced, can help regulate blood sugar levels and metabolism, reduce inflammation, and assist with memory function.
Much like Moore’s experience establishing schedules and rules with her four kids, routines can help set and fulfill expectations, encourage self-governance, and open channels for sophisticated discussion between kids and adults.
Into the daily routine, Darr also recommends incorporating little recesses for kids. “When kids get home from school, it’s a good time to take a break, play with pets, walk or run around, have a snack, and then sit down to do some homework.” Breaking the day into small chunks with adequate play and work times can help them stay engaged and present with whatever task is at hand and prevents mental or physical fatigue over the course of the day.
4. Eat powerful meals
“Make sure kids are eating breakfast before school,” Darr says, adding it should be a nutritional breakfast filled with whole grains and protein. “They can pay better attention if they’re not hungry and the calories provide energy. There is research that shows kids who don’t skip breakfast can have less problems with maintaining ideal weight.”
Additionally, Darr advises against kids grazing throughout the day. Three meals and only one or two snacks should provide enough sustenance for a kid’s full day, she says, and be sure to avoid sodas or too much fruit juice. “Water is the best thing for hydration. … And keep the eating in the kitchen,” she adds. “If you sit in front of the TV with a snack, you eat more.”
Danielle Cococcia, a mom of two living in Breckenridge, has found that feeding her kids healthy foods has made a big difference in her children’s energy and focus. “If people can make one change, it would be to pack lunch for their kids. It doesn’t have to be fancy,” she says, suggesting leftovers from dinner the night before, or simple sandwiches on whole-grain bread.
5. Get one hour of “free time” outside each day
Prioritizing exercise can be cumbersome, especially after long days filled with extracurriculars, Darr admits, but she maintains it’s a vital element to include as part of an everyday routine. Aside from physical benefits, spending time outdoors has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, can improve kids’ ability to learn, help creativity, and potentially boost memory function.
Even a 20-minute walk, Darr says, will make a difference and increase brain activity, though parents should strive for their children to reach an hour of outdoor play time every day. Once outside, Darr says emphasizing “free-time play” can lead to positive and long-lasting behavioral changes over time. “Free-time play encourages physical activity and creativity and emotions in kids.”
If there’s trouble getting kids out the door, join them, Moore suggests. Getting outside with her four kids has helped them all stay active together, she says. “Kids aren’t dumb, and if they see you being sedentary and glued to screens while you kick them outside, they will be so much more resistant. If you’re out there getting them hiking, preparing the camping trips, etcetera, then they will be more invested.”
6. Have good hygiene
Darr says that general cleanliness is important, and not just during flu season.
Washing hands, Darr says, plays the starring role in preventing the spread of infection, but wiping down objects that pass through multiple people’s hands with nontoxic cleaning wipes is also a good idea. Brushing teeth can never be undervalued, she adds.
7. Prioritize family time
“I think it’s important for families to sit down together,” Darr says. “I would recommend it daily—a time where everyone puts their phones away and can have a good conversation.”
Aside from the socialization practice, having a family dinner can also help parents identify problems kids are having, whether related to bullying or stress or deeper mental health issues. “Parents will learn how to best support their kids,” Darr says, by sitting down and simply talking with them without distractions. “Being in tune with your kids is one of the best things you can do to set them up for success.”