Is virtual school wrecking your kid’s sleep?


By his third straight day of remote learning from home, my six year old could no longer fall asleep at night. He’s always been what’s called a “low sleep-needs” kid who pushed bedtime closer to 9 p.m., but this was different: He wanted to fall asleep, but couldn’t. He wasn’t stalling or pulling the usual shenanigans. He was tossing and turning endlessly, and then in tears because he couldn’t drift off.

“If I can’t get my body to fall asleep soon, I won’t be able to have any fun tomorrow,” he sobbed. Snuggling with him didn’t help; he didn’t want to listen to a sleep meditation app or bedtime story; and all my calm and rational reassurances that everything would be OK didn’t seem to register. He was an emotional, overtired mess.

I posted about our rough nights on social media and got a resounding, “Yup, us too” from other parents of little kids, all suddenly stuck in front of screens for six hours a day or more. Sleep consultants chimed in and confirmed that pandemic-related sleep disturbances are definitely on the rise in kids. The main culprits are all that screen time from Zoom school, the general lack of activity and increased anxiety levels—for all of us. In kids, this may look like moodiness or meltdowns. 

Not only is my son getting less physical activity and exercise during lockdown, but he’s also lacking in social interactions and those all-important changes in environment—simply being in a classroom, or on the schoolyard at recess, surrounded by peers and other forms of stimulation. Even though my son’s teacher has been really awesome about incorporating movement breaks and fun dance videos multiple times a day, it’s still too much total screen time logged for a six-year-old kid. 

His “recess” is only one hour, and he also needs to eat lunch during that time. (Plus, that’s assuming a parent can step away from their work responsibilities to convince him to get his outdoor gear on and get to a park, and back, before the hour is up. Like a lot of little kids, he struggles with transitions and switching activities.)

Then there’s the shorter winter days, the lack of sunshine and a stay-at-home order that limits trips outside the house (officially, we are only to leave for essentials, exercise and medical appointments). His school day ends at 3:45 p.m., then it gets dark shortly after we finish work at 5 p.m. It’s a recipe for inactivity and sleeplessness. 

“Any change in pace or routines can create stress, making it hard to sleep and process information from the day,” explains Amanda Jewson, a sleep consultant, former teacher and mom of two school-age kids. She points out that with e-learning from home, kids aren’t problem solving or experiencing friction like they would in a normal school day. “Plus, they’re on screens all day, with little exercise and few social interactions.”

If screen time is unavoidable right now, what can we do to help our kids build up a stronger sleep drive? Some of the advice is obvious; some suggestions seem impossible for working parents to pull off. But here are the most common tips and coping strategies I’ve gathered.

More outside time

Obviously, outdoor activity is a biggie. But my kid’s virtual learning schedule is tight—it’s timed down to the minute! I can only imagine how hard it would be if I had multiple school-age kids with schedules that don’t sync up. (Luckily, our three-year-old’s daycare is still open, for which I am eternally grateful.)

My husband and I try to take turns rushing our kid to the park for some masked and distanced playground time during his lunch hour, but that’s really only about 30 minutes of outdoor activity, at best. Still, we’re super lucky to have two parents working from home, and bosses who are sympathetic to the current “situation.” Many parents cannot drop everything to run their kid during recess. 

I know some families who go for morning walks outside, before the first bell—definitely worth trying, if you can swing it. And there are ways to get more bang for our buck when we do make it outside. Instead of letting our kid just chat with his buddies about Beyblades for 30 minutes, we try to change up our physical activity options: bringing a stomp rocket to the park; installing rock climbing holds from Canadian Tire on our backyard fence; making him run laps around a school track; taking him to a playground with one of those spider-web climbing structures in an attempt to tire him out faster. We also try to log more outside time on weekends. Long hikes in the woods seem to be good for everyone’s mental health—parents included.

Incorporate more physical activity indoors (even while kids are in class)

More physical activity should help tire your kids out in general, even if it has to be indoors. Some parents have bought indoor mini-trampolines or doorway gyms. I’m sure that Wii sales have gone up this winter, and a neighbour of mine even lets her nine-year-old son ride her Peloton. Another friend has built her own budget-friendly indoor kid bike: she re-installed the training wheels and propped them up inside her husband’s old Crocs, to turn it into a stationary bike her kid can pedal while reading or listening to his classes.

I also let my kid play with a small fidget toy to help keep him at his desk. I’m not sure the teacher loves this, but I figure at least his butt is in the chair, and I think he’s mostly listening? Legos, Bakugans and these teeny building toys from Plus-Plus are other go-to fidget toys for us, because they don’t take up too much table space.

I’m also curious about wobble boards and swivel seats designed for squirmy kids who focus better when they’re moving. Scholastic sells both “wiggle seats” and “movement stools” that could help kids with “excess energy.” (Let me know if you’ve tried ‘em!)

Limit non-school screen time

When my kid finishes school at 3:45, he usually asks for the family iPad. He’s also used to getting to watch a few episodes of TV while we make dinner. But I know we have to be more mindful of the cumulative screen-time totals. If he’s on a screen for school alllllll day, I really don’t want to allow him lots of tablet time after that (even if I’m desperate to get another hour of work in). So I’m resolving to say no more often. I try to redirect to Lego, drawing or Magna-Tiles instead, because they’re quiet activities that don’t require much supervision. Anything that isn’t screen-based will help.

Don’t rush to give your kid melatonin

Some parents were quick to recommend dosing my kid with melatonin—it seems to be the go-to advice in Facebook parenting groups, especially. But everything I’ve read about melatonin does not recommend it as a cure-all for kids. It’s a hormone that triggers sleepiness, sure. But there aren’t enough large-scale studies on what that hormone does to growing kids. Melatonin from the health food store also isn’t regulated the same way a medication is. At the very least, you should talk to your kid’s doctor about your sleep woes before trying it.

There are also ways to encourage natural release of melatonin in your kid, to help with what’s called “sleep initiation,” says Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant, mom of three (including twins) and founder of Good Night Sleep Site. Make sure your kid’s bedroom is a dark sleep environment and that you limit screens for at least one hour before bed—blue light from devices can inhibit natural melatonin production.

Being vigilant about a set bedtime can also help the body regulate melatonin release. More on that below.

Stick with a set bedtime

Because COVID-19 has upended our kids’ normal lives, it’s important to keep the evenings and bedtime routines as predictable as possible—even for older kids. All this time at home with multiple kids in virtual school can be loud and chaotic, with lots of big, roller coaster emotions. But kids thrive with boundaries, as hard as it is to enforce them right now.“Keep bedtime and nights as consistent as you can,” says McGinn. “They may fight it, but they will thrive with the consistency.”

Do dinner and a calming bath at the same time every night, followed by a predictable, comforting winding-down routine. (It doesn’t have to be elaborate. We read two picture books or two chapters, then brush teeth, then lights out.) 

For children struggling with those big feelings or anxiety, Jewson recommends incorporating art, journaling or meditation before bed.

Talk with the teacher

“Your kid is definitely not the only child his age feeling like this, and possibly missing lessons because of it,” McGinn reassures me. “I feel for all of the parents with kids in grades two and under. It’s so hard at this age to keep their attention—let alone being in front of a screen all day,” she adds. “If it’s not clicking for your kid, or if you need more breaks, don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

Jewson agrees—she only has her kids work until 1:30 p.m. “If my kids have more screen time than that, they become literal monsters,” she says. “Of course that’s not every kid and not a parenting judgment—but just know that what you’re seeing makes complete sense.”

By all accounts, there’s a big range in terms of teacher flexibility—some school schedules are treated as “suggestions” and students are free to duck in and out when they can make it, then close the laptop when kids (or parents) are maxed out. But I’ve also heard from other parents that their kids are marked absent for being even five minutes late to log on, or that they will get an automated call from the school if they skip out on a lesson. It seems to vary by school district, by teacher, and by grade level. 

Ultimately, I do think parents know their kids’ needs best, and if excessive screen time is making it hard for your kid to get the rest they need at night, or if they’re just too frustrated, antsy, or emotional to do virtual school for yet another long day, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a talk with the teacher about next steps. That might mean modifying the schedule or finding a compromise. It might mean taking a few mental-health days here and there, if possible. 

As a parent, I’m trying not to get too worked up about absences marked, progress made or missing assignments. Of course I want to teach my kid about grit and resilience and sticking with hard things, even when it sucks, but I’m not sure an extended lock down during a global pandemic that has gone on for almost a year is the best time to instill this life lesson. It’s not a classroom; this isn’t an ideal or normal way to learn; kids aren’t made to stare at a computer all day; and he’s only six.

Getting through the week without sacrificing our mental health—while keeping everybody well-slept, fed, housed, healthy and employed—is the most important goal for now. This is not the time to beat myself up about perfect parenting or my kid’s academic progress.

Instead, I’m working on compassion: Compassion for myself, when I lose my patience with my children. Compassion for my kid, when he isn’t his… best self, let’s just say. And compassion for the teachers, who didn’t ask for a pandemic or remote learning, either. 

I think we’re all hoping for in-person school to be safe again soon—many of us are counting down the days, while knowing that there’s a good chance the closures will be extended again. In the meantime, we are settling into a routine and finding our groove (and trying to laugh at ourselves when we utterly fail at it).

One mom friend whose kid has been in virtual school since September wisely told me that these initial sleep issues would get better with time as we all adjust, and of course, she was right. Nights are getting easier, as the weeks go by.

We don’t love this new normal—in fact, I hate that this is where we are (still!)—but we are getting better at coping with it. 

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