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Rude awakening? How to get your kids ready for the first day of school alarm

Which is better, the gradual approach or the "rip the Band-Aid off" method for preparing kids to wake up early when school starts?
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

It's a question that resurfaces every year for parents of school-age children: At the end of summer, should we let them sleep in and squeeze every ounce out of their fleeting freedom? Or should we guide them toward earlier and earlier bedtimes and wake-ups so they will be better adjusted for that first day of school alarm?

Does it even make a difference? Some parents have strong opinions on the matter.

"My parents took the tactic of incrementally putting me to bed earlier and waking me up earlier, and I resent it to this day," said Julie Wargo, now the mom of two teenagers herself. "Especially in this era of mid-week and half-day school starts, their little body clocks figure it out. And it's not like there's going to be a calc test the first week of school."

How parents get children ready to go back to school-year sleep schedules.
Sarah Sharpe's son Lincoln was unhappy with her when she woke him up early "for practice" before his first day of school. Courtesy of Sarah Sharpe

Julie Biggs, a teacher and a mother to two elementary school children, said she firmly believed in the gradual transition.

"I want the first day of school to be less chaotic. As a teacher, well-rested children are better received," she told TODAY Parents. "We started last week putting them to bed 30 minutes earlier each night until we reached the desired bedtime of 7:30 or 8."

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"We started transitioning them last week," said mom of four Sarah Sharpe of Lake Mary, Florida. "And we are back to our 'no electronics during the school week' rule too."

Sharpe posted a picture of her son Lincoln on Facebook after she woke him up early in preparation for his first day of school. It included a quote from him: "Waking people up for 'practice' is rude," he said. "Really rude."

Other parents said that while they aim for a gradual, incremental transition ahead of the new school year, they mostly end up practicing the "rip off the Band-Aid" method by default.

young girl rubbing eyes in bed
It's the end-of-summer question many parents grapple with: Put kids to bed early or let them stay up late and enjoy their freedom while they can. Getty Images stock

"We used to gradually go back to a normal bedtime schedule, but then we went on vacation one year that had us returning home the day before school started, so we weren't able to use that approach," said Shell Roush of Jacksonville, North Carolina. "We found the 'rip the Band-Aid off' approach worked just fine, so we kept doing it for subsequent years.

"None of us enjoy the school year early bedtime/early wake up routine, so we might as well get the most out of our lazy summer days as we can," she said.

And Renee Saur of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, told TODAY Parents she doesn't take the incremental transition route with her three children "because we can't get our lives organized enough to get to bed early."

Still other parents said they deal with the issue by keeping a school year schedule throughout the summer. For households with both parents who work outside the home, sleeping in isn't necessarily even an option for kids.

"Our schedule does not change in the summer. We work, so we have to get up in the morning, and our son has to go to day camp," said Maine mom Zsofi McMullin. "So no late nights or sleeping in. For those maybe two weeks of actual vacation, we do allow later bedtimes, but that's not enough to have to retrain us for the school year."

Child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents neither method is superior, and parents will ultimately decide what works best for their children.

"Like so many other aspects of our kids' personalities and health, there is not one right answer for adjusting a sleep schedule," said Dr. Gilboa. "Moreover, try as we might, kids who are in or past puberty often simply can't fall asleep before 10 or 11 p.m. no matter what time they have to get up."

"My advice is to ask yourself what you know about your child and your family's patterns and schedule, and do what works best in your home," she said. "A little good news: most children and teens can catch up on sleep on a weekend in ways that adults can't. So one piece of advice is to refrain from overscheduling Labor Day weekend to allow for some sleeping in."

This story was first published on August 7, 2017, and has been updated.