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Study shows what parents already know: Later school starts are better for kids

The debate over school start times is an ongoing saga in sleep medicine.
/ Source: TODAY

A recent study examining later start times in one school district reinforces what parents already inherently knew: Children who get more sleep feel less exhausted during the school day.

“The study was designed well. It’s a pretty large study,” W. Christopher Winter, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, who did not participate in the study, told TODAY Parents. “It’s adding more information to the same cannon of literature."

For the study, published in the journal Sleep, researchers asked about 28,000 students and parents to complete surveys about school start times and the child’s sleep habits and daytime sleepiness. The first survey was completed four months before a suburban Denver school district changed the time that school began. The next survey was completed six months after the change, which allowed older students to start later. High school began about 70 minutes later at 8:20 a.m. Middle school started anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes later at 8:50 a.m. And elementary school started 60 minutes earlier at 8 a.m. The final survey was conducted 18 months after the adjustments.

Both students and their parents answered questions about when children went to bed and woke on weekdays and weekends, how much the slept in on weekends and how rested they felt during the day.

The elementary school children didn’t experience much difference in the amount of time they slept before and after the school start time changed — they went to bed and woke at about the same time. They did feel less groggy during the day before their earlier school days. The middle school students woke much later, snagging about 37 more minutes of z’s, a significant increase in their sleep. This also helped them experience less daytime fogginess. High school students received the most sleep after the change, waking 45 minutes later, and feeling more alert during the day. What the parents reported about their children indicated the same trends.

Many experts believe that starting school later does improve children’s sleep but some think that children will still not get enough sleep no matter when school begins.

“This is an ongoing controversy in sleep medicine,” Winter said. “Some say, ‘If we make the school start time later, they will sleep in later, and stay up later, and you are going to shift sleep around.’ That is never the case. They will get more sleep.”

The findings reinforce what parents and experts have long suspected. Starting school too early impacts a child’s sleep and their alertness during the day.

“Let’s accept the fact that kids need more sleep,” Winter said.