Later School Start Times Boost Parents’ Health, Too

For several years, a leading U.S. pediatricians’ group has called for middle and high schools to start later in the morning, to help these young people get the right amount of sleep.

Now, new research suggests that students aren’t the only ones who benefit from later start times: Their parents also catch a break.

“Kids don’t live in a vacuum. They live in a complex family system. In particular, in the morning, most parents will recognize that they are at some level involved with helping their children wake up,” said study author Lisa Meltzer. She is a professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver.

“So, if students have to wake up early, parents have to wake up early. By adjusting the school start times that then impacts when parents have to wake up in order to help their students get up and ready for school in the morning,” Meltzer said.

To learn more about how school schedules impact parents, the research team partnered with Cherry Creek Schools, a large district in the Denver area.

Cherry Creek Schools adapted its start times, starting middle and high schools about 50 to 70 minutes later in the morning. Elementary students, who don’t experience the same negative impacts from earlier start times according to experts, went to school an hour earlier than they previously had.

The parents of kindergarteners through 12th graders completed annual surveys prior to the change and for two years after the schedules changed. The parents reported their bedtime and wake times, sleep quality and whether they felt tired.

The study found that when their older kids needed to get out of bed a little later, parents also slept longer. Even though it was a small amount per night, about 20 minutes, that added up to an extra 60 hours for each parent over the course of the school year, Meltzer said. The researchers also found that more parents were getting at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Parents of elementary students maintained their normal sleep habits, moving bed and wake times slightly earlier, the findings showed.

The researchers still saw benefits for parents who have kids in both age groups because the elementary schools’ new start time was still not as early as the high school students had previously started.

“We know that sleep is tied to every aspect of health and well-being,” Meltzer said. “We know it’s tied to physical health — getting sufficient sleep is related to better health outcomes, including healthy weight, cardiovascular health,” she added.

“We know it’s related to performance, attention, drowsy driving. We know that it’s related to mental health. People who get more sleep have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and [better] overall family functioning,” Meltzer continued. “So, getting enough sleep is important as we’ve known for many years for kids, but also for adults. And so by improving parents’ sleep, it helps improve the entire family functioning.”

The study referenced the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2014 recommendation that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., so that adolescents could get more sleep each night.

The researchers concluded that the changed school start times have “a significantly positive downstream effect on secondary school parents’ sleep and daytime functioning, with minimal impact reported by parents of elementary school students.”

The findings were published online recently in the journal Sleep Health.

Later wake times not only provide a lot of physical and mental health benefits, but created less conflict in parent-child interactions, said Dr. Cora Collette Breuner. She is a professor of pediatrics/adolescent medicine and attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“The parents are getting more sleep because they’re not having to get their kids up,” said Breuner, who was not involved with the study.

As kids become adolescents, their circadian rhythm shifts, she noted. They’re no longer as tired earlier in the late evening, but they still need an adequate amount of sleep. Students with earlier start times also tend to be less likely to eat breakfast while rushing out the door, she added.

One area of community concerns around high school kids starting and getting out of school later than their younger siblings is they can’t be home in time to babysit. Breuner said she has pushed back against that idea.

“It’s not normative for a 15-year-old to be taking care of their younger siblings. The schools are supposed to be providing after-school care for kids whose parents work, and support the parents and have after-school teachers that know what they’re doing, help the kids with their homework and [get] physical exercise and feed them,” Breuner said.

The shift to changing start times is challenging for communities, Meltzer acknowledged. Cherry Creek Schools did a lot of community engagement before implementing the new schedules. Some schools also offered before-school care to help parents who couldn’t move their work schedules. Extracurricular activities were adapted to work with the new dismissal times.

“A number of changes had to happen, and change is hard and change is scary, but the benefits of increasing sleep for both students and their parents are really important,” Meltzer said.

More information

Michigan Medicine has more on teenage sleep patterns.

SOURCES: Lisa Meltzer, PhD, pediatric psychologist and professor, pediatrics, National Jewish Health Center, Denver; Cora Breuner, MD, MPH, professor, pediatrics/adolescent medicine, and adjunct professor, orthopedics and sports medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, and attending physician, Seattle Children’s Hospital; Sleep Health, Oct. 8, 2021, online