Are your mornings a nightmare? A frantic rush—with parents and kids cranky and running late? No more: Try these tips for smoothing out your mornings from child-rearing experts, professional organizers, and savvy moms on the frontlines of the morning madness.
For starters, consider that draggy mornings may mean some of you (or all of you!) aren't getting enough sleep, says Anita Chandra-Puri, M.D., a pediatrician in Chicago and the mother of four sons. Sleep needs vary from child to child (and parent to parent). In fact, a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60 percent of children under 18 complained of being tired during the day, while 15 percent of children said they actually fell asleep at school. How much sleep does your family need? Check out the National Sleep Foundation.
Once you know your family's sleep needs, back up bedtime, bathtime, storytime, dinnertime—whatever needs to happen earlier so that you all can get to bed earlier and wake up more rested.
Re-filling diaper bags, packing toddler snacks, signing permission slips—these are the things that can take up precious morning minutes. That's why lots of parents suggest getting ready for the morning the night before.
"We're not morning people, so we do everything the night before," says Karen McBride, a fourth-grade teacher and mother of Mallorie, 12, and Matthew, 9, in Overland Park, Kansas: "Homework is finished, backpacks are ready and by the door (or sometimes even in the car), the next day's outfits are chosen, and lunches are made." McBride even sets out cereal bowls and vitamins on the table in preparation for the morning.
Kelly O'Connor, mother of six, in Leawood, Kansas, has a similar night-before rule. "I don't deal with permission slips or laundry issues the morning of," she says. "I know I'm mean!" But her children know what she expects.
If children—even little ones—know where things go when the walk in the house, they'll have an easier time packing up in the mornings, says Noelle Micek, owner of An Organized Nest (anorganizednest.com), an interior organization and design firm in San Francisco. It works in the Chandra-Puri household where "each son empties his backpack, water bottle, and lunch bag when he comes in the door," she says.
If you walk the child through the process a few days in a row—"Backpacks go here, lunch bags go here, important school papers live here"—it may even become a habit, says Jim Fay, co-author of Parenting With Love and Logic and co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute. "Parents think kids are born already trained, but they're not," Fay says. He suggests holding practice sessions on weekends if kids aren't picking up on the drill.
Practicing expectations and getting every family member involved in organization strategies and rituals will pay off, says Mary Pankiewicz, owner of Clutter-Free & Organized (clutterfree.biz), a professional organizing business in eastern Tennessee, and the mother of seven children. "Don't be surprised if the kindergartener comes up with the best idea," she says. And watch how invested they become in making mornings run smoothly when they're involved in the solutions, says Paul Horowitz, M.D., founding partner of Discovery Pediatrics in Valencia, California. "It's empowering for a child to take responsibility," Dr. Horowitz says. And it can have a powerful impact: At the O'Connor household, children make their beds and bring their dirty clothes downstairs every day before breakfast. "We started this when they were little and it just became a good habit," O'Connor says. Rituals work!
A centrally located calendar is also useful so "everyone's on the same page," organizer Micek says. If you teach everyone to check the calendar each evening, there won't be any stress-inducing emergencies in the morning ("The dozen brownies, art supplies, fill in the blank were for today?!"). Colors and stickers can help little ones understand the week's plans; older kids and adults may want to synchronize the calendar with their cell phones.
That moment of peace before the rest of the house wakes? Parents often need it. In fact, getting up early to enjoy those calm minutes can help you set the tone for the morning, your children, and the rest of the day, Dr. Chandra-Puri says. "Get yourself ready before you wake the children, and you'll be better able to concentrate on them," she says.
"If the boys [ages 2 and 4] get up before I'm ready, it becomes chaotic," says Sherri Hefley, of Oronogo, Missouri, who works part-time as a physical therapist. "We feel rushed and it takes me longer to get ready. Me getting up first is the key to a successful day."
Children as young as 4 or 5 years old can use an alarm clock, according to Dr. Horowitz. Help give them ownership of their mornings by letting them shop for an age-appropriate clock (digital clocks may be easier for the youngest family members). Show them how to use it and, with younger children, make a point of talking about time and rituals as you set it each night. With your guidance, they'll learn to better understand the school evening and morning rituals that will help you get out the door calmly.
Parents may want to read Sandra Boynton's board book Hey! Wake Up! to help familiarize young children with morning routines. Organizer Pankiewicz also likes the On-Task On-Time timer, which can be personalized with stickers so even preschoolers understand how long they have to brush teeth, dress themselves, and do other get-ready activities.
If you've made a plan and your mornings still have a habit of going haywire, do a trigger list. What, exactly, sends your mornings into a tailspin? Identify and deal with those for saner mornings, Pankiewicz says. If your toddler insists on wearing the same shirt every day and you don't want him wearing it dirty, for example, buy three of them so you'll always have one handy. If your daughter insists on changing clothes a few too many times in the a.m., have her do the fashion show the night before. If the impractical pink plastic sandals aren't acceptable for school days, explain and put them away for weekends only. Favorite hair accessories, shin guards, or must-have stuffed animals for the car? Have a designated spot where they live so you always know where to find them—stat.
When her oldest daughter started preschool, Barbara Alden Wilson, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, instituted a no-TV-in-the-a.m. rule. Her daughters are 14 and 11 now, and it's still Wilson's number one tactic for calm on-time mornings: "I find that even today, if I put the news on the TV to check the weather or something, the girls become hypnotized by it and just stop moving," she says.
At the Horowitz house, everyone eats breakfast together as a family because dinners don't often work out with busy schedules. "Everything has to be done in time for breakfast, so it becomes a staging ground for getting out of the house," the father of three says.
And though it's an old saw that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it is critically important. "The brain needs some nourishment and energy, especially before school," Dr. Horowitz says. The right fuel—and your calm routine—will send your family off happy and healthy.