My daughter was thrilled to get her first alarm clock the week before she started prekindergarten. And I was thrilled to give it to her. I imagined her bouncing out of bed each morning, hitting the “off” button, and cheerfully slipping on her clothes. But Eva, now 7, her sweet head just inches from the nightstand, has slept through the buzzer ever since.
As so many of us know, how the morning starts can make or break a day for children and parents with things to do and places to be. More times than I can count, my efforts to pry Eva out of bed have earned me the title “Meanest Mommy in the World!”
I know I’m not alone in wishing that my child would actually arise on time and perform her get-ready rituals with a smile on her face. And it’s not just my own sanity I’m out to save. “The morning can be special for everybody,” says child psychologist Marjorie Hardy, Ph.D., of Allentown, PA. “It’s the time when you have the opportunity to strike a positive note for the rest of the day.” Here, strategies from experts and parents to help even an A.M.-challenged family do just that.
Jessica Snyder Sachs is a health and science writer based in Georgia.
Be Armed and Ready
In wake-up routines—as in war—preparation is key. “Eliminate as many chores from your morning as possible,” says child psychologist Julian Ang, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado Health Science Center. That’s especially important with the under-6 set, says Ang, who packs her 2-year-old son’s daycare bag at night and leaves it by the door.
“Our rule is no decision-making in the morning,” says Elena Gizang-Ginsberg, Ph.D., a biology professor in Yorktown Heights, NY. “That means clothes laid out, special toys selected, homework done and packed up the night before.” The morning reward for this exercise in efficiency: more time for cuddles on the couch with 4-year-old Eliza and 8-year-old Keira before Gizang-Ginsberg and her husband, a pediatric dentist, whisk the girls off to before-school care. “The extra time is for us as much as for them,” she says.
Make Dreamtime Count
No matter how well-prepared you and your child are for the morning, if he doesn’t get enough sleep the night before, you’re sunk. “He should be opening his eyes before you go in to wake him,” says Richard Ferber, M.D., author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. According to Dr. Ferber, children 6 months through 5 years old need about 11 hours of nighttime sleep. (Younger babies spread their sleep throughout the day.) After 5, a child’s nightly sleep needs decrease gradually, about 15 minutes a year, to 8 1/4 hours by age 17. So any hope of initiating pleasant mornings has to begin with getting bedtime right.
Sticking to a bedtime routine can give your child a sense of comfort. Many experts recommend reserving about an hour to wind down; children can lay out the next day’s clothing and make sure backpacks contain homework or favorite daycare take-alongs.
This done, some kids still fight going to dreamland. To adjust such a child’s sleep time, Dr. Ferber suggests a parent begin by cheerfully allowing him to stay up till he falls asleep on his own. “This way bedtime can become pleasant rather than filled with tension,” he explains. Start shifting wake up 15 minutes earlier every week.That way, he’ll naturally begin to grow sleepy sooner in the evening, until he’s reached your desired bedtime.
- Resist allowing kids to catch up on sleep during the day (beyond age-appropriate naps), or they may not be tired enough to sleep come bedtime.
- Keep to your schedule on weekends. “Going to bed late and sleeping late even one or two nights a week can be enough to throw off a child’s sleep routine,” says Dr. Ferber.
- Get yourself to bed at a reasonable hour. You’ll be better able to deal with whatever happens in the morning.
Ease Kids Awake
With ample sleep, most children will wake up without help. But when they don’t and you have to rouse them, be sure you do it gently. “You can’t expect kids to respond like troops to reveille,” says Cornell University psychologist James Maas, Ph.D., author of Power Sleep.
If a kiss and a whispered “Good morning” work, great. If not, try moving about the room, opening shades, turning on lights, talking softly, or playing music. Some children respond to a cool washcloth across the forehead or being gently repositioned.
If such maneuvers get no response, give your child five to ten minutes more to emerge from sleep before trying again, suggests Ang. Of course, such delay tactics mean you have to build extra time into your morning schedule.
And if all else fails? “Scoop and carry” is the last resort in the Badie household, in Norcross, GA. Dad Rick will give 2-year-old Miles a five-minute warning: “Then, if he’s still not out of bed, I just pick him up and start getting him ready. He’ll protest for all of two minutes, and then we have a good time.”
Some kids who, on their own, tend to pop awake directly out of deep sleep, still require special handling. “They need their space in the morning,” says Dr. Ferber. “So make sure you allow ten minutes or so before you ask them to do anything.”
As with any groggy child, don’t take growling and disrespectful sleep talk personally, says child-discipline expert Bob Lancer, author of Parenting With Love. “If your kid wakes up screaming ‘I hate you,’ it could be that you resemble the creepy monster that was just in his dream.”
Time It Right
After little feet hit the floor, some dawdling is natural. “Children don’t understand about rushing because they’re not thinking about what’s next — they’re thinking about what they’re doing that moment,” says Hardy. “You need to slow down your speed, especially with a toddler or preschooler.” Once in grade school, kids gradually understand how long it takes to complete tasks.
So how much time is enough for getting a child up and ready? As with bedtime rituals, it depends on the child, and on the family. While it takes a few minutes to change and carry a sleeping baby out the door, a child old enough to feed and dress herself may need an hour. Marjorie Hardy’s own schedule with her son, Matthew, 3, stretches over two hours. “He plays. I read. We linger over breakfast,” says Hardy.
For toddlers such as Miles Badie, whose active role in the morning routine, besides eating breakfast and brushing his teeth, consists of stepping into pants and raising his arms so a shirt can be slipped over them, “forty-five minutes is just about right,” says his dad. “But try paring it to thirty minutes and things get real harried.”
Parents can further reduce morning-time stress by shaving the right corners. Even at age 4, Eliza doesn’t mind arriving at her daycare provider’s house in jammies, says Gizang-Ginsberg. “If she doesn’t feel like getting dressed one morning, we just shove her clothes in a bag and go.”
Cutting corners can backfire, however, as I found out last summer. I figured we could skim 15 minutes off Eva’s morning schedule if she ate breakfast during our 40-minute drive to day camp. On the third morning, she stopped me in my tracks with a mournful, “Mom, ple-e-ease let me eat breakfast at home.”
As most parents know, even a well-rested, unrushed child can dawdle an entire morning away if not kept on schedule. One way to stay on track: Make mornings a balance between intervention and independence. “Helping children get dressed is one way to connect in the morning,” says Ang. “I’m all for encouraging independence, but I’m not rigid about having six-year-olds dress themselves.” If you do dress your children in the morning, give them opportunities to practice the skill on their own during afternoons and weekends.
It can help everyone’s efficiency to keep distractions, such as favorite toys, out of sight and television to a minimum, says Hardy. When TV is needed—to occupy an early riser while you dress, say—be crystal clear as to when showtime ends and what has to happen then: “As soon as Barney’s over, we’re going to brush our teeth.”
Try the Tag-Team Approach
For some couples, sharing the morning-preparation workload can make mornings purr.
“I’m the wake-up-and-dress person,” says Gizang-Ginsberg, “and my husband makes breakfast.” When Suzy Brown of San Diego was still nursing 4-month-old Sarah, her husband got 4-year-old Laura ready for preschool.
If both parents work, it’s especially valuable if one can leave late on mornings when the unexpected strikes. As a freelance photographer, Badie’s wife takes over if Miles isn’t ready when Rick has to leave for the office.
Be a Good “Mood Model”
Finally, remember that children mirror our moods. “Your child’s behavior depends on your rapport,” says Lancer. “Children get hurt when they feel they’re being shoved out the door.” He urges parents to spend five to ten minutes each morning giving each child some undivided attention.
Taking such advice to heart, I now wriggle under the covers with Eva for a brief cuddle before peeling back the blankets. Afterward, she’s surprisingly receptive to getting out of bed. Our conversation is like a Pied Piper’s flute, luring her into clothes, through the bathroom, and on to breakfast.