Starting a fresh year is often full of happy milestones. However, getting on a good back-to-school morning schedule is rarely one of them.
Kids need a lot of sleep, often with a later wake-up time than adults, and the back-to-school whirlwind can affect the whole family. The return to early hours can feel chaotic for groggy kids used to sleeping in, who are now being hurried out of bed to catch the bus. It can also affect frenzied parents who’ve been up late organizing backpacks, then up early packing lunches and making breakfasts. And let’s not forget teachers, who not only get themselves ready, but must rally tired students to be alert and receptive.
Luckily, there are some changes and habits you can implement to improve your mornings.
“Not every morning will be perfect,” says Jessica Berk, a nationally certified toddler sleep consultant at Awesome Little Sleepers. “But getting in the habit of doing these few things will definitely help.”
Whether you’re a parent or an educator, we’ve got tips for how to set your morning routine to help you and your kids feel energized, from wake-up time to well beyond the final bell.
An energizing morning routine for kids starts with advanced planning
The first step to a better morning routine is planning ahead. This can mean implementing good habits and a school-friendly schedule, days or even weeks before the first day.
“With children heading back to school, it’s important to start moving towards the school year schedule one week before school starts so that children’s bodies have the chance to adjust to an earlier wake time and bedtime,” says Christine Brown, the founder of Bella Luna Family, a sleep consultation solution. “This will ensure that kids are getting enough sleep to wake energized and ready to tackle the school day.”
To get a sense of the right schedule, think about the optimal number of hours of sleep for your child (and you), either by figuring out how much sleep they’ve gotten on days when they’re at their best or by referencing a guide to sleep by age. Once you’ve built in a cushion in the morning for wake-up time and breakfast, count backward to figure out the ideal bedtime.
Once you identify that ideal bedtime, stick to it. Research shows that maintaining a consistent lights-out helps kids glean an average of almost 20 more minutes of sleep per night and improves their ability to fall asleep. Life happens, so minor fluctuations might occur, but aim to keep bedtime within the same 30-minute window. Allow for enough time for the recommended amount of sleep per age.
Nighttime routines help cue your child’s body for sleep, so creating a few rituals can help. This could mean bath time followed by a story session for kids. Older students, parents, and teachers can try a meditation app, reading while sipping herbal tea, or whatever helps aid relaxation. Just be mindful to avoid screen time too close to bedtime. Blue light can suppress melatonin production and release, which occurs when the eyes are exposed to darkness. Melatonin is a hormone that helps ease you into sleep. Screen time before bed is linked to less sleep and later sleep time in kids. And for adults, late-night doomscrolling or email drafting isn’t doing you any favors for the next day.
Carving out ample time for sleep is critical for students, parents, and educators, but other sleep factors may also need a back-to-school revision. In recent research, scientists have defined several sleep factors that matter for kids’ health (though they can apply to anyone). The factors fit nicely in an acronym to help you remember: Peds B-SATED. The “B” stands for behaviors, and it informs the rest of the elements in the acronym: satisfaction with sleep achieved; alertness during waking hours; timing of sleep; sleep efficiency; and overall sleep duration.
The most important things to do when you wake up
Just as there are key components to a quality bedtime, mornings can be bolstered by good habits.
Get exposure to natural light
Just as darkness is important for helping us fall asleep, exposure to light is crucial for waking up; it’s one of our most important zeitgebers. “Light is a cue to our bodies that it’s time to get up and get going,” explains Berk. “Open the blinds in the house, turn on the lights, and get outside if you can. Getting light exposure in the morning helps us feel awake, and it helps to set our circadian rhythm for a good night’s sleep later.”
Sunlight, via our retinas, signals the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in the hypothalamus to set and synchronize our internal clocks. These internal clocks are responsible for many hormonal and other physiological processes that can become misaligned without proper light signaling.
During back-to-school time, the sun may not yet be up when you and your family rise and shine. If it is, aim for getting even just two minutes of natural light exposure by getting out to retrieve the newspaper, walking the dog, or eating breakfast al fresco. If the sun isn’t up, try adding a dawn simulator to your or your child’s bedroom. These devices are lights you can program to brighten progressively as you near your wake-up time. Then hopefully, you and your kids can glean natural light just before heading into the classroom or office.
What To Feed Kids for Breakfast To Feel Energized All Day
It isn’t just marketing: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. What you (and your kids) eat and drink at breakfast can provide a long-lasting energy boost. Avoid the quick and easy high-carb, high-sugar options. “[Those] will be followed by a sugar crash sometime before lunch,” says Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian nutritionist at NCHC.org.
Instead of cereal, bagels, pastries, pancakes, or waffles, Sauza recommends opting for nutrient-dense choices. Fruit juices, which spike blood sugar, can cause the same type of mid-morning crash as high-carb foods.
“Protein at breakfast is the best way to ensure we don’t get hungry too fast and to keep our energy up,” he says, recommending eggs, Greek yogurt with no added sugar, and nuts, seeds, and nut butters as great choices.
Empowering your children to help with breakfast can also ensure that morning meals aren’t a battleground. “I like making some healthy breakfast options with my kids on the weekend,” Berk adds. “Then we have it to eat all week. And when kids help make it, they’re more likely to eat it.”
Sauza recommends drinking a glass of water first thing. “We all lose a significant amount of fluids while we sleep, leading to starting our day slightly dehydrated,” he explains. Getting a jump on water intake can help keep energy up.
Can coffee help in the morning?
Caffeine blocks adenosine, which is a naturally occurring compound in the body that builds throughout the day and eventually drives us to seek sleep. It can provide a boost of morning energy but can also affect sleep.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under 12 avoid caffeine altogether. The recommendation for older kids is to limit any caffeine consumption to 100 mg or less, which is the equivalent of one cup of coffee. Research shows that caffeine intake among adolescents has increased in recent years, which could be contributing to difficulty falling or staying asleep and fatigue upon waking. The half-life of caffeine is five hours, meaning it takes five hours for caffeine’s effects to be reduced by half. So keeping a solid hour buffer between caffeine consumption and bedtime is a good rule; this includes caffeinated sodas in addition to coffee beverages.
Get moving in the mornings
Morning physical activity may help with all-day concentration and creativity for kids and adults, according to research. You don’t necessarily have to head to the gym for an hour-long sweat session — a 15-minute family dance party could wake everyone up and offer some quality time. Try a quick combination of movements that require balance and coordination, along with cardio to get the heart rate up. A few sets of jumping jacks or jogging in place, followed by calming yoga moves, might be all you need to do the trick.
“Play some of your child’s favorite music,” Berk suggests. “Have a breakfast dance party. This helps get their blood flowing in the morning and can set the tone for a great day. Doing some stretches, dancing, or singing is much better than offering screen time.”
Get kids involved in planning their morning
One of the best ways to ensure a good morning is by getting your kids invested in making sure each day goes well.
“Optimally invigorate your child in the morning by granting them the independence to discern the most effective routine for themselves,” says Matthew Schubert, a mental health counselor with Gem State Wellness. “Once established, parents can reaffirm the anticipations outlined by the child. Bestowing this autonomy upon your child will embolden them to cultivate a personalized morning routine that suits them perfectly.”
Brown recommends drafting a chart so that older children can see the steps of their routine without having to ask their parents. “The chart can be hung in the bathroom or outside of the child’s room, setting the expectations of what needs to be done before they head to the kitchen for breakfast,” she explains. “This is especially helpful for school-aged children to streamline their routine and hopefully prevent parents from saying ‘brush your teeth,’ what feels like a thousand times and potentially losing their patience.”
Finally, setting a positive tone before everyone leaves the house can also help ensure the smoothest day possible. Berk recommends a mantra. “It can be something you say when everyone is heading out the door, like, ‘I’m going to be a great friend and learn something new today,’” she says.