Whether you're someone who prefers a structured schedule or the type of person to go with the flow, routines – in one form or another – can be comforting. Even easygoing individuals can be thrown off course by car problems on the way to work or last-minute changes in plans, because these are unexpected detours from our daily routine.
Just as adults find security in knowing the major events of a day, like dropping the kids off at school and going to work, children also find comfort in a recurring routine.
Every child and parenting style is unique. Creating and maintaining a routine may be a piece of cake for you and your child, or you may struggle with the structure in the beginning. Whatever your situation, know that the end result can be a positive one for both you and your child. Routines have the ability to keep you on track, making sure that you're checking things off your to-do list and giving your child a sense of security.
Perhaps the easiest routines to incorporate into your child's day involve major events that have to happen, like bedtime and mealtime. If your child stalls bedtime every night or has trouble winding down at the end of the day, a routine may be the answer for you. You may want to try bath time in the evening, followed by a little quality time cuddling with your child. Let the time right before bed involve lots of hugs, perhaps a bedtime story or a lullaby. These calm activities can end the day with a little nurturing and help your child ease into sleep.
Mealtime can be a headache for many parents. Trying to transition your child to the family's meal schedule after a year or so of bottles and baby food can be a challenge. Children may not be hungry when the rest of the family sits down for dinner or they may turn up their noses at new foods. Helping your child develop an appetite may take some time and effort on your part, but it is possible! You might find it helpful to involve your child in the meal preparation process. Try giving your child the job of washing produce or helping you stir items for the meal; just make sure young children stay away from hot stoves and sharp knives. Helping to prepare a meal may take some of the scariness out of a new food for picky eaters, and it may also help your child work up an appetite when dinner is served.
When creating routines, it's important to look at routines of other family members. For example, don't set an unrealistic bedtime of 7 p.m. if you are just getting home around 6 p.m. You may be able to incorporate a routine into the following areas of your child's day:
- Morning - including waking up, eating breakfast and getting ready for daycare or school.
- Nap time - may involve asking a potty-training child to try to go to the bathroom, a diaper change and a quick lullaby.
- Lunch or snack time - deciding when these will happen in reference to your child's nap time and the rest of the family’s schedule.
- Dinnertime - involve your child in the preparation and clean up. Try establishing a dinner routine for the entire family that allows you all to eat around the table whenever possible.
- Bedtime - include a set time preceded by a bath, a few minutes of downtime with you, a homework check for older children, a bedtime story or lullaby.
If your child attends day care or school, much of the midday planning may be out of your hands during the week, but you can do your part to loosely follow meal times and nap times your child may be used to over the weekends.
Once you have a routine in place, your child may be the one reminding you that it's time for the bedtime story! Maintaining the routine may take some discipline on your part. At the end of a long day, you might feel it's easier to skip the story and go straight to bed or prepare a quick dinner without your little helper. Sure, skipping the routine may let you enjoy a little downtime earlier rather than later, but you may pay more for those few extra minutes in the long run. Remind yourself that your child probably looks forward to the structure you've worked hard to establish. Taking a little shortcut for yourself may throw your child off course and make it harder to fall asleep at bedtime.
Maintaining routines isn't just beneficial for your child; you can reap the benefits too. As an adult, you've probably realized that plans change sometimes, but you can do your part to keep your day on track by sticking to your child's routine. Instead of cutting a few corners to make dinner prep or bedtime go a little faster, you can stick to the plan and prevent unnecessary tantrums from your child.
Routines can also be a safety blanket for your child during periods of transition, like deployments, reunions, moves, the birth of a new baby, or anything else that could potentially confuse your child or create uneasy feelings. A simple morning, bedtime or mealtime routine can give your child structure in an otherwise transitioning home life.
As helpful as routines can be for parents and as much security as they can provide for children, it's important to face them with a degree of flexibility since they will need to grow and change as your child does. A toddler, for example, may need your help getting dressed in the morning, but older children can begin to take on the responsibility of dressing themselves. School-age children will need a homework routine, and you may have to make adjustments for after-school activities.
You can also introduce a little flexibility while still maintaining routines, so that the little hiccups children will inevitably face as they grow are less startling. Try letting different people, like your spouse or other caregiver, put your child to bed in the evening. This person can follow the same routine so your child still feels secure, but the added flexibility may come in handy when a parent deploys or when your child has a baby sitter. Introducing a change like this to your child's routine can help spark an attitude of resilience that your child will eventually need in the real world.
Remember that routines are only helpful if they work for your family dynamic. Don't be afraid to change a routine that doesn't work with your schedule or your child. If after a trial period you and your child are still stressed out about a routine, you may need to tweak your routine to make it a better fit. Talk to other parents and ask them what kind of routines they've had success with.
With the right routines, your child — as well as the rest of your family — can create a schedule that works. Your child will feel secure being able to predict the next part of his or her day. Creating and maintaining routines for your child is one great way to make sure that he or she feels safe, secure and cared for, and an excellent way for you to add a little bit of predictability to the always-changing job of parenting.