Some adults thrive on routine; others can imagine nothing worse. For most children, routines give them a sense of security, especially around sleeping and eating. Children often have little control over their daily activities, so knowing what to expect is a big deal to them. Routines are even more important for children who have a hard time dealing with last-minute changes, either because of special needs or their personality.
You’re less likely to send your kid to school without his or her lunch if you have a little structure in your morning. The same is true at bedtime, which can turn from sweet dreams into a bit of a nightmare if it’s a frantic rush. So whether you’re Type A or a free spirit, taking time to plan some routines for your family can pay off in less stressful days for you and your kids.
Planning routines for your family doesn’t mean scheduling every hour of the day in 10-minute blocks. It just means setting up more order around things you already do, like feeding your kids or putting them to bed. Here are some suggestions:
- Be realistic. Getting home from work at 6:00 p.m. isn't going to let a 7:00 bedtime happen unless you have super powers. Think carefully about your and your family's schedule to guide your timing.
- Be patient. It would be awesome if your child took to the schedule on day one, but refer to the point above. Routines require practice and time for your child to get used to them.
- Try to have meals together as a family as often as possible. This is a little tricky when you're moving your baby from bottles and baby food to the real stuff, and when older kids have sports and other activities. But it's worth it to have everyone eat at the same time when it's doable.
- Make mealtime run more smoothly. Having your kid set the table or doing another pre-meal task can help him or her switch gears from whatever the child was doing just before then. Picky eaters are less likely to reject whatever's on their plate if they're somehow involved in the preparation. (Just don't have your toddler man the grill.)
- Ease into nap time and bedtime. There's no on-off switch on your child. You can't set the kid in the crib or bed and expect instant snoring. Gradually wind down by doing a diaper change, bathroom trip, bath or stories to help them slow down.
- Keep the same general structure. If your nighttime routine is always bath-pajamas-stories-sleep, that helps your child know what to expect, which can avoid clever delay tactics to push bedtime later and later. Using the same sequence can be particularly helpful if your child has special needs and thrives on routines.
If your kids attend day care or school, much of their daytime, weekday schedule is set by someone else. You can help the weekends go more smoothly if you can stick to roughly the same time for snacks and naps. Routines don’t have to be complex — the simpler, the better, and the easier to maintain.
Sticking to your routine may take a bit of discipline on your part. After a long day at work, you could be tempted to skip the bedtime stories and get your child to bed more quickly. The five minutes you save not reading that book could turn into 15 minutes of negotiating and trying to get your child to sleep. Use these tips to help you stay the course:
- Remind yourself that your child probably looks forward to certain routines and relies on them for a feeling of security.
- Know that well-established routines can help your child adjust during challenging times, like a deployment, PCS or new sibling.
- Don't be afraid to change a routine that's not working. If nap time has become an epic battle, switch it up.
- Let your partner or someone else run the bedtime routine once in a while so your child gets used to others handling the duty. This will come in handy if you're deployed or if you use a babysitter.
- Be flexible. Your routine may need to be adjusted occasionally because of things outside of your control, like holidays, vacations, and daylight saving time — which pretty much all kids refuse to acknowledge.
Routines sometimes need to change, even though the whole point of a routine is predictability. As your child grows, you’ll be able to ditch the nap time routine, but you’ll need to create a new routine for homework. (You might want to continue the routine of prompting your child to use the bathroom before a road trip until the kid is, say, 20.) The key is small adjustments that best fit your family’s changing schedule. No matter what they look like, routines are a great way to help your kids feel secure and make your days less stressed.