The importance of establishing toddler routines

It’s 7am. We open the door to our toddler’s bedroom, wish him a good morning and hand him his sippy cup of milk. He’ll usually say, “Open curtains and blinds. Turn off fan. Turn on light.” He knows to expect all of this because it’s what we do almost every morning. Our whole day is littered with little rituals—from putting his toys on the couch before meal times to placing his clothes into the hamper before bath times. Even our daily flow has a rhythm that relies on a general structure; a template of sorts that we fill in.

Routines can often turn chaos into calm with my toddler. One of the reasons he sometimes throw a tantrum is because his life is feeling a little chaotic and he doesn’t like it one bit. And when his life is disrupted—whether from minor things as an irregular sleep schedule or major life events like moving to a new home—having a routine can help lessen potential tantrums and offer him a sense of familiarity.

I’ve found several other benefits that routine provides, including:

Less power struggles
When we tell our toddler every day, “It’s bath time; let’s clean up your room,” resistance grows less and less because cleaning up his room is just what we do when it’s bath time. And when it’s time to take a nap, he (now) knows that he’s supposed to lie in bed and rest, and that eventually he’ll wake up and we’ll come get him.

A sense of security
Sometimes it seems like separation anxiety never fully goes away, but because we drop him off and pick him up at my aunt’s house the same time on the same days, he tends to pick up the pattern: “They’re leaving now, but they’ll come back to pick me up because they always do.”

After meal times, LO runs to the bathroom and climbs on the steps so that he can wash his hands and face as well as brush his teeth without having to ask him.

Less to worry about, more to focus on
Because of the predictability in our toddler’s life, he can spend less time feeling anxious or worrisome and use that time to play, relax, and explore. He doesn’t have to worry whether something unpleasant will come up.

Does having a routine mean we have no spontaneity?
Not at all. I think of routines as templates with “pillars”—you tend to have a set time for waking up, bathing, eating and sleeping—that can be filled in with spontaneous activities. For instance, after snack time is usually a good time for us to go on a family outing, which often varies from week to week.

And special occasions almost always warrant a near-complete disruption of routine (holidays, anyone?).  However, he knows that after all the hullabaloo, we’ll return to our regular days. And even vacations don’t usually cause an upheaval because of all the days of having regular, predictable routine.

These days our daily routine on a weekend can include:

  • 7am – wake up and eat breakfast
  • 9:30am – snack time
  • 12pm – lunch
  • 1pm – nap
  • 4pm – snack
  • 6pm – dinner
  • 7pm – bath
  • 7:30pm – bed time

Simple routines can make the difference between a happy, restful toddler and an anxious, over-tired one. When we all know what to expect, we don’t have to continually ask, “What’s next?”

Do routines work for your kids?

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5 thoughts on “The importance of establishing toddler routines

  1. Agree entirely about the benefits of routine. I never thought I’d be a routine-mum when I was pregnant but my little one really seems to thrive on it. It can be a pain when you sometimes can’t do things you might like to do but generally most stuff can be incorporated somehow and the benefits definitely out weigh the downsides.

  2. I agree with routine as well, as long as it isn’t too strict. I find my toddler feels more confident and self assured knowing what is happening and having a pattern to her life.

    • Yeah we’re flexible with routine. Sometimes you just have to encroach on nap time, or adjust bed time because he woke up late that day, or because there’s a special event. It’s like a compromise between his schedule and ours!

  3. Absolutely spot-on. I am a huge fan of routine and I think people unfairly assume that routine means schedule and inflexibility. I prefer to think of it as a structure to build everything around. The routine is your servant, and you are not a slave to it!

    For big events or outings we go off-routine as well but even then not by much – you can travel during morning nap time so they can sleep, they can have a nap after lunch in the corner of a restaurant or being pushed round a theme park, they can cat-nap on the way home. When my eldest was a baby we had several weddings and we would black out her pram and let her sleep in the corner. And I find that because they are used to eating and sleeping at the same times they are ready for naps regardless even though they are out and about.

    I think the world is a big unpredictable place for small children and routine gives them structure and security so they know what is happening to them.

    Great post 🙂

  4. Routines are a must! My son is a little difficult, so I go to the extreme –

    Every 15 minutes a special, fun sounding alarm goes off on my iPhone – and then he knows it’s time to change activities. When he hears the sound he gets very excited and claps his hands. Before the alarm system he would have a meltdown every time we changed toys, or rooms, or made any changes at all. For snacks and meals, a duck sound goes off, and he gets so happy that he actually starts dancing.

    It’s amazing how much his behavior has improved since instituting this really rigid schedule – he’s like a different kid!!

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