Do Toddlers Need Routines?
The simple answer is yes. But why?
The most important reason is that routines provide a sense of certainty and security, which is particularly important in early childhood.
Toddlers thrive on having structure and regular routines to their day. They need predictability.
A lot of changes are happening in them. They are growing and developing rapidly – their language, social and motor skills. They also feel small in the world. Things are happening TO them. All these can be very overwhelming to the little ones.
What Are The Benefits of Having Routines?
- Having regular routines help toddlers to comprehend and know “what happens next” in their day.
Toddlers are still too young to understand the concept of time. Rather than organizing their lives by hours, they order their daily life by events that happen. Hence, having events happening in the same order everyday helps kids build a predictable foundation to understand concepts such as “before and after”, as well as learn to make simple predictions and plans for the future.
- A regular schedule gives the toddlers a greater sense of predictability and control, hence allowing them to feel safer and less anxious. They tend to become more well-behaved and calm.
Order and consistency give toddler a safe haven from the otherwise seemingly overwhelming and unpredictable world. They are more co-operative as they are less likely to feel that they are being pushed around by circumstances and reasons that seem arbitrary to them.
- Routines also help children develop self-control. This means having less meltdowns and learning the concept of looking forward to activities that they enjoy (instead of seeking instant gratification).
We know how easily the little ones get cranky when they are hungry or tired. However, once they are used to the idea that they will get to eat their lunch or get their nap after certain events (such as picking up their elder siblings from school), they will be more likely to wait a little longer before losing it.
Similarly, your kids may want to play in the backyard now but because they have learnt that there’s a certain time to do a particular activity, they can look forward to it rather than insisting to go now.
- A regular schedule fosters responsibility and independence as the young toddlers will be able to perform more activities on their own after they repeatedly do the same things many times in a familiar environment. Slowly, they will gain more self-confidence.
Just like us, kids handle changes best when it is expected, and when that change happens in the context of a familiar routine or environment. When they have gained self-mastery in some tasks, they can move on to tackle bigger changes/challenges. For example, after they are comfortable with trips to the local grocery store, you can slowly get them to try paying for the purchases.
- Eliminates power struggle and helps kids cope with transitions.
Transitioning from one activity to another can be very challenging at times, such as going from play to lunch, from the store to home or transitioning to bedtime. Establishing a routine can help to eliminate argument or power struggle because the expectations of behavior/events have been set in place.
Your rebellious 1-2 year-olds will not see you as bossing them around (you do not have to be the bad guy nagging them to stop playing and get on to the showers), because these activities are just what we do at this time of the day… every day.
- Routines provide learning opportunities.
Routines are more than just maintenance activities such as eating or taking the bath. These daily activities and routines are actually great opportunities for your child’s learning and development. For example, the patterns and routines of greetings, as well as playing with the neighborhood kids are chances to develop their social and interaction skills.
Activities such as taking a walk or running an errand at the grocer are also chances to build and nurture their self-confidence, curiosity, communication skills and more. Focus on getting the kids to use their senses, such as touching the mud when they are out playing or stop to watch the bug while you are taking a stroll or smelling the apples at the grocery store.
Also, you can guide them to help you in chores like choosing or bagging the apples, which will in turn help to build their confidence. Throughout the activities, talk to your child and encourage him to share his thoughts.
- Structure and routine help kids internalize constructive behaviors.
Through structure and routines, kids will learn to how to sit themselves down to finish a task (even if it may be unpleasant), as well as learn and develop basic self-care habits (such as grooming routines).
- Toddlers with routines have been found to be more adaptable to changes and stressful situations.
When young children are in an environment where they feel safe and know what to expect, they become more confident in both themselves and the world around them. They learn that they can trust others to take care of them and meet their needs.
Hence, they become free to relax and explore their world. There are many unpredictable changes in life. What we can offer to our children is a predictable foundation so that they grow up confident and can rise to the occasion to handle bigger changes when needed.
Don’t Forget… Kids Love Repetition
Do you remember the times you were almost driven crazy reading the same book over and over to your toddler? Or just how many times the kids re-watched Frozen?
The kids, however, never seems to be bored by it. In fact, kids like and need repetition.
Repeated behaviors like you reading the same book or singing the same lullaby while tucking them to sleep provide them the comfort of knowing that they are in a loving safe environment.
Repetition is also how they learn and test out their hypotheses of how the world works.
Their confidence and self-esteem are boosted when they know what’s next, through repetition.
Tips To Establishing Routines For Your Toddler:
- Building a routine for your toddler does not mean that it is a rigid, boring, and oppressive schedule that needs to be followed like clockwork.
While we are building a structure, we must remember that young toddlers need to explore and experiment, as well as have lots of opportunities to learn to make their own decisions. Hence, it is important to include plenty of ease and opportunities for them to do so within certain windows of their schedule.
There are times when you can offer your toddler a limited selection of choices, for example the games to play. However, there are times like bath or nap time when no choices should be given to them.
To make things interesting and different, you can have activity blocks like “Adventure” or “Errands” where you may be doing something different every day, such as going to the grocery store or visiting grandma. To make it a learning experience and also help your toddler feel secure about his/her day, talk to him/her about what comes next.
On the way home after the activity, review and positively reinforce the experience. Again, talk about what comes next so he/she knows what to expect.
- To help your toddler develop a sense of their routines, create a picture schedule and hang it on the wall at their height.
Create cardboard cards with words and pictures (or photos of your child doing that activity) depicting each daily activity. It can be as detailed as wake up, get dressed, potty, brush teeth, breakfast, snack, play time, nap, errands, crafts time, reading time, bath time, play outside, etc.
As you may want to move activities around, you can either make a pocket chart so that you can slot/change the relevant activity cards or you can make use of Velcro to stick the cards to the board. In this case, you can replace generic activity block like ‘Errands’ with ‘Visit Grandma’ or ‘Grocery’.
As your toddler is still too young to tell time, it is best to arrange the activities as a list in sequential order.
You may want to work together with your toddler to create this DIY picture schedule as one of your crafts. While working on it, you may also want to explain to your toddler what the picture schedule is about. They will be more receptive since they are involved in the process of building it.
Having a pictorial schedule is a great way to foster independence and self-sufficiency as your toddler will be able to look at the pictures and recognize what step comes next. There will also be less meltdowns and tantrums. For example, bath time is always after dinner so now he/she cannot get angry with your ‘sudden’ bath time announcement.
- Include transition time in your schedule.
For example, before moving on to the next activity, let your child know that he/she has 10 minutes left before moving on the next routine. It is also a good idea to start building the habit of having the kids pick up their toys, so include 15 minutes for that before moving from play time to the next routine. Instead of just telling your toddler to clean up, it is more effective to work alongside him/her.
- Focus on building flexibility and adaptability.
While it is comforting to build a predictable foundation for your toddler, you wouldn’t want him/her to be so dependent and rigid that he/her will fall apart when things deviate from the plan. And of course, there are special occasions when routines can to be broken (or adjusted).
Hence, try to encourage flexibility and adaptability too. Within the framework of an established schedule, make small changes. One at a time.
For instance, you can add variety to the same thing you do – change a different book to read, or go to a new playground with his/her playmates.
Also try doing the same activities, but with someone different – it can be dad, grandma or a babysitter. In the process, children will learn that they can depend on other adults to meet his needs.
However, it is always important to prep them beforehand when there is a disruption or change to the usual routines. For example, you can tell your child, “I know we usually do… but today we are doing… because…” You can go on to reassure him/her that his/her needs will be met and you will return to the usual routine tomorrow.
Similarly, after a change in routine is successful, do review and positively reinforce the experience with your child.
- Never force kids into routines that do not work.
This is especially important when you are first establishing the routines for your toddler. Try to look out for cues in your child’s behaviors and build rituals around them. For example, if you notice that he/she usually gets tired, hungry or playful at particular times of the day, simply build the routines around these cues.
- Bed time ritual.
Transitioning to bed time can be one of the biggest battles for many parents. Having a set of bed time rituals is a good way to help children slowdown from the day’s activities, calm down and relate to a set of activities with sleeping.
Kids often get hyperactive when they are tired so you should be starting the bed time routines well before they start yawning. In fact, it could begin from taking a bath and last an hour before they really fall asleep.
When deciding on the bed time rituals, it is important to think about your child’s temperament and preferences. What calms them down?
Here are some ideas:
- Brush teeth
- Put on pajamas
- Play a quiet/calm game.
- Have a chat about the day. Encourage your toddler to tell you about the day and you can prompt him if he/she forgets. This is a great way to build relationship, help in his memory and a great opportunity for positive reinforcement.
- Cuddle up to read a bed time story. Offer your toddler a small selection of books to choose from, but be prepared to read the same books over and over as repetition is key to their learning.
- Sing a lullaby
- Kiss goodnight
What Do You Do When There Is A Major Shake-Up To The Usual Routines?
Disruptions to routines are unavoidable. The key is to minimize the shake-up and maintain as much normalcy as possible.
For example, when the entire family is going away from home to stay for a weekend or if you need to be away from home, the young child will not be able to understand why things are suddenly very different.
You should always prep them first. Use the language they can understand, keep it simple and assure them that everything is fine and his needs will be taken care of. Even if it is an emergency or something urgent, use a calm tone. Remember that young kids are always modelling after the adults. So you would want them to watch your calm behaviour as you handle problems or changes.
If the family is away from home in an unfamiliar environment, try to maintain as much of the regular schedule as possible, such as nap time and bedtime routines. Bringing along some familiar stuff, such as a favorite stuffed toy or their cup/bowl would also help.
Lastly, establishing a toddler’s routines is not about living by the clock or getting stressed out about the precise timings. It is about having a predictable and steady sequence of activities. Remember, a calm parent and organized home give rise to a calmer toddler!