Real World Routines: How to Balance Routine and Spontaneity

A recent trip to Florida did more than force me back into a bathing suit. Traveling with my five-month-old required me to face an even bigger fear: altering his daily routine.

At first I resisted, fearing that the slightest deviation would result in chaos. While our friends sunned themselves by the pool and strolled on the beach at sunset, I sat in the condominium as my baby slept. Finally, I gathered my courage, slathered myself (and my baby) with sunscreen and headed out. What I discovered was that routines, like rules, are sometimes meant to be broken.

The Benefits of Routine

Routines bring order to a child’s world. Without a reliable daily pattern, children can become anxious and overwhelmed. These feelings may lead to behavioral problems and can even interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate and learn.

“I have parents of two-, three-, and four-years-olds saying ‘My kid is just impossible! He is into everything, I am constantly racing after him!’ says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., Director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio and author of Raising Preschoolers. “These are parents who have not instituted a routine.

Instituting routines is not equivalent to putting your child on a schedule. Schedules dictate when something (like naptime) should happen, often requiring parents to live by the clock. Routines alert the mind and body about an upcoming event. For example, picking up their toys and washing their hands signals to kids that playtime is over and lunch is about to begin. When children know what to expect next, there is less resistance. For parents this means spending less time nagging, bribing, and policing.

Elements of an Effective Routine

Routines are being credited with everything from better sleep habits in infants to happier, healthier adolescents. With so much positive press, many parents are eager to create “the perfect routine. Fortunately, effective routines come in many varieties. The best ones respect and complement your child’s age, temperament, and biological rhythms.

Jodi A. Mindell Ph.D., Associate Director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through The Night offers these suggestions:

  • Start Early: You can begin instituting mini-sleep routines in the first two to four weeks of a child’s life. “With a newborn it might be five to ten minutes, says Mindell. “Wipe off their hands and face, change their diaper, sing them a song and put them to bed. Anything that signals to your baby that sleep is coming.
  • Be Consistent: Repetition is key. Do the same activities, in exactly the same order, daily. By the third or fourth month, go one step further by beginning your routines at roughly the same time of day (this adds one more dimension of continuity). Doing the same thing over and over might bore you to tears, but children find it immensely comforting. Teach other childcare providers the details of your routines to help relieve the monotony.
  • Anticipate Your Child’s Requests: Toddlers, in particular, are masters at stalling. If you know that your child will not settle down to lunch until Fluffy is fed, incorporate feeding the cat into her lunchtime routine. But be selective. Limiting the number of steps in a routine keeps it manageable.
  • Choose Appropriate Activities: Most children cannot drift off to sleep after roughhousing with Dad, or chasing the dog around the house. Select activities that relax your child 20 to 30 minutes before bed. If your child hates taking a bath, avoid doing it too close to bedtime (even if a long, hot soak is one of your favorite pre-bed rituals). Your child may opt to do separate activities with different caretakers. Puzzles with Mom and a story with Dad before bed are fine as long as they are soothing to your child.
  • Stay the Course: “A stumbling block for so many families is going downstairs for a video or a snack after getting the kids ready for bed, says Mindell. “Once you are upstairs, stay there. Don’t change direction.
  • Save the Best for Last: The last activity of a routine should be the one your child enjoys most. This is particularly important for toddlers and preschool-age children. Reserving a special toy or game for the last step in a bedtime routine will have kids in and out of the bath and into their pajamas before you can say Rumpelstiltskin.

Make the Routine Work for You

Effective routines, while repetitive, are not static. They should evolve as the needs of your child (and family) change. An increase in your work or family commitments might necessitate modifying or scaling down your current routines. Similarly, illness, family vacations or developmental milestones like pulling-to-stand, crawling, or walking can be temporarily disruptive. There are a few simple things you can do to keep things running smoothly.

First, have a solid routine established before instituting any major changes. Mindell suggests keeping things consistent for three to six weeks before a family vacation. The more habitual the routine, the faster kids fall back into step once they are home. Also, keep daily variations of the routine minimal. Once every couple of weeks is no problem. Three to four times a week is too many.

Cohen cautions against changing too many elements of a routine at once; if the “where of your routine changes, try to keep the “when the same. A nap in the stroller should take place at approximately the same time as naptime at home. Do not give up if your first attempt at a more portable routine is bumpy. Try again after things have settled down.

Second, be flexible. Remember that routines are meant to bring order and structure, but they should not be so rigid that they cause stress and anxiety if they are disrupted. It’s okay to deviate from the routine occasionally, especially if it means experiencing something new and exciting. As my own experience in Florida taught me, sometimes breaking the routine can lead to unexpected joys and experiences.

Third, involve your child in the routine. As children grow and develop, they become more capable of participating in their own routines. Let them take ownership of certain tasks, like choosing their own clothes or helping to prepare their meals. This not only gives them a sense of control and independence, but it also helps to reinforce the routine and make it more enjoyable for everyone.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help when needed. Parenting is hard work, and it’s okay to ask for assistance from family, friends, or professionals when you need it. A trusted babysitter or nanny can help maintain the routine when you need a break, and a pediatrician or child psychologist can provide guidance and support if you’re struggling with behavioral issues or sleep problems.

In conclusion, routines are an important part of a child’s development and can bring many benefits to both the child and the parent. However, it’s important to remember that routines should be flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of the child and family. By following the tips above and finding a routine that works for you, you can create a sense of order and predictability in your child’s life while still allowing for spontaneity and new experiences.

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