Why Is Routine Important for Babies?

Routine Interruptions

  • Be prepared to be flexible. Just when you get comfortable with one routine, your child may decide she's ready to move on. Elizabeth Cooper, of Brooklyn, New York, remembers the morning her then-8-month-old daughter, Lila, said goodbye to her regular 10 a.m. siesta. "She refused to sleep and just cried," says Cooper. "I was convinced she needed that morning nap and persisted long after I should have given up," says Cooper. "I got so used to our schedule, it was difficult to see that she was changing and go with her needs."

    If your child is resisting her usual routine, you'll need to take a step back and analyze the situation. With small babies (under 9 months), biology is often to blame: If your infant is sleepy and agitated at bath time, she may need an earlier bedtime.
  • Testing the rules. By around 18 months, toddlers have a good idea of what is supposed to happen -- and may want to change things just to test out their own power. "Sticking to a routine becomes problematic when children realize they have some control," says Shapiro. Your child is more likely to cooperate if you let her win part of the battle. Bedtime itself may be non-negotiable, for instance, but what pajamas she wears can be her call.
  • Mix it up. From 2 years on up, a little dose of variety can go a long way in keeping kids engaged in a routine that's gone stale. This might mean adding a silly song about brushing teeth to the getting-ready-for-preschool ritual, for example. At this age, "Parents use routines to gain cooperation," says Dr. Karp.

Sometimes, of course, deviations from the norm can't be helped -- a vacation, perhaps, or a bout of the flu. How your child handles change depends on her temperament, says Shapiro. But you can make it easier on kids by trying to make new situations familiar; take toys from home on a trip, for example, and keep mealtimes and bedtime the same.

Still, most experts agree that it's okay to mix things up a bit from time to time. A few unexpected departures can teach young children flexibility, resilience, and tolerance.

It's always important to respect routines that have a special meaning for your child, but as Kavo puts it: "To learn that life is still good, stable, and safe when your routine is altered is also very important."

Jacqueline Burt Wang is a writer in Brooklyn, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2005.

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