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Establishing Toddler Routines

Toddler writing on a dry-erase board

Andrew Parsons

Keelee Rakowski has a schedule you could set your watch by. If it's 7 a.m., the 22-month-old is eating breakfast. Then she plays with her older brother, Aidan, until 8:45 and heads to the park with her mom. Snacktime comes at 10:30. The rest of the morning has its order too: playtime, followed by drawing, lunch, books, and naptime. "To me, not keeping her on a schedule would be like trying to run a business without a business plan," says Keelee's mom, Mary Jo, who lives in Denver.

The Rakowski's routine may be a bit rigid for most moms. Still, experts agree that 1-year-olds thrive on having structure to their day. Why? An awful lot is changing in your child's world. Her language, social, and motor skills are developing rapidly. And while these are all good things, this rapid-fire period of learning can easily overwhelm a toddler. "Your child needs some consistency to her day, a predictable sequence that lets her explore the world without worry," says Victoria Manion Fleming, PhD, a child and family therapist in Northbrook, Illinois.

Getting a toddler on a schedule isn't as challenging as you might think. In fact, your child can help dictate it. She probably gets tired or hungry or playful at a particular time each day. You simply need to read these cues and build rituals around them. "You should have a calming transition time for naps, a mealtime routine, and a regular time for play," says David Burnham, MD, a pediatrician and medical director of the HealthEast Maplewood Clinic, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It's worth the effort: Within a few weeks of establishing a routine, you'll notice these five benefits.

Your toddler will gain confidence.

When a 1-year-old can identify what comes next in his day, he feels more comfortable and capable. It's soothing too: Knowing there's always a sippy cup waiting for him after his nap or that he'll get to read Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? once he brushes his teeth will help him feel he has a little more control over his world.

You'll put an end to bedtime battles.

Toddlers with consistent nighttime schedules tend to fall asleep easier and sleep longer than kids who don't have a regular evening routine, says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, editor of The Wonder Years. That's because once your child gets used to a specific sequence of events, she'll settle down and get ready to nod off. Maya Feehely, a 14-month-old from Toronto, has a cup of milk at 8:30 p.m. Then she and her mother, Anne, play for a while. At 9:00, her dad takes her upstairs for a bath, books, and a prayer. Then he puts her down at 9:30 (the Feehelys pushed back Maya's bedtime because she had been waking up extremely early in the morning). "She smiles and waves to me and goes upstairs, which tells me she understands that the bedtime routine is starting," says her mom.

A schedule can be flexible.

Once you have a routine in place, your child may actually be more adaptable when you need to shift it, such as when you?re going out for the evening or spending an overnight at Grandma's. "Toddlers with routines also seem to adjust better to stressful situations, such as moving, switching daycare centers, or welcoming a baby sibling," says Dr. Altmann. Carol Carmody was concerned about how her 19-month-old son, Jimmy, would handle a recent plane ride. "We knew we'd have to wake him up halfway through his nap to make our flight," says the mom from Kensington, Maryland. "But as it turned out, he was fine. I think putting him down at a consistent time was more important than how long he slept."

Your child may have fewer meltdowns.

You know how quickly a 1-year-old can become cranky when she's tired or hungry. But a schedule can help her chill out (for a while). For instance, once your toddler gets used to the idea that she'll eat lunch as soon as you get home from picking up her older sibling at preschool, she'll learn to wait a bit before losing it. "Kids with a routine are better at handling momentary chaos," says Dr. Burnham.

It helps moms get through the day.

Having a routine lets you know exactly when you'll get a respite, which makes it easier to deal with the trying moments during the day. Just ask Michele Staron, a mom in Las Vegas. "I'm wiped out by dinnertime," she says, "but since I know with certainty that my 17-month-old, Austin, will be asleep at 8 p.m., I can get through those last few hours without losing it."

Reading the same book over and over may drive you crazy, but it's good for your toddler. Among the payoffs:

  1. Comfort: Repeated behaviors (such as singing "Rock-a-bye Baby" or tucking your child's doll into bed when you put her down) remind your little one that she's in a loving, safe environment.
  2. Learning: Through repetitive acts (such as banging one block against another), your 1-year-old tests hypotheses (will the block always make the same sound?). He also figures out the order of events: In Goodnight Moon, for instance, he'll remember that the page with the three little bears sitting on chairs comes before the one with two little kittens and a pair of mittens.
  3. Confidence: Knowing the words to a story or song boosts your child's self-esteem. Even if she can't sing "Old MacDonald" yet, she'll enjoy making the animal sounds for each verse.

A Sample Schedule

Need help establishing a routine for your toddler? Borrow this blueprint -- then adjust it to your own needs.

6:45 a.m. Wake up, play in the crib or your bed
7:30 a.m. Breakfast
8:00 a.m. Get dressed, brush teeth
8:30 a.m. Read books and play
10:30 a.m. Morning snack
11:00 a.m. Arts and crafts
11:30 a.m. Listen to music
12:00 p.m. Lunch and cleanup
12:30 p.m. Naptime
2:30 p.m. Afternoon snack
3:00 p.m. Outdoor play/walk
5:30 p.m. Dinner
6:00 p.m. Playtime and cleanup
7:00 p.m. Have a bath/brush teeth
7:30 p.m. Pajamas, story time, lullabies
8:15 p.m. Bedtime

Don't live your life by the clock. Having a steady sequence of activities is important, but don't stress about precise timing.