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Routines Matter: 4 Ways to Set a Smart Toddler Schedule

Child?s daily routine

Life with a toddler can seem like you're living out the movie Groundhog Day. Monday to Sunday it's the same schedule again and again, from singing a wake-up song in the morning to giving her a bath before bedtime at night. Although your child's toddlerhood is something you'll look back on and cherish, in the moment the everyday routine can start to feel pretty dull. But to your little one, it's heavenly. Case in point: If the consistency is broken -- when you head off on vacation, say -- she has no problem letting you (and everyone within a 16-foot radius) know how she feels about missing her morning snack-and-blocks session or sleeping in an unfamiliar room.

Toddlers are sticklers for predictability because a reliable schedule helps them feel safe (Mom might go to work in the morning, but she comes back in time to feed me dinner) while teaching them about their boundaries (we'll read three books before bed, not four). "It increases their sense of security because they know what's coming next," says Jean M. Thomas, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, D.C. "The more secure toddlers feel, the more they can focus on things like learning, exploring, and playing." You can help your child establish good patterns and also increase her flexibility with these smart scheduling tips.

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It's the heart of any routine: Figure out what tasks need to be done, and then line them up in the same order every day. Your toddler will love knowing that first he eats Cheerios for breakfast at his little table, then he gets dressed, and then he helps you feed the cat. "The repetitiveness of the experiences helps lay down critical pathways in the brain," explains Dr. Thomas. "When you repeat things over and over, you make those connections much stronger over time." The more robust those mental links become, the more confident and calm your little one will be, knowing that he can predict the next activity in his day. That means he'll be less anxious overall -- and less prone to throwing temper tantrums.

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We all have days where we end up rushing around in the morning or before dinner, trying to get everything done at once -- but that can wreak havoc on your toddler's need for structure. If you nix her usual post-breakfast outdoor activity, she might be cranky the rest of the morning. "Skipping your child's whole routine when you feel strapped for time is usually not a good idea in the end," says Marni Axelrad, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. "The meltdown that ensues will inevitably take even longer to deal with than if you'd just stuck to the schedule in the first place." One smart fix? If you're a night owl, do some prep the night before (or do it in the morning if you're an early riser). Get breakfast pulled together, plan for snacktime, or pack your diaper bag and stroller for tomorrow's trip to the zoo. Still not achieving a steady schedule? "If it seems like the routine isn't working four or five mornings in a row, it might be time to change the routine itself to make it fit into your day better," says Dr. Axelrad. Just be sure to sell the change to your child enthusiastically. You might say, "Since you're getting to be such a big girl, we're going to start getting dressed before we eat breakfast!"

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Although a set schedule is a major comfort for your kid, you don't want to make him so dependent on predictability that he'll fall apart the minute something changes. Now is a perfect time to teach him to be adaptable, so he'll be more resilient when he's older. "Within the framework of your established routine, make small changes that will shake things up a little," suggests Dr. Axelrad. "Swap out the books at naptime, or eat a picnic lunch in the living room instead of at the kitchen table." By adding some variety to your everyday patterns, you'll teach your child that even though you're going to a new park for your playdate instead of the usual one, he's still going to get to meet up with the same buddies, play on the swings, and have a great time.

It's also wise to vary the adult who's running the show -- switch between Mom and Dad, or a relative or babysitter. "If it always has to be you putting your child down at bedtime, for instance, what's going to happen if you need to go out of town for a business trip?" notes Dr. Thomas. By having your husband handle things at bathtime or asking Grandma to take your son to story hour, you'll be letting him know he can count on other adults to meet his needs too.

After a shift in routine proves successful, be sure to recap the experience to help your kid remember. "To positively reinforce the behavior, talk about how well your child did at making the change," suggests Beth Ryan, a child-life specialist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. "Say, 'We went to a park we've never visited before, and you had so much fun on the slides!' It's that positive reinforcement that encourages flexibility."

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What to do when there's a family emergency or you're going away for a weekend at your in-laws' home? "Trying to maintain some normalcy is most important when things are suddenly very different in a toddler's everyday world," says Dr. Thomas. 'Your child simply won't understand why everything is different, so she'll need familiar conventions to comfort her even more," she explains.

If you're suddenly dealing with an urgent situation, take some time to talk about it directly with your toddler. Using language she can understand, give her very basic information while reassuring her that everything's going to be fine ("Grandma is sick, and I'm going to go take care of her for a little while. Dad's going to be reading your bedtime stories tonight."). Keep everything super-simple and calm.

When away from home, try to maintain your regular schedule in your new location as much as possible. "Don't skip naptime, and definitely keep the same wake-up and bedtime routines," says Ryan. Also, take along a few familiar objects, like your child's cup and bowl for dinner, or her pillow and a favorite stuffed animal, so mealtime and bedtime will have the same feel and smell as they normally do. While this can help, your toddler may still have a few extra meltdowns during your trip. Just keep in mind that by introducing her to a few changes in routine, you'll be setting the groundwork for teaching her coping skills she'll use later in life.

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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