I was so naive. My daughter Charlotte was fairly laid-back as an infant, so I expected our first trip away from home to be an easy one. A few days and a couple of missed naps later, however, Charlotte had transformed from my sweet angel into an inconsolable mess, and so had I. As my husband took his turn pacing the floor with Charlotte, my grandmother put her arm around me. "She'll be fine," she assured me. "She just misses her routine!"
Grandma was right. Once we walked through the door of our own apartment the next day, Charlotte became her sweet self once again. If there was one thing I learned from the whole exhausting adventure, it was this: Babies like a predictable world, and for good reason. For young children, every day is packed with learning and excitement, and routines provide relief from the chaos.
"Think about it this way," says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of the DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. "If you spend your entire work day mastering new tasks, you appreciate your regular coffee breaks."
Routines also help insulate your child from big, unexpected changes, says Dr. Karp. Sticking to a familiar pattern soothes kids in stressful situations, whether it's a new sibling or a parent's business trip. But that's just the beginning. Read on to find out how basic rituals help your baby transform into a confident child.
For a newborn, who can't yet tell morning from evening, routines are especially helpful in establishing her circadian rhythm, an inborn biological clock that helps her distinguish night from day, says Rose Kavo, PhD, adjunct professor of child development at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
This doesn't mean you should feed your newborn by the clock or try to establish a regular bedtime; in the early months, most infants are too physically immature to follow such patterns. Feed on demand and let him sleep when he wants, but begin imposing little daily habits, such as exposing him to the light of the sun when he's awake so he can begin to differentiate day from night.
...Dr. Karp suggests introducing a nighttime routine that includes dim lighting, a bath, and some milk. Don't worry that your baby will probably wake up three hours later. "The idea is to lay a foundation so that over time, your baby will associate these cues with sleep," notes Dr. Karp.
...Simple rituals can be incorporated into your day, like playing with a favorite toy. At this point, you're still at the mercy of baby's random clock. To incorporate some method to the madness, jot down your baby's general eating and sleeping habits, as well as her overall moods at particular times of the day. That way, you'll know when baby is most likely to enjoy a stroll in the park and when you're better off playing at home.
...Taking care of your baby becomes less of a guessing game. Most are ready to be on a regular eating and sleeping schedule; the long nights of multiple wakings and feedings are mostly behind you.
There's no doubt that routines impose some order on the chaos of babyhood. It turns out that they also serve to enhance your child's development. "They're a necessary part of socialization," says Larry Shapiro, PhD, author of The Secret Language of Children: How to Understand What Your Kids Are Really Saying (Sourcebooks, 2003). "When a child learns that it's time to go to bed, not play, she's beginning to understand that she has to follow rules."
Patterns and rituals play their subtlest and perhaps most important role when your child becomes more curious and mobile. At around the seventh- or eighth-month mark, he starts to understand the concept of object permanence, which means he realizes that people and objects exist even if he can't see them. If a child recognizes that he lives in a safe, predictable world that he can always return to, say experts, new challenges and experiences aren't so scary.
Soon after, routines help your child comprehend the concept of sequencing. By the one-year mark, your little one will begin to understand that bath time comes after dinner, shoes go on after socks. Knowing what happens next builds toddlers' confidence levels. "It's like being in on the joke," says Dr. Karp.
When your child reaches preschool age, her routines will become more of a set schedule, says Kavo. At the same time, she'll want more of a say. Letting her add her own details to an established routine -- choosing what pajamas she'll wear to bed, for instance -- accommodates her growing independence while maintaining structure.
As your child grows, new elements will be added to your daily schedule while others will drop away. To help make the adjustment, add new routines gradually and keep things as consistent as possible. For example, when you're introducing solid food, doing it at the same time each day while baby sits in the same high chair can help ease the switch from bottle or breast to cereal and applesauce.
Daycare or preschool jitters can also be tamed with a calming ritual. When my daughter started school at age 3, we came up with our own special goodbye kiss -- a raspberry on her cheek that made her laugh. (Her classmates got a kick out of it, too!)
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.
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.