5 Reasons to Establish a Daily Routine for Your Toddler

A set schedule could be your secret weapon when it comes to raising a happy, cooperative kid. Here's why toddlers love routines, plus a sample daily schedule to get you started.

mom and toddler daughter laying on bed laughing
Photo: Efetova Anna/Shutterstock

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 a.m., and then heads to the park with her mom. Snacktime comes at 10:30 a.m. 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 family's routine may be a bit rigid for some parents. Still, experts agree that toddlers like Keelee thrive on having a reliable structure to their day. Why? It keeps them balanced when so many things are changing in their world. Their language, social, and motor skills are developing rapidly, and they are growing physically, too. While all of these are good things, the transitions they're going through can easily overwhelm them, leaving them cranky, unsettled, and averse to cooperation.

"Your child needs some consistency to [their] day, a predictable sequence that lets [them] explore the world without worry," says Victoria Fleming, Ph.D., a child and family therapist in Granby, Connecticut.

The Benefits of Establishing a Routine for Your Toddler

There are many advantages of getting a toddler on a schedule—and it isn't as challenging as you may think. In fact, your child's natural rhythm can help dictate it.

Think about all the stages they go through during the day. They probably already get tired, hungry, and playful at specific times. Simply pay attention these cues and build a schedule around them. "You should have a calming transition time for naps, a mealtime routine, and a regular time for play," says David Burnham, M.D., a pediatrician with the Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania.

Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Within weeks of starting the routine, you'll notice these five benefits.

1. Your toddler will develop more confidence

When a child always knows what comes next in their day, they will feel more comfortable, confident, and capable. Knowing there's a sippy cup waiting for them after their nap every day—or that they'll get to read Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? once they brush their teeth—will help them feel like they have a little more control over their world.

2. There will be fewer 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 Altmann, M.D., a Los Angeles-based pediatrician and author of Baby & Toddler Basics. Once your child gets used to a specific sequence of events, they'll be able to settle down faster and get ready to nod off.

Maya Feehely, a 14-month-old from Toronto, has a cup of milk at 8:30 p.m. (Her routine starts a little later than most; her parents adjusted it because she'd been waking too early in the morning.) After Maya finishes her milk, she and her mother, Anne, play for a while. At 9:00 p.m., her dad takes her upstairs for a bath, books, and a prayer. Then he puts her down at 9:30 p.m.

"She smiles and waves to me and goes upstairs, which tells me she understands that the bedtime routine is starting," says Anne.

3. It makes kids more flexible

Once you have a routine in place, your child may actually be better able to adapt to sudden shifts, such as when you're going out for the evening or they need to spend the night 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 plane ride when the family went on vacation. "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."

4. You may see fewer meltdowns

You know how quickly a child can get cranky when they're tired or hungry? A schedule can help them chill out (for a while). For instance, once your toddler gets used to the idea that they'll eat lunch right after you pick up their older sibling at preschool, they'll learn to wait a bit longer before they lose it. "Kids with a routine are better at handling momentary chaos," emphasizes Dr. Burnham.

5. It will also help you get through the day

Having a routine lets you know what to expect from your day, too—and when to anticipate your next break from caregiving. That consistency can make it easier to deal with more challenging moments, or those times when you simply feel exhausted. 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."

A Typical Toddler Schedule

Need help establishing a routine for your toddler? Borrow this blueprint—then adjust it to meet your family's needs. If your child goes to daycare, talk to the staff about the schedule they use so that you can synch it with the one you use at home.

6:45 a.m. Wake up, play in their 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 or 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, storytime, lullabies

8:15 p.m. Bedtime

The Bottom Line

Consistent routines work wonders for little ones, but you don't have to live your life by the clock. Having a steady sequence of activities is the most important thing, so don't stress about precise timing. The key is to create a schedule that works for your family, and to adjust it whenever necessary.

Updated by Andrew Parsons
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