Why Do Kids Thrive on a Predictable Routine?
In the world of parenting, you may have heard that kids thrive on routines, and if you look around, a lot of activities and places for kids are structured around a routine in one way or another: Daycares, schools, summer camps, gymnastics. Even when your child is being cared for by a nanny, they have some routines. Do you ever wonder why? Why does it matter? Why does it work?
I'm here to answer all those questions for you. As a Newborn Care Specialist, Pediatric Sleep Consultant, and former full-time nanny, I have witnessed how the routines affect kids. From the smallest of babies to the biggest kids. It makes them more confident, their sleep and mood improve. We can even see behavioral changes. But why do kids respond so well to routines? Let's break it down and take a better look at it.
Repetition: The backbone of the routine
To understand it better, we need to start with understanding why kids like the same book being read over and over again, stories being told in EXACTLY the same way every single time, repeating the same words or movement every time they get a chance. All of it is linked back to repetition. Kids learn while repeating the same movement and words and hearing the same stories. It creates a connection in their brain they are familiar with and feel confident while doing or listening. For example, you can have a daily routine or smaller routines associated with a certain time of day or activity.
When you look at your own life as an adult, you will see multiple routines you do every day. They happen at a similar time, with a similar outcome — for example, a morning routine before work, a workout routine, or your bedtime routine. You may even have a routine at work, such as a team meeting every Monday morning or a report due every Friday before the end of your work. Why do I know this? Because humans are creatures of habit and routines, and routines run our lives. So why should your baby be any different? They are humans as well, just tiny ones. They crave stability and similarity every day.
Predictability: How to create it
Predictability is simply the feeling of "I know it! I am familiar with it and feel confident about what will happen next." It is almost like an autopilot. You don't think about it when the routine becomes a part of your day or life but still do the actions the same way and in the same order. So how do you create a predictable routine for your kid?
Predictable routines by age
We will take a look at babies first. If you feed your baby every time they wake up, they will know, "I don't need to cry for food because I will be fed as soon as a caregiver comes in." Are you doing it on purpose? No, you aren't. You don't think about this, but it becomes a part of you and your baby's unspoken connection and language. Nighttime will have its own routine as well. Take a minute to think about what you do when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night. Whatever way you decide to help them, soothe them, and support them while they are going back to sleep, it will become a routine. Your baby will be familiar with the actions and expect them every wake-up time during the night. When you are ready to change that routine, your baby will protest. Why? Because suddenly they don't know what to expect. Is change a bad thing? No. Are they telling you they don't like it? We don't know. But for sure, they are telling you: this is new, unfamiliar, I'm getting used to it, I need your help, I need to become familiar with it.
What would be the best way to create a routine for your baby? The routines around feedings are great. Diaper change before, in the middle, or after feeding is totally up to you. Burping breaks in the middle of feeding or at the end - your choice. Same with a book or song after feeding. Another important routine will be a nap routine. You will always change their diaper before naptime. Add a book or a nursery rhythm to it — some snuggles and off to sleep. Last but not least will be a simple bedtime routine. Bath or sponge bath, lotion, massage, jammies, feeding, book, swaddle/sleep sack. This routine will give your child a familiar feeling and help them relax and get ready for nighttime sleep. Anything you feel you and your baby may benefit from. Take a minute to figure out what will work for your family and lifestyle.
Let's take a look at our bigger babies. We will look at +/- 12 months old. Their routines will be different due to them sleeping less than an infant, eating solid foods, starting to communicate, maybe even practicing walking. Children this age may have a morning routine when they wake up, feed, change clothes, play for a little bit and then have breakfast. It doesn't matter what time each activity happens, but each morning will look the same. We can break each activity into smaller routines if you want, but the big routine is the key as their playtime won't be the same every day as newborns' would be. Their breakfast will be different each time compared to a child just starting the journey with solid foods.
So in simple words, for bigger babies and toddlers, I would focus on the order of the main activities instead of breaking down every activity into small routines. So the morning routine could look like: wake up, diaper and clothes change, bottle or breastfeeding, playtime, and breakfast. After breakfast, you could have independent playtime or outside time. Then snack, playtime, lunch, and nap. As you can see, outside time could be a nature walk, a walk in a stroller, an independent walk if you have a child who already walks, or a playground. Playtime could be sensory playtime, storytime, helping you make their breakfast, or art time. Independent playtime can be an activity prepared by you when they can explore stuff by themselves or a free playtime while you enjoy your morning drink. There is so much flexibility in this kind of routine.
The only exemption to it is a nap time and bedtime routine. A nap time and bedtime routine will need to be the same every day. Why? Because this is a signal for their body to start relaxing and get ready for sleep. At this age, the book doesn't need to be the same each time as they understand what the book is and that there is more than one. If you sing a nursery rhythm, it can be the one they like at the moment or one that soothes them. You can even take a few minutes when you tell your baby why they are so important to you, why you love them, and have it as a part of the routine. Again, the key is to take a minute to figure out what you can do for nap time and bedtime routine every time it occurs.
Toddlers' and bigger kids' routines won't be structured any differently than older babies. Again, we are focusing on the day and sleep routines. At this age, I recommend establishing a routine when transitions between activities happen and when big emotions are causing challenges. Practice these routines every time your child has a harder time. It will let your child feel these big emotions and frustrations but remain safe and supported. Having the same response every time this situation happens will help them understand they have support in you, how to process these emotions, and maybe you can even practice some coping skills. These routines will look different for a two-year-old toddler compared to a five years old child, but the familiarity will be beneficial for both of those ages.
Does having a routine matter?
In my opinion, yes. It matters a lot, especially when you have a child - toddler and older - because they want to be independent but aren't capable of doing all of the stuff themselves. Routine gives them the feeling of being in charge of age-appropriate expectations and keeping safety in mind. Also, a lot of time routines prevent power struggles between child and caregivers because a child knows what is up to them and what they can decide. It allows them to decide, but you know you are okay with it within the area, and they are safe. It is all about age and developmentally appropriate approach, expectation, and boundaries.
Routine and human instinct
Let's talk about one more topic associated with routines. You may have heard that putting babies on a routine isn't something we should do. I disagree with this and want to explain to you why. As I mentioned above, humans are creatures of habit and routines. So a person who carried a baby in the womb lived by certain routines and habits. So those routines and habits are everything the baby knows. For example, babies always moved a lot in the evening hours when the pregnant person was getting ready for sleep, stopped moving when they heard the parents' voices, and went to sleep each time the pregnant person started moving as the rocking movements were putting them to sleep. So why would creating age and developmentally appropriate routines be bad for them? They know and learn from their experience, and they experience life by the stuff we, caregivers, have shown them, explained, and guided them through. Take a minute and remember your last few months of pregnancy and create a toolbox full of ideas on how to bring the familiar, womb-like feeling back after your baby is born. You will be able to use it to help them transition to the new environment. Swaddle, sound machine, skin to skin, your voice, and being in the water are familiar for them. So creating a gentle routine using those tools will help them get comfortable with the new normal. Unfortunately, we can't put them back in the womb when they crave the familiar environment, but we can create an environment full of similar actions and routines.
Why do predictable routines work, and how do kids benefit from them
Routines work because they let kids know what to expect, what will happen next, how the day will look without feeling unsure and anxious. It gives them the feeling of being in charge when the truth is: parents are still in charge and create a world where the child feels empowered, confident, and independent. Creating a routine doesn't mean flexibility is gone. Simply create a routine that will work with your lifestyle. You can also prepare your child for routine changes by telling them what will change and when you have a special or different day planned. Kids will only learn by the stuff and actions we adults show them, let them experience and guide them through. On a final note, always remember they haven't asked to be born. We adults decided we wanted a baby, and it is our job to prepare them for the future. To help them grow, experience different stuff, and be their guides, they have a higher chance of succeeding in the future. Routines run our lives, so let's help them get familiar with them and feel empowered around them.
Magdalena Nicholson is a Newborn Care Specialist and Pediatric Sleep Consultant. She owns a small consulting business named Cradle & Crescent that specializes in those areas. Magda was born and raised in Poland, and Colorado became her home almost seven years ago. Cradle & Crescent came to life due to luck, support, education, and empowerment for parents in the community.
Magda's story goes back to Poland. Becoming a big sister at the age of 13 sparked her love for taking care of kids, but she didn’t know her true calling until she became an Au Pair and took care of a newborn and his brother in her early 20s’.
After finishing her time as an Au Pair, she worked with multiple families as a nanny – long-term, short-term, full-time, part-time, and babysitting. During that time, she discovered the Newborn Care Specialist profession.
She has since then decided to pursue a Newborn Care Specialist career and help sleep-deprived parents during the night while they adjusted to a new normal after bringing their new addition home. This job has become her true passion.
From that moment, the business has constantly grown and evolved. Magda's experience in the field helped her figure out what support parents lack, take training, and fill those gaps.
Magda's first-hand experience with sleep deprivation and how routine and sleep affect kids helped her add another service to Cradle & Crescent - Pediatric Sleep Consultations. She was so happy to expand her expertise and help more families.
Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod Pet (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees and/or contractors.