One of the most debated and misunderstood tools of parenting has got to be the implementation of a routine. Personally, I think there is some major confusion going on about what a routine is and why it is used. After more than eight years of attachment parenting, I’ve come to realize that routine and schedule are not dirty words, they are simply a reality.
A Routine is Not a Schedule; A Schedule is Not a Routine
While these words often get used interchangeably, they are definitely not the same. Let’s say, for example, you wake baby up at 7 a.m. every day, eat breakfast at 7:15 and are out the door by 8 a.m. This is a schedule.
On the other hand, if baby wakes up (usually at 7 a.m.), gets a diaper change, nurses for about 20 minutes, followed by playtime, then one more diaper check and it’s time to leave the house. This is a routine. It may be bound by some time restrictions, but it’s a consistent set of activities that take place each day in the same order. Your baby knows that as soon as diaper is changed, eating will begin, then playtime.
When you are not bound by a schedule (from work, older siblings or your own daily agenda), a routine can be very flexible. You could let baby sleep in if teething or illness prevented a good night’s sleep, but you would stick with the consistent order of activities. If your baby normally stays awake for 3 hours before needing a nap, you would simply count 3 hours from the time baby woke up to readjust the nap.
Or perhaps you will need to be somewhere outside the home during a time when your baby is usually napping. Clearly adjustments need to be made. My youngest daughter’s natural rhythm involved an afternoon nap at 1 p.m. Unfortunately, this is when her older sister needed to be picked up from school. (The car ride was only a few minutes, not long enough for an actual nap.) I had to tweak her natural routine a bit to meet her needs while still meeting the needs of our family. So, in this regard, our routines are driven by the schedules of all five people in our family.
Why does it matter? Science knows.
Ah, that’s the real question. Whether parents want to believe it or not, routines make happier babies. They cry less because they know what to expect. They don’t need to cry out in hunger or tiredness, because those needs are met before they become urgent. Personally, I fell into a routine almost by accident and, oh, how I wish I had saved myself the eight months of exhaustion and simply set up some consistent routines from the start. (You can read more about that at Confessions of a Disorganized Mom.)
But, there’s research to back up the importance of a routine as well. In June, 2010, a sleep study involving 8,000 children (the largest of it’s kind) revealed the following:
- Children in households with bedtime rules and children who get adequate sleep score higher on a range of developmental assessments;
- Results indicate that among sleep habits, having a regular bedtime was the most consistent predictor of positive developmental outcomes at 4 years of age. Scores for receptive and expressive language, phonological awareness, literacy and early math abilities were higher in children whose parents reported having rules about what time their child goes to bed. Having an earlier bedtime also was predictive of higher scores for most developmental measures.
“Getting parents to set bedtime routines can be an important way to make a significant impact on childrens’ emergent literacy and language skills,” said lead author Erika Gaylor, Ph.D., early childhood policy researcher for SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, Calif. (SOURCE: American Academy of Sleep Medicine, news release, June 7, 2010, read full text here.)
Behavioral Impact of Routines
Literacy and language skills are one thing, but behavioral improvements can drastically impact a household. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL is now a part of Vanderbilt University, one of the leaders in autism research) published a reference manual for early childhood teachers titled “Helping Children Understand Routines and Classroom Schedules”. Here’s an excerpt:
Studies have documented that schedules and routines influence children’s emotional, cognitive, and social development. For example, predictable and consistent schedules in preschool classrooms help children feel secure and comfortable.
Also, schedules and routines help children understand the expectations of the environment and reduce the frequency of behavior problems, such as tantrums and acts of aggression. Activity schedules that give children choices, balanced and planned activities (small vs. large groups, quiet times vs. active times, teacher directed vs. child directed, indoor vs. outdoor), and individualized activities result in a high rate of child engagement. (Read more here.)
Let me repeat that last sentence about the importance of activity schedules that give children choices. Many parents resist routines because they fear it will become too rigid or create a child who is unable to be flexible when necessary. What happens, however, is just the opposite. Children become more adept at making choices based upon what is available to them; as opposed to demanding something that they simply expect will be available.
A Routine is not a Label, It’s an Action
Our children are at our mercy. We set the tone and the pace of their days. As a parent, I strive to create a flexible, fun and nurturing environment for my three daughters that respects the unique needs of each child, and I help many new parents do the same.
I also advise new parents that for the first four months your routine is this:
Fall in love with your baby, eat healthy foods, get more sleep.
MOM DARE: The key to setting up a positive routine is to resist the notion that “one-size-fits-all”, and develop a strategy that respects the individual needs of each member of your family (including yourself). If you don’t have a consistent routine for your young child, this is the week to try it. Write everything down to see what works best. Then repeat. If you need help based on the age of your baby, write a comment or question here. I’ve got sample routines that I can post.
Grace and Peace.
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