"I'm ready to get up, Daddy!" my 3-year old daughter, Allie, said, peering at me from her bed as I leaned in through the open doorway. I could tell by her bright eyes that she clearly hadn't slept a wink. "Are you and Mommy already up?"
I sighed. "No, sweetheart. We haven't gone to bed yet." In our home, routine is the grease that keeps the wheels of our family rolling. It keeps two energetic girls from getting too tired or hungry or cranky. And it keeps Mommy and Daddy from exhausting themselves trying to make it all happen
If you feel as if a lack of structure is resulting in chaos in your home, establishing a routine is one way to address the physical and emotional needs of your family. A routine for routine's sake becomes a strict regiment that is hard to follow, but establishing one is especially good when done for specific reasons (e.g., when babies have their nights and days mixed up or so kids can have an expected pattern to follow). Here is the routine that worked for our young family, and it might be useful for yours.
What's the best rule for establishing and maintaining a good routine for a baby? Be consistent. Your child is developing an internal biological clock called a circadian rhythm that tells him when to be hungry or tired or awake. And just as you can't tell time by a clock that someone is constantly changing and resetting, you can't maintain a routine if you're not consistent with mealtimes, playtime and sleep.
Infants don't know yet when the sun rises or sets, or when everyone is awake or working or playing. "This is bothersome," writes Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a pediatrician who specializes in sleep disorders in children. "But it is only a problem of timing. The young infant still does not have any difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. After several weeks of age, though, parents can begin to shape natural sleep rhythms and patterns into sleep habits." My wife and I have found that this shaping happens more quickly when we keep our infant's daily experiences consistent.
When our daughters were babies, we fed them at the same times every day, had active playtimes in the midmorning and midafternoon, facilitated quieter playtimes with less activity before naps and bed and kept bedtime consistent. As a couple, we determined that our kids needed to go to bed at 7, so that meant us being home at that time every night. There were times when we would have preferred to stay out late, but in the end, sticking to the routine got us through the constant upsets and changes of babyhood.
Being consistent helped us in the small details, too. Infants need a lot of feeding, so my wife and I determined who would do which feedings and followed through. My wife's best sleep happened before midnight, so I took the first nighttime feeding, and my best sleep happened in the early hours of the morning, so she took the second feeding. Our babies learned which parent to expect, and my wife and I made room for the sleep we each needed.
While it would be nice if one routine worked throughout your baby's first year of life, keep in mind that your child's needs are constantly changing. Be aware of those changes and be ready to adapt your routine as needed. Eventually, a child will need fewer feedings, fewer naps and more active playtime. Because we had a set routine, it was easier to see when those broad changes were happening and to respond quickly to dropping a nap because the baby was consistently not tired or to giving more food at an earlier feeding than a later one. Because we were acting deliberately, we were prepared for our daily routine as well as new developments.
For my oldest daughter, establishing a regular eating routine — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — was incredibly difficult. I once asked my father, who is also a family doctor, how to get my toddler to eat. Hunger isn't a big motivator for her, so getting her to eat at all, much less at mealtimes, was almost impossible. "You can't control what a child eats," he told me, "but you can decide when she eats it."
If my daughter eats at night, it's at dinnertime, at the table, with her family. Not before dinner, not after bedtime, not in bed, not on the couch, not while watching TV. Here's a hard truth we learned: If you get lazy about enforcing the rules, your children will expect to be able to break them. By now they know the routine, and they've got their own ideas about what they would like to do. By being lax about the rules, you change your child's expectations about what's possible.
For example, if a child expects that he will have to eat dinner at the table when Daddy gets home, he can more easily do it when the time comes. But if the parents allow the child to skip dinner and eat snacks in bed for a while, then suddenly tell him he can't do it anymore, he will likely respond with anger, frustration or confusion.
By carefully managing our daughters' expectations for their day, we help them manage their reactions to it. It gives them a feeling of security and control. They know what their day holds and what they can do within those boundaries.
We still have times where we must be flexible. If we never allowed exceptions for special occasions, life would quickly become frustrating and confining for all of us. But when exceptions arise, the key, again, is managing their expectations. We make sure to clearly explain that what we're doing is not the norm. Special occasions are just that — special — exceptions from what we usually do. In turn, my daughters learn how to respond appropriately — excitement at the surprise and (sometimes grudging) acceptance of going back to the routine — because they always know what to expect.
I've had the same discussion with my 3-year-old about why she needs to go to bed more times than I can count. But the good news is, she does go to bed, on time, every night, and it's not a huge fight. She still pushes back against the habits we've taught her and questions them — that's just who she is — but we've both learned to deal with it. She's learned to go along with the routine, and we've learned to listen to her and make adjustments that help her. The key to making it through this tricky phase is compromise.
Every day we reinforce and re-explain our routine as we take our children through it: No getting up until 7, breakfast at 8, lunch at noon, quiet play until naps at 1, dinner at 6, calm play again until bedtime. But sometimes we hit serious bumps, where part of the routine becomes hard for our toddler or preschooler to follow.
My wife and I discovered that compromise happens when our child knows we're listening, seeking to understand her needs and working to help her, all while maintaining the rules and routine that make life manageable for our family.