Toddler routines help your day run smoothly, encourage transitions and avoid meltdowns. Learn how to structure your day with these schedules.
Incorporating toddler routines can make or break your day, don’t you think? If you feel frazzled and overwhelmed, more than likely, your routine got thrown off somehow. And vice versa—those days that seem to go so smoothly often happen because you followed a routine to guide your way.
Sometimes life even gets disrupted—an irregular toddler sleep schedule or moving to a new home. Having toddler routines can lessen tantrums and offer your child a sense of familiarity.
But what exactly does a typical schedule look like? And how can you structure your days, especially around one nap?
The benefits of having toddler routines
Clearly, I’m a fan of routines, so much so that little rituals fill our whole day. As toddlers, my kids would regularly put their toys on the couch before meal times or place clothes in the hamper after a bath. Our daily flow had a rhythm that relied on a general structure—a template of sorts that we fill in.
So, what exactly makes toddler routines a must for every home? I’ve found several benefits:
1. Fewer power struggles
What happens when you say, “It’s bath time—let’s clean up your room”?
With a solid routine in place, your toddler is less likely to resist the task—cleaning up her room is what she does when it’s bath time. At nap time, she knows she’s supposed to lie in bed and rest, and that eventually, she’ll wake up when you come fetch her.
Routines do the parenting work for you without needing to nag to get the next task done.
She won’t throw a tantrum at the park when you say you’re heading home for lunch because she expects it to happen. She won’t question every decision or assume you made them because you’re being mean.
Learn 5 ways to stop a toddler power struggle.
2. A sense of security
As a child, anxiety can feel worse because you’re not even aware of your emotions. Common culprits include new environments and people, a change of plans, a disruption of routine, or a separation from the familiar.
Routines prepare your child for what’s coming up so not everything feels brand new. With clear expectations, he’s able to overcome anxiety, especially to new events, experiences, and people.
Routines also lessen the fears or anxiety he may have while you’re out and about. If you’re taking a family trip, you can rely on your regular routine to reassure him that all is well. You might be in a different city, but you can still implement the same nap and bedtimes, for instance.
The familiarity calms him enough to enjoy the trip rather than worry or miss being away from home. He’ll thrives on predictability instead of the uncertainty of not knowing what’s ahead. With a routine, he doesn’t have to worry about yet another new change.
And because of predictability, he can spend less time feeling anxious or worrisome. Instead, he can use that time to play, relax, and explore.
Learn how to handle anxiety in children.
Toddler routines encourage your child to go to wash his hands and brush his teeth after meals—all without being asked.
Reminding him over and over to do something isn’t pleasant, but with a routine, you don’t have to. Without any reminding, he knows to take off his shoes after coming home and put dishes away after eating.
But without a consistent routine, he won’t know what to do. He has to think about whether he’s supposed to go straight to the bathroom or take his shoes off first. Routines get rid of deciding what to do next and instead encourage self-initiation.
And as he grows, he’ll continue to initiate responsibilities and do things on his own. Because eventually, he’ll go to school or spend less time with you. Raising a self-sufficient child starts with implementing routines now.
Get examples of a 1 year old eating schedule.
Yes, routine means you can be more spontaneous! Using a predictable structure allows you to accommodate weekend fun and family vacations. You’ve built expectations so your child is more likely to “be game” for new adventures.
You can pull off special events, from outings to the beach to a large family reunion. He’ll also adjust to new or scary experiences, such as a trip to the dentist or a new school or caregiver. He won’t focus his energy on preparing himself for the new and unexpected.
And when you need to be flexible, it’ll come as a pleasant surprise rather than a change to worry about.
How to structure toddler routines
Now that you know a few benefits of toddler routines, what are some ways you can create one for yourself?
Every family is different, including when kids nap and for how long. That’s why I base my routine on “pillars” such as sleeping and eating, with everything else in between more flexible.
As I say in my book, No Cranky Naps:
“These are what I call ‘pillars’: events in your day that will establish your daily routine. Structure your days so you’re doing the same things around the same times. Rather than eating lunch at random times, aim to have lunch at a certain time—11am, for instance. Establishing a set time for each activity makes it easier for you to remember and stick to them.
Even if you don’t do things at the same time every day, try to follow a general ‘rhythm’ and do them in the same order. Should you need to divert away from your schedule, you’re at least following the same sequence of your routine.”
You’ll see what I mean in a minute. Here’s a sample routine I’ve used, but feel free to adjust as you see fit. I’m also using a non-school day as an example.
1. Wake up
Stick to a consistent wake-up time every day. My husband and I get our kids up at 7am on non-school days, even if they’re awake earlier than that.
Then, at wake-up time, create rituals that your toddler can do in the same order. For instance, after waking up, he can use the potty, wash his hands, and get dressed for the day.
To keep your days simple, prepare the same meal on most days, or the same meal on certain days.
For instance, most days of the week, you can prepare oatmeal and fruit. Or perhaps you include yogurt on Tuesdays and cereal on Thursdays. Weekends can be extra special with pancakes or French toast. Preparing the same meal makes your days more predictable when you have one less task to worry about.
Then after breakfast, have him wash and brush his teeth. Do this each time so you won’t have to remind him to head to the bathroom.
3. Free time and snack
The hours between breakfast and lunch are what I call “free time.” Here you can include anything you want, from small crafts to play time at the park. Bring your toddler to story time at the library, or bring out art supplies for independent play.
Toddler routines aren’t as strict as they sound. Stick to your pillars, but leave the time in between to do anything.
During your free time, include snacks if he gets hungry. Snacks vary depending on our activity. In most cases, we snack at home before heading out. But sometimes, we need to be out and about before snack time, which means we pack snacks or buy them when we’re out.
Keep lunch time consistent every day. Let’s say lunch is at 11am—try to eat at that time, whether you’re home or out and about. If you plan to eat out, make reservations 30 minutes earlier than your normal lunch time. That way, your toddler will be eating by the time they bring the food.
Many toddlers take one mid-day nap. My kids slept from 12pm to 2pm every day, even at preschool.
Create small nap time routines if your toddler has a difficult time transitioning, like reading books and singing songs. Make sure his room is also conducive to sleeping. Draw the curtains, turn on white noise, and remove loud toys.
Then, consider a small routine after he wakes up, especially if he’s cranky after a nap. Read books while lounging in bed, offer milk, or snuggle for a few minutes before opening the curtains.
Free download: My guide, No Cranky Naps, gives you the exact tips, strategies, and mindset shifts to finally turn cranky naps around. Want to see if it can work for you? Download a preview chapter! You’ll also get my newsletter, which parents say they LOVE:
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6. Free time and snack
Like the mornings, afternoons also include free time after nap. Depending on your day, you can plan an outing like visiting family or running an errand. Or keep things simple by playing with toys for at home or taking a walk around the block.
And offer a light snack between lunch and dinner if he gets hungry between meals. Use little steps like washing hands and putting dishes in the sink to build automatic habits.
Like breakfast and lunch, keep dinner time predictable. For my family, we usually eat dinner at 5pm, whether we’re home or out and about. Incorporate little routines like washing hands or bringing utensils to the table.
If you’re at home, keep post-dinner activities simple and carefree. Let your toddler play with toys or read books, and provide plenty of independent play time. This is also the perfect time for you to prepare for her bath and bedtime.
Learn 4 reasons kids need downtime.
9. Bath time
Stick to a consistent bath time so your toddler knows to expect it. Start with brushing his teeth, then run the water in the tub. Encourage him to put his dirty clothes in the hamper. You may even want to introduce the potty and have him sit while the water runs.
After bathing and playing, put on his diaper or pull up, apply lotion if you like, and dress him in pajamas.
Include nice touches like combing his hair or massaging his arms and legs. Give him a special stuffed animal and snuggle with a few books. Then, tuck him into bed, sing songs, and turn off the light. Make sure the room is soothing—buy heavy curtains to keep the room dark, and remove loud toys.
Check out these tips if your toddler is scared of the bath.
The last pillar of the day is bedtime, when your toddler is finally able to sleep. Like other pillars, keep bedtime consistent, only making exceptions for special occasions. And try to put her to sleep no later than 8:30pm—sleep experts say that that should be the latest kids go to bed.
Is your toddler fighting sleep? Here are 5 tips you can try.
I’m a huge fan of routines, as you can see.
They’re not restricting as they seem to be. Instead, they offer building blocks to structure your day. Better yet, your toddler will thrive with routine. He doesn’t like not knowing what’s coming up—rather than worry and feel anxious, he can focus on playing and enjoying himself instead.
The best part? Routines allow for more flexibility. With a solid foundation, he won’t panic if you decide to push lunch time back to make room for swim class. He’ll welcome changes to routine because it’s usually so consistent.
And a routine means the difference between a restful child and an anxious, overtired one. When we all know what to expect, we don’t have to ask, “What’s next?”
Get more tips:
- 5 Tips to Help Your Overtired Toddler Finally Go to Sleep
- How to Rock a Morning Routine for Toddlers
- How to Get Your Kids to Clean Up After Themselves
- Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child
- 14 Examples of a Daily Routine for a 2 Year Old
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Hi Nina- your book on sleep training twins was a life saver for me. We are now at one year and I feel the change to one nap starting to creep in. This article is great for a routine- I would also love to see an an article about transitioning from two naps to one. The idea of it is daunting! Thanks! 🙂
Nina Garcia says
So glad to hear the book helped you out, Erin! It was definitely a life changer for me, too. And you’re right, babies start going from two naps to one at around 14-18 months old, so your little ones are right around the corner! It can be both good and bad. Good in that you can do a lot more things during the day out and about, but bad because that’s one less nap! And thanks for the topic suggestion—I just added it to my blog calendar 🙂 ~Nina