Toddler Routines and Why You Should Break Them

by Tara Saltzburg June 22, 2017

Hey There Fellow Toddler-Parent Warriors,

As many of you know, developing a toddler routine can be a difficult task. Sometimes it seems impossible to maintain a consistent routine with our own busy schedules and ever-changing toddlers. But toddlers, like most adults, need routines; we don't do well without them. It's a disorganized, unsettling feeling. Here's the good news, though -- sometimes it's good to break them!

Tovah Klein, PhD is a psychology professor and director of the renowned Barnard Center for Toddler Development in NY. She's sometimes referred to as "The Toddler Whisperer" and after picking up her book, we see why.

Even SJP is a fan!

Sarah Jessica Parker Gif

In How Toddlers Thrive, Ms. Klein provides great insight into establishing toddler routines as well as tips on how we, as parents, can make sleeping, potty training, and eating more efficient and effective with them. We highly recommend the book for any toddler parent, but here are our biggest take-aways on the subject.

Time is Abstract

"5 more minutes." 

"We'll do it tomorrow."

"We're going to visit family next week."

Upset and confused toddler with clock

Imagine not understanding what any of that means. 

Time is abstract and it's a concept that toddlers don't yet understand. It's a "sense" that increases as children get older. Because toddlers lack a sense of time and their brains are still developing, they haven't internalized the skills that adults use to help manage time, control impulses, express needs, plan actions, and cope with stress.  

Routines provide comfort, organization and structure to the day. They move children forward, allowing them to "know what comes next, what the order is, and how to begin to manage on their own. Routines give them a sense of control because they know what to expect," explains Ms. Klein. 

Routines are extremely important, especially for young children. According to Ms. Klein, "...the more the structure and routines are in place, the freer the child is to develop the internal control to manage his or her feelings, thoughts, and behaviors --  all of what enables him to mature, grow and learn." 

Breaking Routines 

Although routines provide organization and structure, they don't need to be met every day with rigidity. The idea is to set up basic routines that guide the tasks your children have to do daily.

Baby crying next to clock

The worry and concern toddlers feel when a routine is disrupted stems from losing a sense of comfort. They feel that things are happening to them and that they have no control. But by establishing routines for your toddler, you're providing a comfortable, established order that they will soon return to. 

Flexibility is acquired from those times when you deviate from the routine. Toddlers begin to learn that although things may be changed or altered, it's just temporary, and everything will soon be back to normal. In time, nearly all children become more flexible if routines are well-established. 

Altering Routines & Reducing Meltdowns

So what do we do when routines are altered? Maybe preschool is closed on Monday due to a holiday. Maybe a relative or friend is visiting for the weekend. Maybe you're out of your toddler's favorite cereal and she eats it every morning. These small changes can cause chaos for a child because their sense of comfort has been disrupted. 

Angry toddler with cereal bowl

For known or expected changes, explain what's coming before it happens:

Explain why school will be closed on Monday and that it will re-open on Tuesday. 

Explain that the relative or friend is staying for a little while but will soon go back to (Pennsylvania, Idaho, Mars?).

According to Ms. Klein, it's important to wait to tell them about changes until the change is close. Remember that toddlers don't grasp the concept of time, so telling them a week before a change is as good as telling them a year in advance.

For unexpected changes, a comforting and supportive response is important. 

Let the toddler know that the cereal will be re-stocked when you go to the store today and they will have it again tomorrow.

Although a small, unexpected change doesn't seem like a big deal to an adult, it can be a big deal for a toddler. Since you know the change is temporary, relay that to the child and assure them that everything will soon be back to normal.

Hope this helps. Happy parenting!

XO, WB