By Liza Asher
At 8:30 p.m. at the Osborne family house in Burlington, Vermont, an exemplary bedtime process is underway. The three children are upstairs changing into their pajamas, brushing their teeth, and settling into their beds to read. There is remarkably little protest or variation. "Bedtime is the one area where our routine has not wavered," says mom Eleanor. "Since the boys were toddlers, we've been doing the same thing, and now it's automatic. This is usually the calmest period our day."
Regular schedules provide the day with a framework that orders a young child's world. Although predictability can be tedious for adults, children thrive on sameness and repetition. "Knowing what to expect from relationships and activities helps children become more confident," says Dr. Peter Gorski, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachussetts.
Routines begin from the first days of life, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist in New Jersey, affecting the relationship between parent and child, setting the stage for rocky or smooth sailing as your child gets older. Babies, especially, need regular sleep and meal schedules and even routines leading up to those activities (a story every day before nap- or bedtime, for example).
As she gets older, when a child knows what is going to happen and who is going to be there, it allows her to think and feel more boldly and freely, Gorski adds. When a child does not know what to expect, his internal alarms go off. Ultimately, parents benefit as well: "Knowing what is expected cuts down on parenting struggles," says Jodi Mindell, child psychologist and author of Sleeping through the Night (HarperCollins).
Tips for Implementing Routines
Plan regular mealtimes: "It is so valuable to the developing spirit of children to have one meal together each day as a family," Gorski says. Sitting together at the dinner table gives children the opportunity to share their day's experience and get support for whatever they're feeling. The emphasis is on togetherness, so if your children need to eat earlier, at least give them dessert while you eat your meal. This is also an ideal time to introduce routines that give children responsibility, such as setting or clearing the table. Older children can be pre-dinner helpers and washer-uppers.
Wind down before bed: Consistent nightly rituals are soothing and take the battle out of bedtime. But after an exhausting day, it's tempting to skip the preliminaries when bedtime finally approaches. Don't, stresses Mindell: "About 20 to 30 minutes of calm, soothing, and consistent activities get children ready." Find what works best for your child—some children are revved up by a bath or fidgety when listening to a story. Yours may prefer doing a puzzle together or listening to music. For older children, bedtime is an ideal time for conversation. My 12-year-old son likes me to sit on his bed and talk for a few minutes before he goes to sleep.
In general, make the room conducive for sleep. Set aside a time each week for room cleanup (another important routine!), when your child puts away toys and books and you change the linens.
Be consistent but flexible: Routines are essential, but allow some room for flexibility. Although the Osborne family thought their bedtime routine was a blessing, there have been some problems recently. "I was completely rigid about my oldest son's bedtime, and he is now incapable of veering from that routine. If we are out later than his bedtime, he becomes upset," Eleanor says.
Unexpected events, like surprise guests or errands that cannot be postponed, may result in a nap in the car seat or a skipped meal. But if we react with frustration when this happens, our kids will, too. Try to prepare your child ahead of time for the change and reassure them that things will return to normal tomorrow.
Liza Asher is a mother of four and writes on parenting issues for national magazines. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.