Routines matter!

Think routines are boring? Your little one would disagree! When children do the same things according to the same schedule every day, they feel safe and steadily develop their autonomy.


Routines 101

Routines make up the better part of a young child’s day—and for good reason! Not only is a daily routine good for kids, but it can also make parents’ lives a lot easier.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Routines make up the better part of a young child’s day—and for good reason! Not only is a daily routine good for kids, but it can also make parents’ lives a lot easier.

When they know what to expect in their day, children feel safe and secure. For three-year-old Lélia, for example, weekday mornings follow a familiar pattern: rise and shine around seven, cuddle with mom, eat breakfast, play, pick an outfit with dad, get dressed, brush teeth, prepare backpack for daycare, leave at eight thirty.

Reassurance in repetition

“Routines are things that we do every day, in the same order, at the same time,” explains Nicole Malenfant, a published author and childhood education teacher at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit. “They make young children feel safe and reassured by providing stability and allowing them to predict what will happen next. Having a sense of control over their day minimizes their stress and anxiety.”

What age is the best time to begin introducing routines? “Routines often take shape on their own,” says psychologist and author Nathalie Parent. “But they’re easiest to establish around the six-month mark, when a baby’s schedule becomes more regular. And after about 18 months, children start to participate more actively as they become more autonomous.”

The concept of time

Routines help children predict what’s coming next and develop a sense of time.

One of the advantages of having routines is that they help children understand the concept of time. “Once the evening routine starts, a child knows he’ll have to take a bath, put on his pyjamas, brush his teeth, and listen to a bedtime story before going to bed,” says Malenfant. Most basic needs—such as eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing, and getting dressed—lend themselves well to routines. “Up until the age of five, routines make up about 40 percent of a child’s day,” Malenfant explains.

Increasing independence

Routines help young children develop autonomy, and they evolve as kids grow older. “At first, parents have to walk their children through each step; that turns into simply lending a hand, until eventually, the kids can do it on their own,” says psychoeducator Sarah Barbeau. “That’s how children learn to brush their teeth, wash their hands, get dressed, etcetera. They take pride in being able to take care of themselves. It boosts their self-esteem.”

To help your child become more independent, allow her to choose between two options during her routines. For example, ask if she would prefer to have a banana or an apple or wear her blue or yellow shirt.

A smoother family schedule

 Another great thing about routines? They eventually become second nature. “That’s why they’re super-handy in the morning, after getting home at the end of the day, and at bedtime, when there’s lots to do in not a lot of time,” says Barbeau.

Caroline, mom to Lélia and nine-year-old Sébastien, agrees. “When my son was younger, it was hard to get him to put away his toys and start getting ready in the morning and at night,” she says. “My husband and I eventually established routines, which made a big difference. We stopped having to repeat ourselves all the time. With Lélia, we’ve had routines right from the start, and that’s working well. She knows what she has to do.”

Routines don’t have to be limited to the start and end of the day. You can also incorporate them into other repetitive activities, such as trips to the park, meals, or cleanup after playtime. Not only will your child develop good habits, but your day will also go more smoothly.

What about siblings of different ages?

Every family has to figure out what works for them. Some parents might take turns taking care of each child. “That makes it possible to spend time with each one,” explains Parent. She adds that it can be helpful to stagger routines if the age differences are significant: for example, the youngest child can start getting ready for bed first, followed by the next eldest sibling.

Another option is to have the older kids help out with their younger siblings’ routines. From time to time, a big brother or sister could read to the baby in the family or help her get dressed.

It’s never too late to start

If you haven’t established routines with your child, it’s never too late to start. “Take things one routine at a time,” advises childhood education teacher Nicole Malenfant. “The bedtime routine is the best place to start, since that one’s the most important.” Parents should aim to build routines gradually, two steps at a time.

Your child’s evening routine, for instance, might start with taking a bath after dinner and then putting on his pyjamas. Once he’s gotten used to that sequence, add another two steps—maybe picking out a bedtime story and choosing an outfit for the next day. Keep doing this until the routine ends with tucking your little one into bed. “It won’t always be easy,” Malenfant warns. “Your child may not want to cooperate. But if you stay calm and keep trying, things should turn out okay.”

The keys to a well-oiled routine

These are the keys to a well-oiled routine.

These are the keys to a well-oiled routine.


Routines should be carried out in the same way and at the same time every day. “The goal is for children to learn their routines by heart and be able to anticipate the steps,” says psychoeducator Sarah Barbeau.


A routine doesn’t have to be rigid; you’re allowed a bit of wiggle room. For example, when David-Michaël, age 5, stays with his dad, Patrick, his bedtime routine ends with reading a story on some days and with listening to music on others. “It’s also okay to switch up a routine now and then by skipping steps or changing them around,” says Nathalie Parent, a psychologist. “Just make sure your child understands that you’re making an exception.” When it’s time for five-year-old Justine to go to bed, her parents take turns giving her a little massage. “It’s the highlight of her day,” says her mom, Stéphanie. “But if one of us can’t be there, we let her know ahead of time and it’s not a big deal.”


“Routines shouldn’t have too many steps,” advises Barbeau. “Otherwise, children forget what they have to do, and in what order.” That’s why routines should be tailored according to a child’s age and abilities.


Who says routines have to be boring? According to Nicole Malenfant, a childhood education teacher, it’s up to you to make them enjoyable. “Try to see routines as opportunities to have fun with your child. Children are more cooperative when they enjoy their routine, so it’s a win-win situation.” Bedtime stories are a great example. You can ask your child questions or have her predict what’ll happen on the next page. To add some fun to her morning routine, try telling her she can do one of her favourite activities (e.g., work on a puzzle, draw, play a game) if she gets ready on time.

Five questions about routines

1. What should I do if my child is reluctant to start his evening routine?

When children have to stop doing a fun activity and start getting ready for bed, it’s normal for them to become frustrated and dig in their heels. “Giving your child a few minutes’ warning will often do the trick,” says psychoeducator Sarah Barbeau. You can set up an hourglass or a timer to give your little one a clearer sense of time.

Here are some more tips for getting your child to cooperate:

  • Give him simple choices. Ask questions such as “Which toy do you want for bath time?”, “Do you want to turn off the music or should I?”, or “Do you want to choose the story or should I?”
  • Create pictures to go with each step in your child’s routine. This can help your child gain a sense of responsibility. When she sees an image, she’ll know what to do without needing you to remind her.
  • Make routines fun. Caroline gets creative when her three-year-old daughter, Lélia, doesn’t want to take her bath. “I take a doll and pretend it’s asking her to come play in the water.”

These are just a few suggestions. You can also try hopping to the bathroom like a kangaroo, putting toys away while singing, arranging your child’s pyjamas in the shape of a person—the list goes on!

2. Can routines make it harder for my child to handle unexpected events?

Most children like routines because they provide a sense of security.

According to Nicole Malenfant, a childhood education teacher at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit, this shouldn’t be a major concern. While routines add stability to a child’s life, unexpected events will still pop up on occasion. A parent might get home late from work and have to skip bath time, or the daycare educator might fall ill and be replaced by a substitute for the day. It can be disorienting at first, but most young children naturally learn to take the unexpected in stride.

Weekends can be a handy time for getting children used to change. “Weekends are more relaxed,” says Patrick, father to five-year-old David-Michaël. “My son goes to bed and gets up later. Nobody’s in a hurry. Our only routine is going to see the grown-ups play hockey at the local rink!” As for Justine, age 5, weekend mornings mean getting to watch TV—a big no-no during the week. “That doesn’t cause any confusion,” says her mom, Stéphanie. “She understands that things aren’t always the same.”

3. My child is extremely attached to routines. Should I be worried?

 Some children are more anxious by nature and become upset at the slightest change in their routine. “Whenever possible, prepare your child by going over any changes with her ahead of time,” suggests psychologist Nathalie Parent. “Without making a big deal of the situation, tell her you know that she’s unhappy or worried. Acknowledging your child’s emotions can calm her down by making her feel understood.”

To help your little one get used to change, try skipping a step in her routine now and then or reversing the usual order. “A good way to get your child on board is to make it a game,” says Barbeau. “For example, every Friday, you could put pictures of each step in her evening routine into a hat and have her choose one at random. Whichever one she pulls out will be the one you start with that night. It’s fun for your child and adds flexibility to her routine.”

If, however, your child is so attached to her routine that she has trouble sleeping or can’t function properly (e.g., she becomes disorganized, throws tantrums, or has less of an appetite) if it changes, you should seek a doctor’s advice.

4. How do I get back into a routine after coming back from vacation?

While a break from routine can feel like a breath of fresh air, it can also be hard to get back into the swing of things! When it’s time to return to their routine, children may act out. They may challenge the rules, have trouble falling asleep, become more irritable, and even take a step backward in their development (e.g., by wetting the bed).

“To make things easier, try to maintain a degree of balance while you’re on holiday,” suggests Parent. “For example, you can put your child to bed later than usual without pushing his bedtime back too far.” You can also keep up certain aspects of your child’s routine. This will show him that some things don’t change, and you won’t have to start from scratch once your vacation is over.

Another effective strategy is to start up your routine a few days before your vacation ends. Try putting your child to bed and waking him up a little earlier each day, for example, having him take his bath and put on his pyjamas when he normally would, or setting out his clothes the night before. “It also helps to remind your child that he’ll be going back to school or daycare soon and to explain what his days will be like after the holidays,” adds Parent.

5. Should my ex and I have the same routines?

“Parents who are separated can’t have exactly the same routines, but ideally, they should be fairly similar,” says Malenfant. “This is particularly important before the age of four, as young children have a strong need for stability and reference points. The more predictable their environment, the safer they feel.” In other words, it’s a good idea to find some sort of middle ground with your ex when it comes to routines.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, October 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator


Photos : Maxim Morin, GettyImages/Miodrag Ignjatovic, Maxim Morin