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 children know what to expect in their day, they feel safe and secure. For 3-year-old Lélia, for example, weekday mornings follow a familiar pattern: rise and shine around 7 o’clock, cuddle with Mom, eat breakfast, play, pick an outfit with Dad, get dressed, brush teeth, prepare backpack for daycare, then leave at 8:30.

Reassurance in repetition

“Routines are things that we do every day, in the same order, at the same time,” explains Nicole Malenfant, a content specialist in the Early Childhood Education – Recognition of Acquired Competencies program 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, author, and speaker Nathalie Parent. “But they’re easiest to establish around the 6-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 they’ll have to take a bath, put on their pyjamas, brush their 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 5, 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 them to choose between two options during their routines. For example, ask if they’d prefer to have a banana or an apple or wear their blue or yellow shirt.

You can also suggest that they gradually start to do certain tasks by themself or with only a little help, such as squeezing toothpaste onto their toothbrush. You can also ask them to give you a hand with packing their daycare bag by grabbing the items they’ll need for the day. This will promote other aspects of their development too, such as their fine motor skills and reasoning. Ask “What do you need for daycare?” to help them get started.

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 3-year-old Lélia and 9-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 partner 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 siblings’ routines. From time to time, a big brother or sister could read to their younger sibling or help them get dressed. This is particularly useful if you’re a single parent. It’s not only a great way to highlight your older child’s sense of responsibility, but also an opportunity to spend quality time with them afterwards, as you’ll get through the younger kids’ routines quicker.

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 Nicole Malenfant, an early childhood education content specialist. “The bedtime routine is the best place to start, since it’s the most important one.” 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 their pyjamas. Once they’re 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

Follow these core principles to build effective routines.

Follow these core principles to build effective routines.


Help your child develop good routines from morning to night. Download this Kittycat and friends routine chart!

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 5-year-old David-Michaël 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 5-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. The tasks also need to be easy for them to understand (e.g., Get dressed, eat, then brush your teeth).


Who says routines have to be boring? According to Nicole Malenfant, an early childhood education content specialist, 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.” A great example of when you can put this into practice is while reading to your child before bedtime. You can ask them questions or get them to predict what’ll happen on the next page. To add some fun to your little one’s morning routine, try letting them do one of their favourite activities (e.g., work on a puzzle, draw, play a game) if they get ready on time. Another idea is to put on music when it’s time for your child to put away their toys. It’ll help motivate them as they tidy up!

5 questions about routines

Can routines make it harder for my child to handle unexpected events? The answer to this and other questions.

1. What should I do if my child is reluctant to start their 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. A good strategy is to use an hourglass or timer to give your little one a clearer sense of time.

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

  • Give them simple choices. For example: Which toy do you want for bath time? Do you want to turn off the music or should I? Do you want to pick the story or should I?
  • Put up pictures that illustrate each step in your child’s routine. This can help your child gain a sense of responsibility. With the images as clues, they’ll know what to do without needing you to remind them. You can draw the pictures yourself or cut out images from a magazine with your child. Another option is to use photos of your little one as they complete the steps of their routine.
  • Make routines fun. Caroline gets creative when her 3-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 could 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, using different voices for the characters in your child’s bedtime story—the list goes on!

Use our printable Creating a routine with Kittycat and Friends chart to help your little one learn the steps of their routine!

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 content specialist in the early childhood education program 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. For instance, a parent might get home late from work and have to skip bath time, or a substitute might step in because the daycare educator had to take a sick 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 of 5-year-old David-Michaël. “My son goes to bed and gets up later. Nobody’s in a hurry. Our only routine is going to watch the grown-ups play hockey at the local rink!” As for Justine, also aged 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 them ahead of time,” suggests psychologist Nathalie Parent. “Without making a big deal of the situation, tell them you know that they’re unhappy or worried. Acknowledging your child’s emotions can calm them down by making them feel understood.”

To help your little one get used to change, try skipping a step in their 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 their evening routine into a hat and have them choose one at random. Whichever one they pick will be the one you start with that night. It’s fun for your child and adds flexibility to their routine.”

If, however, your child is so attached to their routine that they have trouble sleeping or can’t function properly if it changes (e.g., they become disorganized, throw tantrums, or have less of an appetite), you should talk to a doctor.

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 sometimes act out. They may challenge the rules, have trouble falling asleep, become more irritable, or 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 vacation,” suggests Parent. “For example, you can put your child to bed later than usual without pushing their bedtime back too far.” You can also keep up certain parts of your child’s routine or compress some of the steps, such as by reading a shorter story when you have people over. This will show them that some things don’t change, and you won’t have to start from scratch once your vacation is over.

Another effective way to ease back into your routine is to start a few days before your vacation ends. Try putting your child to bed a little earlier each night (e.g., 10 to 15 minutes sooner) and waking them up a little earlier in the morning, for example. Have them take their bath and put on their pyjamas when they normally would, or set out their clothes the night before. “It also helps to remind your child that they’ll be going back to school or daycare soon and to explain what their days will be like after vacation ends,” 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 4, as young children have a strong need for stability and points of reference. 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. It’ll be easier for your child to transition between their two homes if their days always have the same general structure.

Things to keep in mind
  • Routines are comforting for children and make them feel safe.
  • Routines help children develop autonomy.
  • Routines make family life easier because they let children know what they have to do.
Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, October 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Updated: November 2023


Books for kids

  • Apprends à t’habiller avec P’tit Loup. Written by O. Lallemand, illustrated by É. Thuillier, Auzou, 2021, 12 pp.
  • Goodnight, You. G. Côté, Kids Can Press, 2014, 32 pp.
  • L’imagier géant de ma journée. Collective, Cerise bleue, 2012, 16 pp.
  • Le repas : mon imagier animé. A. Falière, Gallimard jeunesse, 2017, 10 pp.
  • Pilou, tous les soirs du monde. Written by D. Demers, illustrated by G. Talmasse, Les Éditions de la Bagnole, 2018, 34 pp.
  • T’choupi : ma journée. T. Courtin, Nathan, 2016, 14 pp.
  • Trotro et Zaza s’habillent. B. Guettier, Gallimard jeunesse, 2018, 24 pp.

Photos: GettyImages/Miodrag Ignjatovic, Maxim Morin