When you hear babies and routine in the same sentence, it probably sounds like a ridiculous oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp. Routine is tough in those early days of infanthood, and it can feel non-existent for both you and your baby (who can’t even tell day from night yet). I constantly hear about the importance of schedules, so really, how important is routine for babies? Turns out, it is pretty important, but you don’t need to adhere strictly to it all the time.
You begin creating the foundation for a solid routine even in those first few months when your baby is sleeping constantly and you can barely remember the last time you changed clothes. You’re helping your baby develop a circadian rhythm when you “begin imposing daily habits, such as exposing him to the light of the sun when he's awake so he can begin to differentiate day from night,” said Parents.
Maureen Healy, emotional coach and author of The Emotionally Healthy Child tells Romper, “children that have a regular schedule or routine when growing up feel comforted and safer in the world. Highly sensitive children feel things more deeply and oftentimes react quickly, so a routine helps them even more so… certain routines, schedules, or regularity for a child helps ease his or her stress of ‘what's going to happen next.’”
Many of us can relate to that panicky “what’s going to happen next?” feeling. This is partially why to-do lists and calendar apps are helpful; they make sense of the day's tasks ahead. In the same way, infants and babies are learning so many new things at once that routines provide a sense of security and predictability.
You may notice that when you go on vacation or allow your child to stay up late, your child's typical amenable behavior goes out the window. This can be frustrating especially because routines are usually broken in order to do something special. In one of parenting's Catch-22s, you want to instill a routine, but you also want to raise adaptable children. The key is allowing for exceptions to the schedule, but understanding when it's time to get back on track.
"Having a set schedule is helpful for most parents and children, but we don't need to 100 percent stick to a schedule, especially if something amazing comes up," Healy tells Romper. "Say you got free tickets to a children's concert. Maybe you go to the concert, but are prepared to leave early if he's exhausted. You are open to making exceptions to the rules, but flexible if it doesn't work."
If you break the evening routine too often, however, your child may have trouble winding down for bedtime. Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD and author of forthcoming book Become Your Child's Sleep Coach tells Romper “you probably remember Pavlov's dog [who] would eventually salivate anytime he heard a bell. You want your [child’s] bedtime routine to lead to drowsiness just as dependably.” She explains that nighttime routines help establish healthy, lifelong sleep habits by providing a “buffer zone” for kids to transition from daytime activity into nighttime.
A 2018 study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that the positive effects of a bedtime routine are far-reaching: “Bedtime routines have been associated with emotional and psychological wellbeing in parents and children," the study reported. "Children with non-regular bedtime routines experience more frequent behavioral difficulties than others and parents with optimal bedtime routines report lower levels of anxiety, anger, and fatigue."
While she advocates strongly for bedtime routines, Schneeberg cautions against providing too much assistance in getting your child to sleep.
"The routine should not end with a parent rocking a child to sleep, rubbing a child's back... or lying in a child's bed," Schneeberg says. "This becomes the only way the child knows how to make the transition from wake to sleep."
Giving children a head's up when the routine will be changing helps them mentally prepare for any shifts, bedtime or otherwise. You can explain over breakfast, for example, that in the evening a special babysitter will come to put them to bed, or that they will have the opportunity to stay up late to go see a performance, but the routine will be the same when they get home.
A solid routine in childhood may help kids later in life. As Healy explains, "the correlation I see is that young children who have a routine and a clear schedule appear to learn how to navigate the stressors in their life better." With this in mind, it's worth advocating for a strong routine in your child's life, but it's also important to take time away from the routine occasionally, like if Peppa or Baby Shark comes to town do-do-do-do.
Edit note: A previous version of this article misquoted Dr. Schneeberg. It has been corrected.