Creating a schedule for a toddler is probably one of the most challenging things that a parent can do. After all, toddlers are willful, defiant and often aim to manipulate you to do their bidding. On the other hand, however, toddlers actually secretly crave routine. They feel more secure when they know what to expect, although they may not necessarily show it!
Schedule-making for toddlers is much easier if you've accustomed them to a schedule as an infant. If you haven't managed this, however, don't sweat it! You'll find that your toddler will be responsive to a routine, even if he resists it at first.
To help you develop your toddler's daily routine, we've gathered a few tips on creating schedules starting at the terrible twos.
15 Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Toddlers can be a bane to night-owl parents because they tend to be early risers. It's best to help them stick to this schedule as much as possible so that you don't need to retrain them to wake up early when they start school.
However, this also means that you're going to need to convince them to go to bed early despite their protests. Your toddler will need about ten to fourteen hours of sleep, including a nap or two. So you might want to work out your little one's sleeping schedule based on this number.
14 Transitioning Naptime
As with infants, you want to transition activities as you go into naptime or bedtime. Provide the most stimulation when they've woken up and had a meal, and the least stimulation as you get closer to sleepy-time. As stimulation decreases, you're less likely to have a battle over bedtime. After all, if your little one is busy playing a game on your phone at around the time he needs to sleep, he's going to have a tough time letting go and might even throw a tantrum.
You might therefore want to divide your toddler's activities to those that require the most energy to those that need the least energy and arrange those activities to fit into his circadian rhythm.
13 Continue Infant Rituals
If you've established rituals as an infant, such as reading a story before bedtime, continue to do them now. Some toddlers do remember these rituals, while others remember them only subconsciously. In any case, a story before bed or a bath in the morning will continue to be recognizable cues that he can follow.
Even if you didn't consciously establish any rituals when your child was an infant, however, you might find that there are certain things he recognizes as routine cues. This could be a song that you sing when he's going to sleep, or you opening the curtains to let light in in the morning.
12 Use Lighting
Speaking of light, your toddler's circadian rhythm will likely follow periods of light and darkness. That is, he's going to be more awake and alert when it's bright, and more drowsy and laid-back when it's dim. And while artificial lighting is such a useful technology, you may want to cut back on it, at least in your toddler's room, when it's almost bedtime. At the very least, don't keep him in a lighted room when he needs to go to sleep.
11 Set Boundaries
Stubborn as toddlers are, your little one is going to want to negotiate his routines. While you may want to give him a bit of leeway at times, it's still important for you to set boundaries so that he knows who's in charge.
You may, for instance, allow him thirty minutes more of awake time if he's got his favorite cousin sleeping over. But make sure that he doesn't go any more than that. If he gets used to cajoling you into changing his routines, you might find that you have a problem on your hands!
10 Acknowledge Changes
If there are going to be changes in his schedule, whether due to a vacation, a family visit or changes in your own work schedule, make sure to talk to him in advance about it. He might get confused if the changes come abruptly, without explanation. It might also make him think that manipulating his schedule himself is alright.
Help him understand the reason for the changes and tell him if or when his routine is going to go back to normal.
9 Be Consistent
Being consistent is more important in toddlers than it is with infants. It can also be harder, considering your toddler's tendency to want to test your boundaries. It can be tough to keep it up on a daily basis, but it's a struggle that the whole family will ultimately benefit from when enforced right.
It helps if you put up a visible schedule for your toddler so he knows exactly what he needs to do at what time. An added bonus of this? It's a great way to help teach your toddler to read the time!
8 Plan Meals in Advance
The one thing that might make it more challenging to stick to a schedule is the fact that you have to have meals ready on time! If you're busy or tired, this might mean that you might occasionally cook a meal a bit late, or have to order takeout more often than you would like.
It helps, therefore to have your meals planned and prepared for in advance. Cooking in big batches and then freezing is one handy way to do this. You might also want to schedule easy-to-prepare meals for when you expect to be tired and save the fancy dinners for the weekends, when you have plenty of time!
7 Add Variety
While toddlers are creatures of routine, they're also going to crave a little bit of variety in their schedule. Make sure to mix things up occasionally so that they've got something fresh and new to experience and talk about!
This may mean transforming their regular playtime into a trip to the zoo, the aquarium or a local children's museum. Or, perhaps, taking him out for a special day with his grandparents. After all, just because he's on a schedule doesn't mean his days have to be boring!
6 Comfort Objects
One handy way to get your child to stick to his routine is to establish objects that he can anchor on. These things provide comfort and reassurance at set points throughout the day.
You can, perhaps, give him his favorite pillow or stuffed toy as naptime approaches. Or you can cook his favorite meal during the weekend. Or maybe you can get him nice, floating bathtub toys so he looks forward to taking a bath.
5 Turn it into a Game
For the extra-stubborn toddler, transforming the schedule into a game might help. Toddlers have a vivid imagination, after all, and this is a great time to put it to good use. You can get him to "care" for a doll and tell him that the toy needs to rest at specific times to stay healthy. Alternatively, you can reward him with points whenever he sticks to their schedule. At the end of the week, if he gets enough points, he might be able to choose an outing or activity of his choice (from a predetermined selection, of course).
4 Use Music
Music is another excellent way to help your little one transition between schedules. It's also a rather subconscious one, but you'll find that it's very effective. Around bedtime or naptime, play or sing him comfortable or relaxing tunes. When you need him to get up in the morning, begin to play jollier and more upbeat ones.
It's helpful if you create playlists for each time of the day so that he has auditory cues to signal whether it's time to sleep, play or eat.
3 Positive Reinforcement
Toddlers are very responsive to praise. It therefore helps to give him positive reinforcement whenever he follows his schedule without fuss. Make sure, however, not to use negative praise such as "you're unusually good today" or "you're usually a bad boy" as this might trigger some form of rebellion, toddler-style.
Give him feedback at the end of the day as to how well he's doing. If he's having trouble following his schedule, however, try to talk to him and ask him why. This doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to adjust to his demands, but it does sometimes help to know the reasons for his trouble.
2 Learning Opportunities
During the course of his routine, you'll find that there are numerous opportunities to sneak in learning. When he learns how to do certain things and is praised for it, he becomes more likely to appreciate the routine he's going through. You may, for instance, teach him how to put on his own clothes when it's time to dress up. Or you could teach him to read when it's time for his bedtime story. And don't forget to celebrate when he does something all by himself for the first time!
1 Adjust as Necessary
Sometimes, you might find that you need to adjust your little one's schedule. This might be because, perhaps, he's slowly needing less sleep than he used to. Or you might find that he's not hungry during your set schedule for eating time.
In these cases, follow your parental instinct and fix up your little one's schedule as needed. He might notice the changes, though, so it's best to explain to him why you're doing it. You might even want to get him involved in the decision. For instance, you might tell him "I noticed you get sleepy at one o'clock instead of two. Would you like to move your naptime earlier?" This shows him both that you are aware of his needs, but also that you remain in control of his schedule.