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7 min read

If you have a toddler, you know chaos! Stepping on cheerios, finding week-old upside down sippy cups of milk, panicking when it’s suddenly too quiet in the next room – this is your new life! There’s nothing quite like the happy chaos of having a toddler. But what about the times when it’s not happy chaos? What do you do when your toddler is all tantrums and tears and refusals, making you wonder how such a tiny person has such a strong opinion!


There’s actually a simple trick to help prevent those rough spots in your toddler’s day. It doesn’t involve magic wands or hiring one of those nannies from TV. It’s a simple strategy that takes a few minutes to plan and will save you from countless hours of frustrated toddler. Let’s talk about the power of routines.

Why routines are important for toddlers

Create a daily routine for kids

Toddlers may still be small, but they’re actually very complex little people who are learning a whole lot about the world. They’re discovering they are their own people, which means they’re learning they have their own opinions. This discovery is fantastic developmentally, but exhausting for parents. Your sweet, cuddly baby is suddenly demanding and strong-willed. Although this stage feels frustrating, keep in mind your child is developing important skills: how to form opinions and express thoughts.


Despite the increase in some skills, others have yet to develop. Toddlers don’t yet understand patterns or sequences, and they’re still learning how to predict what will happen next. When you see your little one play with the same toy repeatedly or ask for the same story for the 10th night in a row, you’re seeing the development of these skills. Your son puts the car on the ramp over and over to see if the same thing will happen each time. Your daughter asks for the story again because she’s learning that it’s the same each time.


Because toddlers are still learning how to predict what will happen, they generally don’t see that days follow patterns. Although you know that the same thing happens every morning (e.g., breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, put on shoes and coat), your daughter does not. She may have her own ideas about how she wants to spend her morning, and it’s unlikely her plans fit into your day. Because she has developed the skills to have opinions and voice them, but not the skills to understand daily routines, she’s likely to become frustrated when you try to redirect her or tell her what to do. By creating a predictable daily routine, you’ll find you can eliminate a lot of toddler tantrums.


Does having a routine make kids inflexible?

Daily schedule for kids to help things go smoothly

Although creating a routine is essential to helping toddlers’ days go more smoothly, some parents worry that having a routine reduces their ability to be spontaneous. That actually isn’t true at all. Routines build in predictability for the things you need to do each day, they don’t prevent you from doing new things. Try to remember all the way back to elementary school. Your classroom followed a routine. You walked in the door, hung up your backpack and coat, turned in your classwork, sat at your desk, and did the morning work your teacher wrote on the board. That was a routine.


On field trip days, though, your routine might have been different, and that was okay. Routines don’t have to be followed nonstop every day, but allow life to go more smoothly on an average day. If it helps, you can also create multiple routines for different types of days. For example you can have a weekday morning routine and a weekend morning routine. The goal of a routine is to help your child predict what’s happening on most days, so most days go more smoothly, it’s not to prevent you from having special days.


How to create a routine

Morning and bedtime routine for toddlers

Once you’re ready to build your routine, you can complete it in 3 simple steps.


Step 1: Identify the best times of days for routines (morning/bedtime routines)

When you’re ready to make a routine, begin by identifying the times of day when you’re most likely to benefit from a routine. The two most common times of day, in most homes, are morning and bedtime. In general, families have to do the same things each morning and the same things each night. These parts of day lend themselves to routines and schedules both because they have multiple tasks that occur in a relatively short amount of time and because the tasks that happen each day are similar.


Step 2: Planning your routines

Once you identify the time of day for your routine, you’re ready to begin planning it. Grab a piece of paper and pen, or open the notepad function on your phone, and start a list. Begin by identifying the things that absolutely HAVE to happen at that time of day.


Common morning routine items include:

☑ Toileting/diaper changes

☑ Getting dressed

☑ Breakfast

☑ Brushing teeth

☑ Brushing hair

☑ Putting on coat/shoes

☑ Taking medicine/vitamins


Common bedtime routine items include:

☑ Toileting/diaper changes

☑ Bath

☑ Putting on pajamas

☑ Brushing teeth

☑ Reading stories

☑ Singing songs

☑ Saying prayers

☑ Getting into bed


Step 3. Organizing your Routine

Once you’ve created a list of tasks for your toddler’s routine, begin thinking about the most logical order for it. Try to set up the routine so you’ll do activities that occur near each other at the same time. For example, in the morning, consider doing all the upstairs tasks (bathroom/diaper changes, getting dressed) before coming down for breakfast. At night, consider doing all of your toddler’s bathroom tasks (toileting/bath/brushing teeth) before going into the bedroom. By grouping items together, you’ll speed up your toddler’s routine and make it easier to transition between tasks.


Next, consider whether you want to include any free time in your schedule. If you have to get your child ready for daycare and then get yourself ready for work, it may help to build in TV time or free play time. If you have to get multiple kids into bed at night, it can help to add in time for your child to look at books by himself before you read with him.


Once you have a full list of activities, and a sense of the order, begin numbering them. Try working through your routine once or twice to be sure it’s exactly how you want. If it seems like you have everything included, you’re ready to make the routine into a visual schedule

Reasons to make your Routine Visual

How to create a visual schedule

Young children do best with visual information for a variety of reasons. Children are very receptive to visual information – they are used to learning visually. Think about children’s books, they’re filled with pictures that support the story. Visualize a preschool room, it has pictures and visual cues all around the room. Children are receptive to pictures.


Additionally, young children are still learning spoken language. Sometimes, especially when they’re frustrated or tired, kids may struggle to understand adults’ words. Even if they understand the words, toddlers may struggle to remember them all. The trouble with verbal language is once it’s said, it’s gone. If you missed an instruction, there’s no way to find out what you missed. Visual supports, in contrast, stay present as long as they’re needed. If you miss part of the information, you can look back at the cues as often as you need. Visually representing a routine helps kids remember what they are supposed to do, allowing them to review the information as often as necessary. 


Having a visual schedule also helps kids predict what will happen next. Although toddlers are years from being able to read, they can understand pictures. If your child is finishing a meal and sees the next picture is shoes, he knows when he’s done eating he should go get his shoes. Children, especially toddlers, feel pride when they do something independently. A visual routine lets you capitalize on that desire for independence.


Toddlers can try to be independent by deciding what they want to do, insisting on doing things their way, and becoming frustrated when they are told no. This type of independence is exasperating for parents.  Using a visual schedule, in contrast, allows children to see what’s going to happen next, which, when combined with their drive for independence, makes them want to try the task on their own. The second option is a much more productive use of their emerging independence!


Finally, a visual routine provides consistency for your child. Children live in a world led by adults. They’re constantly being led from one activity to the next with little warning about what is going to happen. As adults, we’re often in a rush and don’t have time to slow down and explain all our plans to our children. When children don’t know what to expect, though, they can become frustrated or anxious about their day, leading to tantrums or refusals. Creating a visual representation of your child’s routine helps him or her know what the day will include, which increases feelings of confidence and comfort.


Building routines into your toddler’s day can make a huge impact in your day, reducing battles and increasing compliance from your little one. To help children follow their daily routines successfully, consider using visual supports to increase their understanding. Fewer battles over daily activities means more time spent listening to the same song for the 10,000th time and trying to figure out where your toddler put your car keys…you know – enjoying toddlerhood!

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