The Power of Routines and Rituals

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Just think of how much time babies spend in routines of one kind or another: sleeping, bathing, feeding, and diaper changing, not to mention dressing, getting in or out of a carseat or stroller…and the younger the child, the less time they spend doing much else! These activities require the child’s cooperation, and routines and rituals can help. Routines and rituals can offer an anchor, a predictable sequence of events, and an assurance that the child’s needs will be met. They honor the space (who the child is) and create a place (for example, a fixed bedtime) that matches the rules of your family. 

Just because something is a routine doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value for the child’s development. With young children especially, important learning and connection can happen in the course of everyday routines!

Routines offer children:

  • Predictability
  • Comfort in difficult transitions
  • Health & safety

Research even suggests that when parents learn to implement routines and limits, their children are more likely to develop a healthy body weight!

Through routines, children learn: 

  • Language— when we talk our child through a routine, step by step, we are providing them with optimal exposure to important elements of communication, including vocabulary, joint attention (looking together at someone or something: a fundamental building block of communication!), narrative, and gesture.   
  • An understanding of the routine—what psychologists call a schema—and its unfolding over time, as well as causal relationships, i.e., that one thing or action makes something else happen. (“The diaper cream comes out of the tube, and when the cream touches my skin, it makes my skin feel cold.”)
  • Emotional security and a sense of control
  •  Sensory integration 
  • Attention maintenance and other aspects of self-regulation.

We can also build important self-regulation skills and cooperation in our children when we integrate choices into routines. It may not be a choice to bundle up for the cold weather before we head outside, but we can include in the “going out” routine the choice for the child to wear the blue or orange hat, or whether to lie down or stand up for a diaper change (provided that they—and we!—are able, and that the diaper’s not a messy one, of course!).

So what are rituals?

Rituals and routines have a lot in common. Routines are any everyday, predictable activities we do with our child—diapering, dressing, bathing, leaving the house. It can become a ritual when we bring intention, a sense of purpose to the routine that makes it feel like more than just getting the job done. We often think of rituals as religious or cultural practices, but a ritual can be as simple as a morning practice of greeting the day with your child:

When Krystal returned to work, she had to bring 6-month-old Ruby to her childcare very early, and this meant waking Ruby, who was a bit of a night owl (like her mama!). At first it was a struggle to begin the day earlier, so Krystal created a simple wake-up ritual. Each morning Krystal picks Ruby up from the crib and says quietly, “Good morning, sweet Ruby!” and walks her to the window, where they say good morning to the sunshine (sometimes they need to look for it!), good morning to the clouds, good morning to the cars, good morning to the people walking to work,…always ending with “good morning to everything!”

Rituals like Krystal and Ruby’s need not take long, and they can turn a difficult or mundane routine into something special, sidestepping struggle for a shared experience of meaning and connection.

Tips for creating successful routines and rituals:

  • Offer the child a choice within the routine.
  • Music is a powerful cue for routines that children love. You don’t have to be a pro—you don’t even have to be able to really carry a tune!— to incorporate a simple song for clean-up, bedtime, or any other routine (especially ones that may be difficult for a child).
  • Find ways to connect rituals to your family and cultural heritage. This could be larger community traditions, or a special way to say hello when a parent returns home, “just like my Papa did when I was little.”
  • Narrate the routine: “sportscast” what you are doing as well as what the child is doing, and let the child know what is going to happen in advance.
  • Consider which routines are best to do consistently, the same way regardless of who among the child’s caregivers is doing the routine, and which may be a special, exclusive ritual just between you (or another caregiver) and the child.
  • Adapt routines and rituals based on your child’s temperament (and yours too!)

Yuki has a calm and regular temperament, and it seems like her eyes start to droop at just the sight of her pajamas and a warm bottle. Her parents read the same short book each night, a rhyming story of a baby getting ready for bed. They’ve made up a tune for the last pages, which they repeat as they lift her into her crib, kiss her on the head and turn off the lights as they leave the room. Her brother Toshi is a highly active child, so a longer bedtime ritual is needed to help him wind down for sleep. They are sure to end screen time at least an hour before bedtime and set aside 15 minutes of “special time” when Toshi chooses the activity to play with his parent (always with the limit that it can’t be what they call “rough-house” or active play after dinner). Then it’s bath time, one book of his choosing, followed by the same night-night book his sister reads, the song, kiss and lights out.

  • Whenever possible, build in routines and rituals before a problem emerges. For example, we can expect goodbyes and bedtime may become challenging at one point or another in our baby’s development. Anticipate by creating a ritual while your baby is still very young. (Feel like you missed the memo and now you have a difficult daily transition or activity on your hands? It’s never too late to introduce another approach.)

These are hard times. Routines and rituals can help.

You may have experienced—and you may be continuing to experience—changes in your family’s routines because of the COVID-19 pandemic. New research on the impact of the pandemic on families shows that you’re not alone. The good news is that researchers have also confirmed that families can adapt better to difficult circumstances by creating and maintaining rituals and routines. Predictable routines and rituals can help ease the stress of daily life in uncertain and stressful times. This is true for children of all ages…and for adults, too!

Remember…

Not every single routine or activity you do with your child needs to become a ritual. It’s okay for some things to just have to get done, and of course not every experience a child has will be repeated regularly. Whether you are engaged in a routine, ritual, or neither, keep in mind we can always aim to bring intention, attunement and communication with our child.

→ Next: Steps for Creating Your Own Routines

→ Next: Structure Up!

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