10 top tips to help you plan your toddler’s routine

Feel like you’re living in a mad house? Follow our guide to get your tot’s day working like clockwork …

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  • Toddlers are very active little people, and between trying to get out of the house in the morning, to coping with a tot who naps soundly at teatime and then spends much of the night wide awake, it can seem like your household is somewhat lacking in order, let alone a daily routine.

    But it’s really worth working to get one sorted. “Having a routine in place can help keep you and your toddler calm and settled, and prepare her for starting school or nursery when the time comes,” explains childcare expert Katy Hayden (www.tinies.co.uk). Just take your toddler’s day bit by bit, and with a little planning and organisation you’ll keep her settled, and the rest of the family the right side of sane. Here’s how…

  • 1) Stick to a wake-up time

    Whatever you’ve got planned for the day ahead, try and have a set wake-up time for you and your child. “Whether you’re heading out or staying at home, it helps to have structure to your mornings,” says Katy. “This way your toddler will know what she’s going to be doing and when.” Go into her room and say good morning and half open her curtains or blinds so she can see it’s morning and time to get going.

    Of course things will run more smoothly first thing if she rises bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to face the day with a grin. This will be largely dependent on how much sleep she’s had the night before and whether she’s still tired. “In an ideal world, aim for a 7pm bedtime and a 7am wake-up,” advises sleep expert Jo Tabiner. “Go for 12 hours sleep a night, and try not to let her sleep in late in the morning, as then she won’t be tired enough for any naps and bedtime that evening.”

    Try this

    Keep whatever wake-up time you pick consistent at weekends and on holidays so your toddler doesn’t fall out of sync with her routine.

  • 2) Sit down for breakfast

    Didn’t your mum always say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Well, she was right, as it gives your toddler (and you) energy to cope with the day ahead. Try as much as you can to sit together at the table to give her a chilled-out start.

    “It can be difficult to eat as a family when you’re busy and running around in the morning,” says paediatric dietitian Judy More. “So plan ahead to eat together, and maybe think about getting up a little earlier to make time for this so your toddler doesn’t feel rushed and stressed, which can affect her appetite.”

    Think about breakfast before you go to bed, and take five minutes to lay the table and check what you’ve got to eat so you don’t have a mad rush in the morning when you’ve got a hungry tot.

  • 3) Plan an outing

    Mornings can be a long old slog for the under 3s, so have activities planned to keep your tot busy, and plan when and where you’ll be having your lunch. “It’s fine to have lazy days at home, but having a regular outing or class to go to will keep your toddler alert and give you something to tempt her with when you need to get out,” says Katy. “Let your child know what’s happening and where you’re both going. This way you’ll avoid tears and tantrums if you spring it on her.” If you’re going out, get your bag packed and at the door, and know your route. So, if she does throw a wobbly, she won’t delay you too much.

    Try this 

    “Make a wall chart and buy stickers so your toddler can place each one on the chart at the time you’re going to be doing it,” suggests Katy. “For example, if you’re off to the park, get her to put a sticker with something to do with a park (a tree or some swings) on the chart. This way she can understand what’s happening and when.”

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  • 4) Keep the drinks flowing

    If your toddler is always thirsty and stopping for a top-up, it can interrupt the routine for the day. “It’s normal for tots to drink a lot, so offer your little one 6 to 8 drinks a day, and offer them with each meal or snack your toddler eats so that you keep her fluid intake up,” advises Judy. If she asks for more then do give her a top-up as every child has different needs, but try to avoid lots of juice or squash as they have a high sugar content. “Water is the best drink to give during the day, but if you’re giving her juice, dilute it well with water,” suggests Judy. “Keep milk to a minimum of three small glasses a day, too, as it contains salt.”

    Try this 

    If your tot is still using bottles, gradually phase in beakers whenever she sits down for a meal or snack so she starts to understand food and drink go together, and when she does drink, she uses a big girl’s cup.

  • 5) Plan lunch around sleep

    “When you eat your lunchtime meal depends a lot on your daily routine, and whether your tot is at nursery or at home,” says Judy. “But the key is not to suggest food when she’s tired or has just woken up and is irritable.”

    If your toddler has a sleep in the morning, wait and have lunch an hour or so after this when she’s alert and interested in what she’s eating and doing, and gets into the habit of enjoying sitting together to eat.

  • 6) Sort out nap times

    Naps are essential for replenishing your toddler’s energy throughout the day, but it’s important to plan them in relation to her age so she doesn’t get too much, or too little sleep, which could throw the day out of sync.

    “Younger tots, from 12 to 18 months, will need two, one-hour naps a day – one mid-morning and one in the afternoon,” explains Jo. “If you’ve got an older toddler it’s more than likely she’ll only have one afternoon nap of about an hour and a half.”

    Every child is different, but if you aim for 12 to14 hours of sleep in 24 hours, with 12 hours at night, you should have an alert and happy toddler. “But, don’t let afternoon naps get too late,” warns Jo. “Keep them before 3pm as any later might mean she isn’t sleepy enough when it comes to her proper bedtime, which will have a knock-on affect on her evening routine.”

  • 7) Boost her energy

    “Growing toddlers need regular snacks to boost their energy throughout the day as they can’t get all their energy and nutrients from just three meals,” explains Judy. This way she won’t get irritable and hungry. “Go for one small snack between main meals, so two to three snacks a day,” advises Judy. “Be sure to sit with and supervise your toddler when she eats a snack, and never offer them during active play as there’s a risk of choking.”

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  • 8) Plan playtime

    We’re not suggesting having a concrete time for play at home, but without activities to keep her busy, she’ll just get grumpy, bored or both! “Down time and playtime are important, and can be fitted in without you needing to plan set times,” explains Katy.

    Try and have a mixture of active play, quiet time and reading together. “If your toddler is older and not having daytime naps, it’s still an idea to pop her into bed in the afternoon for a quick sit down or read to stop her getting over-tired,” says Katy.

  • 9) Prepare for tea

    You can feed your little one an evening meal at whatever time suits the household so why not wait untill daddy arrives home to all eat together? This will kick-start your toddler’s evening routine to pave the way for a peaceful bedtime. “It’s not a problem for a toddler to have a meal before bed, but if it’s too late watch out for her being tired and irritable,” advises Judy. “Give her warning before eating, so she knows it’s coming and what to do. For example, just before, tell her the meal is nearly ready and ask her to go and wash her hands.”

  • 10) Be cool at bedtime

    “After dinner is a really important time to try and keep to your set routine, as you want your tot to stay calm so she’ll get into bed and sleep well.” advises Jo. Work out a bedtime for her by sticking to the 12 hours a night rule, and after eating and a warm bath, give her a quick kiss and cuddle before tucking her in and leaving the room. 

    Try this 

    “If your toddler goes to sleep with a nightlight on, be sure to leave this on so if she wakes the room is as she left it,” adds Jo. “Keep this consistent so you’ve got a little one who’s happy to go to bed as she knows she’ll be safe.”

  • Mums’ stories

    “Sticking to the same getting-up time at the weekends has helped with our two, as they’ve got used to when they need to be awake and ready for the day. I’d also say if you’re a working parent, get the same routine going for yourself too as it saves so much hassle and rushing about in the mornings.”

    Kate Fever, 26, from Devon, mum to Gemma, 4, and Jacob, 2

    “Ruby didn’t have a routine as a baby, and was a terrible sleeper. As she got older we decided to get her into a routine with a daytime nap and strict bedtime. It was hard at first but paid off, and she now sleeps through the night with a one- to two-hour nap at lunch. Having a routine before bed has worked wonders, too.”

    Maria Pogson, 29, from Didcot, mum to Ruby, 19 months

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  • How the routine helps you too

    • A set wake-up time gives you the best start. Try getting up before your tot, then you can shower, do your hair and choose clothes in peace.
    • Walks in the park are free, and the exercise helps digestion and boosts endorphins (happiness hormones), so scheduling a walk is a winner.
    • Set nap times mean set ‘mum chore’ times. While she’s asleep you can do the online banking, chop veg for tea, or even grab 40 winks for yourself.
    • 75% of people eat their dinner in front of the telly. Setting your toddler’s tea time and eating together as a family is a boost for all of you.

Last updated on 7 September 2011


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