Spending long days with your toddler is a blessing — or so you’ve been told. Truth is, parenting toddlers is hard work. Full days can feel never-ending, leaving you exhausted and, well, defeated.
Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or simply finding yourself home more as a result of the current pandemic, you’re not alone in your frustration.
Tweaking your routine and creating a toddler-friendly schedule may be the key to better days ahead for you and your little one.
Children — even young toddlers — thrive on routines. And this isn’t just some new parenting tip; it’s actually backed by science.
For example, in 2018, researchers who reviewed studies on bedtime routines in young children found that sticking to a schedule (snack, bath and brushing teeth, reading stories, cuddling) appeared to promote better nighttime sleep.
Perhaps even more interesting is that bedtime routines support children’s overall development and sense of well-being.
Experts share that schedules create a sense of safety and confidence because they make a child’s environment predictable. When kids know what’s coming up in their day, there’s order and familiarity. Instead of wondering what’s next, a child can focus on learning and mastering new skills.
Toddlers are especially capable and, at times, demanding because they want to do things (OK, all the things) on their own.
When tots have a framework for the day, they feel more comfortable expressing this budding independence and may even go through transitions (leaving the park, going down for a nap, etc.) with less protest.
That’s right. Schedules may help nip those pesky temper tantrums right in the bud!
You may be eager to follow a schedule — any schedule — so you can get some order to your days. However, you should use this sample schedule only as a guide and make modifications as they fit your lifestyle. Feel free to mix up the order of things, within reason and as they make sense with your daily obligations.
That said, the whole point of a schedule is to get a rhythm in your days, so you’ll want to keep things relatively stable from day to day, week to week.
If things aren’t clicking into place immediately, don’t fret. It can take some time to get into a good flow. Stick with it!
7:30 to 8 a.m.: Wake up
Your little one may have other ideas when it comes to a regular wake time. Following a schedule each day may actually help, though
And if you’re laughing that your child wakes up much earlier than 7:30 a.m. — no worries. It’s typical for toddlers to wake anytime between
8 to 9 a.m.: Eat breakfast and clean up
First and foremost, you’ll want to prepare and eat the most important meal of the day. Toddlers love helping out with meal preparation and age-appropriate chores. So, let your little one help pour milk into their cereal from a small cup or give them a rag to wipe down the table with when you’re done eating.
After breakfast is an excellent time to run around the house doing a few necessary chores, like tossing in a load of laundry, tidying up bedrooms, or vacuuming the playroom.
9 to 10 a.m.: Playtime
Toddlers love playtime, but did you know there are at least 6 different types of play?
Unstructured playtime is crucial for toddler development. It gives them freedom of expression and lets them experiment with language and imagination. Researchers say that children even engage more with their caregivers when play isn’t structured for them.
Examples of free play (unstructured play or open-ended play) to fill this time slot might include:
- playing with dress-up clothes or play scarves
- building with simple blocks
- tinkering with sticks, rocks, or a cardboard box
10 to 11 a.m.: Outdoor time, exercise, etc.
Head out to a nearby park or playground to get some exercise. You don’t need a trail or fancy equipment to make outdoor time fun for toddlers — even your own backyard can provide an environment for exploration and activity.
Experts say that along with getting some much-needed fresh air, being in nature may help reduce stress and depression in toddlers and older children. It may even strengthen their immune systems.
If the weather is less than ideal, you can get moving indoors, too. Consider doing some family yoga or getting the giggles out by switching on your favorite music and having a dance party.
11 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Planned activity or errands
Each day in your week won’t be exactly the same. You may have a library story hour one day or a gymnastics class the next. Slot out an hour in your morning for planned activities. On other days, you can fill in this time with art projects, playdates, or other appointments and errands like grocery shopping.
12 to 1 p.m.: Lunch and wind down
Chow down on some lunch. Chances are, your younger toddler will still be taking naps. After lunch is a good time to set the stage for napping success by making the environment calm.
Close some curtains, play soft music, bring out a few good books, and let your child start to relax. You can also encourage your little one to help pick up toys in the playroom so it is neat, tidy, and ready for more play when they wake up.
1 to 3 p.m.: Nap or quiet time
According to sleep consultant Nicole Johnson, most toddlers consolidate their naps to just one daytime sleep by 15 to 18 months.
Aim to get in naptime at the same time each day (within reason, of course!).
Having this dedicated quiet time in your day is also good for parents, as you can plan to get other work or “me time” in. If you have younger or older children who aren’t napping at this time, it can also be an opportunity to get some one-on-one time with them.
Is your toddler not napping — or just plain resisting sleep? Give them some quiet activities to do solo in their room. Be sure the room is free from hazards and check in from time to time to ensure your child is safe.
3 to 3:30 p.m.: Afternoon snack
Your child likely won’t make it to dinner time without a small snack. Building it into your schedule makes it part of the day — no whining for pretzels needed.
Plus, eating a snack mid-afternoon isn’t likely to spoil dinner later on. Try offering fruit with plain yogurt, veggies and hummus, or other healthy snacks kids love.
3:30 to 4:30 p.m.: Free play
Playtime again? Yes. Much of your child’s day should be spent engaging with their environment.
To mix it up, you can try rotating your child’s toys from day to day, morning to afternoon, or even just week to week. Do whatever you want to keep it fresh for your tot.
Parents do have a role in their child’s play.
Think of supporting your child without taking over or leading their experience. Offer choices that allow your toddler to follow their interests and actively participate from time to time. By doing so, you can help them learn new things or make new connections, which is pretty awesome to watch.
4:30 to 5 p.m.: Dinner preparation
Toddlers can get involved with small tasks like chopping soft vegetables with kid-safe nylon knives, mixing together pasta salads or quick-breads with supervision, or even helping to set the table.
By now, you see how being in the kitchen can be a big part of the day for your child. You might even consider getting a learning tower, which is a safe stool of sorts that your tot can stand on to reach counter height with ease.
5 to 6 p.m.: Family dinner and cleanup
Experts explain that eating meals together as a family serves several important purposes.
First, eating together and talking about the day’s activities can help with your toddler’s communication skills. Eating together regularly also provides an emotional boost and feelings of safety and security. Families who eat together may even eat higher quality meals (more fruits, veggies, etc.) versus fried or fatty foods.
If schedule conflicts among family members are an issue, you don’t necessarily have to eat dinner together. Instead, aim to eat one of your meals together most days of the week. You’ll get all the same benefits while fitting into your family’s unique schedule.
When you’ve finished your meal, find ways for the whole family to participate in the cleanup. Modeling chores helps your child see their role in the household and how it takes the whole family to keep things rolling.
6 to 7 p.m.: Family time
Spend some time together as a family to wind down from the day. You’ll want to keep activities relatively calm, as bedtime is near.
Try taking a walk around your neighborhood, reading books or doing puzzles, or listening to soothing music.
7 to 7:30 p.m.: Nighttime routine
You may need more or less time for your nighttime routine, so feel free to start earlier if you need to. A solid routine here might include a small snack or feeding, a bath and brushing teeth, reading stories, singing songs, cuddling or rocking your child, and — of course — the goodnight kiss.
7:30 p.m.: Bedtime
You’ve made it! If following this schedule feels difficult, feel free to modify it as needed. That said, it may take a few days or weeks for your family to fall into a good rhythm. Make it simple and stick with it.
A predictable schedule can help you stay level-headed and chipper on those especially long days at home with your toddler.
If you’re having trouble structuring your day, make a list of the activities you engage in on a weekly basis as well as what chores and responsibilities you need to fit in. From there, draft up a plan that works for you, try it out, and modify it as needed.
And whatever schedule you come up with, be sure to build in some time to read to your child every day. Not only is it a time when you can bond with them over a shared story, reading has also been proven to help with parts of your toddler’s development like language learning.
Sickness, teething, and other unexpected things may get you off track, but take comfort in the fact that you can always return to the rhythm in time.