Routine: Just how important is it for children?

Settling: Bedtime and other routines can be very important in children's development. They can provide structure and predictability to a child's day.
Settling: Bedtime and other routines can be very important in children's development. They can provide structure and predictability to a child's day.

Routines are an important part of our lives, and settling new babies into manageable sleeping and waking routines is one of the first tasks new parents face.

As children grow, routines such as bedtime and mealtimes are important because they provide structure and predictability to children’s day – they provide opportunities for children to learn about time and to anticipate when things will happen, then feel in control of their lives when things happen pretty much as they expected.

Note that by routines I do not mean strict schedules from which no deviations are allowed. Routines, to be effective, are reasonably flexible and responsive to children and the context.

For example you may decide that 7.30pm is an appropriate bedtime for your young children.  Around 7 you might signal that bedtime is approaching by helping your children shower and get changed into their nightwear.

This may be followed by teeth cleaning and then a cuddle and a story. This regular going-to-bed routine signals to children that it is nearly time to sleep. Relaxing with a cuddle and a story provides a calm down time that mentally and physically prepares bodies for sleep.

However, there will be occasions when children will go to bed later (a family birthday party for example) or will go to bed without following the usual routine (when Dad is sick and cannot read the bedtime story, or when the hot water runs out and there is none for the nightly shower). These occasions are not a problem; help children understand why things have changed and reassure them that their world is still safe and secure.

There is evidence that maintaining family routines are important for children’s health and wellbeing.

One study from the US showed that increasing levels of family chaos (ie lack of family routines) was linked to increasingly poorer child health. In this study some of the elements of family chaos considered were constant background noise (through, for example, the TV being on all the time – the case for 60 per cent of the families in the study), lack of regular bedtime and meal times, irregular parental work schedules leading to irregular or no family routines, multiple changes in child care arrangements, crowding, and unclean and/or cluttered rooms.

...the ability to regulate emotions means that we can be happy without swinging from the chandeliers, or angry without killing everyone around us.

Another study (from the UK this time) looked at the link between family routines and children’s emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation is a very important skill children learn in their early years of life: the ability to regulate emotions means that we can be happy without swinging from the chandeliers, or angry without killing everyone around us.

When we are able to regulate our emotions we can use our brain to think and problem solve, rather than reacting emotionally to everything. This study found that by three years of age, children whose families used regular routines for bedtime, mealtimes and screen-time had better emotional regulation.

Children who had the most difficulties with emotional regulation at age three were more likely to be obese by age 11. Sleep appears to have an impact on metabolism so that there is a strong connection between poor sleep patterns and obesity.

Another study with low-income urban adolescents (again from the US) showed that those who had family routines were more likely to do well at school.

Family routines appeared to protect these adolescents from stress to some degree, as those who had family routines were more likely to maintain their academic achievements when experiencing destabilising family events.

It seems that family routines provide children with a sense of stability which enables them to feel some degree of control over their lives.