Toddlers are constantly learning about how the world works, from their everyday family life at home to daycare, preschool and other environments. Their busy minds are absorbing so much new information every day that surprises can sometimes throw them off-balance. This is why routines for waking, eating and sleeping are so important. Not only do they help your child make sense of their own schedule, they can also help set a foundation for healthy habits.
As a parent, you might have heard the phrase, Consistency, Predictability, Follow-Through1 before. This is a common list of how you should approach teaching children the rules of your household. Establishing predictable bedtime routines, for example, and then maintaining them with few exceptions, will help your toddler understand and anticipate what's going to happen once you announce that it's "time to start getting ready for bedtime." Knowing what's going to happen will help you avoid meltdowns and help your toddler settle down on time for a good night's rest.
Toddler Sleep Schedules
Toddlers require between 11 and 14 hours of sleep per day, and that includes naps2. Bedtime routines during early childhood may contribute to positive language development, emotional/behavioral regulation and parent-child attachment, to name just a few of the benefits3. You may need to experiment to find the right sleep schedule and bedtime routine that suits your family's needs, but the work is worth it.
Decide on the ideal time your child should be asleep, or close to it, each night. This will vary depending on when your family needs to be awake each morning and by your preference. Parents who don't want to be woken up at dawn might plan their child's bedtime slightly later than others who need a little more free time in the evenings to get through work, chores or simply to relax.
If, for example, you decide your child should be in bed with the lights out by 8:00 PM, calculate how much time it will take to get them there. Perhaps bath time and teeth-brushing take 20 minutes and getting into pajamas, story time and cuddles take another 20 minutes. That means you need to start your bedtime routine around 7:20. If you find your child is particularly resistant to dropping everything at 7:20 on the dot, it might help to give them a 10-minute and then five-minute warning, so that they know bedtime is coming.
Your bedtime routine might include a last drink of water, rocking, soft music or singing a lullaby. Customize your bedtime routine to suit yours and your child's needs and keep in mind that they will likely evolve overtime. Just make sure to keep screens and other distractions out of their bedroom at bedtime.
Toddlers older than two years old will likely take one nap during the day rather than two4; however, each toddler is different. Plan for naps to take from one to three hours, and make sure that they don't come too close to bedtime. Napping too late in the day might make bedtime more of a challenge in the evening. Depending on your child's bedtime and your childcare arrangements, try to plan for a midday nap.
Make sure that your naptime routine mirrors your bedtime routine. Perhaps your child likes to sleep with a particular stuffed animal—make sure that you have her on hand for both naps and bedtime. Her presence will help signal to your little one that it's time to rest.
Toddler Meal Schedules
Toddlers may have three meals per day as well as two to three snacks5. Besides choosing fresh and/or frozen fruits, veggies, protein, and grains for your child, one of the healthiest things you can do for them is refrain from forcing them to finish everything in front of them. Children won't eat or drink the same amount every day, and forcing them to eat past the point of fullness is not healthy.
Breakfast can occur before or after your toddler is dressed and ready for the day—whatever works best for your family is okay. Lunch will probably take place before their nap while dinner can be whenever is most convenient for your family. Just don't make your little one wait too long between meals/snacks or eat too close to bedtime. Intersperse snacks between meals.
Try to sit with your child for meals, or at least for most family dinners, to keep them focused as you all share your meal together. This way they can learn language and social skills and gain more coordination and manners as they watch how you eat. Your toddler might only have the attention span to eat for perhaps 10-15 minutes6, so don't push for them to sit through an entire family meal if they aren't ready for that yet.
Toddler meal schedules should include time for washing hands before and, let's be honest, probably after as well. Try to avoid making screens part of your mealtime routines—put phones away and turn off the TV so they can stay present and engaged with you and their food.
Your toddler's schedule will include many exciting activities throughout the day, but you can ensure that there is also consistency and predictability that will help them learn to self-regulate and take care of themselves. Healthy bedtime and meal routines are skills that we can use our whole lives, not just when we're children.