Parents of infants and toddlers often talk about "schedules." Children have schedules for sleep, feeding, bathing, activities, etc. But what is meant by "schedule?" Do parents actually follow a schedule or is the child's and parent's pattern of behavior more of a routine? And which is better - a schedule or a routine?
Though these words seem similar, there is a difference between a child being on a schedule and child having a routine. A schedule implies certain activities will occur at specific times (e.g., feeding an infant at particular hours - say 1pm and 3pm - or a toddler napping at 2pm, regardless of hunger or sleep cues) while a routine is more of a predictable sequence of events (wake up, eat, play, nap, etc.). Children thrive when they feel a sense of familiarity, comfort, safety, warmth, and support. Routines contribute to these feelings by providing consistency, predictability, and reliability. A child who has a routine feels comfortable, secure, and understood and knows what to expect; they have a sense of a sequence of events in their day and their needs are met as they arise. Schedules can sometimes feel too regimented and produce feelings of anxiety because meeting the child's needs becomes based on time versus a pattern of needs emerging then being met. In this case, a sense of disconnection can develop.
Typically, by watching a child's behaviors and anticipating needs, a good routine can be established very early on and for many aspects of life - sleeping, feeding, grooming, play, etc. Parents can help develop routines by following certain patterns of activities. For example, after a child wakes in the morning, perhaps the pattern becomes: 1) wake up, 2) feed, 3) play, 4) activity/event/outing, 5) relax, and 6) sleep and continues throughout the day. The pattern, or routine, is established and there is a sequence to the events but the exact time frames may vary. Routines are not perfect because there is always the potential for something to get in the way (e.g., unexpected errand, weather, guests, a sick child, etc.) but the general pattern can stay fairly consistent.
Consistency, predictability, reliability, experiencing a feeling of connection and being understood are very important for a child's development and for parent-child bonding. Children who experience a natural routine and attachment tend to be better able to regulate their emotions and, thus, eat, sleep, play, and engage better. Routines makes sense for the child and it helps organize the parents and family as well.