A baby brushing his teeth
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A baby brushing his teeth

Helping Children With Daily Routines

Occasionally the daily routines of dressing, washing, toileting and feeding become unhappy and chaotic times in families with young children. Children don't feel the pressure to "get things done" on the kind of schedule by which their parents live. Left to their own devices, children would probably eat when they got hungry, sleep when they were tired and rarely wash. Part of becoming civilized, however, involves learning to eat, sleep, wash, and use a toilet similarly to others in the social group. Here are some practical and pleasant ways to help children accept these routines.

Often babies who have eaten large amounts of many different kinds of foods become fussy eaters when they are two or three. Their appetite decreases largely because their rate of growth slows after the first year, and they just don't need as much food as they did when they were infants. They also begin to differentiate taste and texture and, like everyone else, decide they like some foods more than others. As part of establishing themselves as independent people, some children insist on feeding themselves and most enjoy picking up food - including applesauce and jello - with their hands. This is likely to create a lot of mess, but it's probably a good idea for children to feel in control of what goes into their mouths.

Suggestions that may help young children enjoy mealtimes

  • Serve small portions of food. Begin with a tablespoon of each food and provide more only if the children indicate they have finished the first serving and would like more.
  • Limit between-meal snacks to fruits, vegetables or small chunks of cheese. Soda, potato chips and candy have no nutritional value and can interfere with regular meals.
  • Allow your child to feed herself, using her hands if she desires. Put a sheet of newspaper or a bath towel under her chair and provide big, washable bibs. Children who are reluctant to drink milk will often consume it happily if they are allowed to pour their own. A cream pitcher and a small glass with a wide bottom make for easier pouring. It's hard to pour into paper cups because they tip.
  • Keep a damp sponge or dish cloth handy in a small bowl and encourage your child to use it to mop up his own spills. If the adult is calm about the mess, chances are that children will be too. Yelling about spills will only upset everyone.
  • Involve your child in the preparation of a meal whenever possible. She can spread butter or peanut butter, make hamburger patties, mix pudding and do many other tasks that are part of cooking.
  • Try not to use desserts as rewards or punishments. Dessert should be one part of the meal and, if it is nutritious, can be one of the available choices a child can make.

Going to bed can be difficult, and sometimes even scary, for young children. Not only does it mean an end to the fun of playing, it may also mean separation from the people they love and want to be near.

Suggestions that may help young children go to bed

  • Let them know it will soon be time for bed or for a nap, instead of swooping down on them with an abrupt, "Time for bed." Say, "When we have finished this book or game or block building, it will be time to put your pajamas on."
  • Make the process of getting ready for bed relaxed and fun. Perhaps you can put a teddy bear to bed first, or, with the child, plan a song to sing together. Sometimes it helps to hide a book under the child's pillow so that you can say, "I put something special under your pillow for us to look at after you're in bed."
  • Provide a night light or leave a light on for children who are nervous about being in a dark room.
  • Make the separation from you and other adults a gradual one. Offer to sit in the child's room, to sing a few songs or to chat a bit while the child is settling down. The transition from the day's activities to sleep usually takes time and it's wise not to rush the process.
  • If the child cries or seems very anxious after you leave the room, offer to sit outside the room with your own book, magazine, or knitting. If the child demands more books or songs, say firmly. "No, we've had our stories and songs, now it's time to be quiet; but I'll sit right here while you are going to sleep." Be prepared for one or two "potty" and "drink-of-water" calls before the final quiet.
  • Sometimes, of course, all the pleasant ways fail and a parent must pick up a tired, cranky child and say firmly but gently, "I'm sorry you feel so tired and cross. I hope you'll feel better after you've had a nap," and simply put the child to bed.

Eventually children need to master some self-care duties. However, children need parental guidance and assistance to develop good personal hygiene habits.

Suggestions that may help children wash, use the toilet and get dressed

  • Try to plan with the child something interesting that will happen when the washing, toileting or dressing task is accomplished. For example:

"After we've washed our hands, it will be time to fix our hamburgers and I'd like you to help make the patties."
"When you've used the toilet and washed up, I thought we'd go out to play in the sand box."
"Let's put on our jackets so we can go out and see if there are worms on the driveway after the rain."

  • Add interest or fun to the routine itself - "Let's put this paper cup into the tub with you while you take your bath. I wonder if it will float?"
  • Occasionally children are nervous about using an adult-sized toilet. They may be afraid of falling in or of being flushed down the toilet. Sometimes it helps to suggest that they "ride the toilet like a horse" facing toward the back. This allows them to climb on and off more easily, to have something to hold onto, and to observe the process of urinating or defecating, which most children find fascinating.
  • Sometimes it's wise to use a "potty" or "potty chair" with a child who is clearly anxious about the large toilet. It's almost always better to have a few more wet or soiled pants than to force a child to sit on a toilet or "potty." Sometimes it's hard to remember that almost all children learn to use the toilet by the time they are three, four or five, but they have to make up their minds it is something they want to do.
  • Try to sing about a "routine" task. The words to the old nursery rhyme, "Polly put the kettle on" can be changed to, "Stevie put your boots on" or to, "Nancy wash your hands now" or to, "Bruce use the toilet now," even by people who are not very musical. Children love to hear their own names in songs, and will sometimes get dressed, washed or toileted quite happily if the person who is helping them can sing about them and their activities.

Usually, parents can ease children through daily routines by allowing plenty of time, preparing them ahead of time, allowing them to be as independent as possible, and making the routine as pleasant and as much fun as possible.

Source: Jennifer Birckmayer, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 63


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated August 8, 2015