Every parent wants to raise healthy, happy, stable kids. While there certainly are many ways to go about achieving this goal, implementing regular family routines has been shown, time and again, to help set the stage for raising successful kids. Mealtime, bedtime and screen time routines are associated with better nutrition, decreased risk of childhood obesity, improved child sleep (and parental sanity!), decreased risk-taking behaviors in teens, and fewer complications of chronic diseases like asthma.
The Essential Components to Any Routine
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report on actions families can take to help optimize child health. Establishing a successful routine was one of them, which the authors suggest is about more than enforcing a set dinner time or bedtime. For best results, a successful routine needs to include:
- A plan and scheduled time
- Elimination of distractions
- Direct communication of parental expectations
A Mealtime Example. A mealtime routine might include a family meal at 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, where the whole family sits together at the kitchen table. Television, phones and tablets are not allowed. At this time, each member of the family shares the best and worst parts of their days, and family members take at least 20 minutes to eat together and reconnect with each other. The children are not required to clean their plates, but they must remain at the table until they ask to be excused.
A Bedtime Example. A successful bedtime routine for a 5-year-old may start at 7 p.m. each night. It begins with a bath and five minutes of playtime, followed by putting on pajamas and spending 15 minutes reading with a parent in a quiet room, with “screens” off and out of reach. The parent may then sing a short song and say “good night” to the child, remind the child that he or she is expected to go to sleep and not get out of bed until the morning comes, tuck the child into bed, give him or her a kiss on the forehead, and turn off the night light before leaving the room.
A Screen Time Example. Many kids spend countless hours in front of screens playing video games, watching TV and staring at a computer. In fact, many have established a habit of spending their afternoons with a screen rather than playing outside with their friends. Break this routine and create a new one by implementing a new screen-time rule. Plan ahead by choosing a set time of day in which screens are allowed, say from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Make clear your expectation that they will not be eating or using multiple screens at one time during this hour. Share that outside of this one hour, you will not allow them to look at any kind of screen, and that you expect them to be doing something else—such as playing with their friends outside, doing homework or reading. Enforce this rule.
Begin by simply taking inventory of your current routines. What would you like to see done differently? Choose just one routine, modify it and experiment to see how your family’s daily experience changes. Once you’ve found a system that works, engage other influencers in your child’s life. For example, does your child spend a significant amount of time with other caretakers? Aim to understand the routines your child has with them, and see if you can both adopt some of the same routines to help ease transitions.
Implementing these types of routines on a daily basis may seem overwhelming for busy families that struggle to simply get through the day, or that are rushing to shuttle kids from one practice to the next, with everyone on a different schedule. Yet, establishing routines helps to provide stability and a calm environment for kids, building their resilience and grit to withstand the chaos and pressures they may be feeling from the outside world.
By Natalie Digate Muth
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDNatalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is the Senior Nutrition Consultant for the American Council on Exercise, a community pediatrician, registered dietitian, mom, and author of “’Eat Your Vegetables!’ and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters.”