Regimented vs flexible routines: what works for your family?


A friend and I were having a play-date the other day, and when her almost one-year-old grew restless she started packing up to leave. I was disappointed she had to go – our bigger kids were playing so nicely and we were having a great catch up, but she was adamant.

“If he doesn’t sleep now I’ll pay for it later, and him sleeping is the key to my sanity,” she joked. Well, kind of joked. Because for my friend, like so many mums, routine is everything. Her play-dates and catch-ups revolve around her baby’s sleep times, and they’ll always be home in time for him to sleep in his own bed. As a result he’s a great sleeper and she gets lots of work done in the hours he naps, a feat she rightly cherishes (and I am very jealous of!).

I, on the other hand, am pretty go with the flow. Our baby years were spent on outings and coffee dates, where I would hope my babies slept in their prams or in my arms. If I was having fun I’d drag my time out as much as possible, hoping they’d sleep in the car on the way home and we all wouldn’t lose the plot too much.

They’ve come with us to restaurants and concerts, rehearsals and meetings. Consequently they are very social kids who are great at being out and interacting with adults. But neither has ever been a great sleeper, a coincidence that is not lost on me.

We all have our own parenting styles, relaxed or routine, busy or calm, and all have pros and cons.

When my first child was a preschooler we filled our days with activities. Kindergym and playgroup, baby sport and play-dates, it was rare we had more than a day at home in a week. Looking back now we probably did too much, but at the time I embraced the excitement of my new baby and all the fun things we could do together.

In a typical second child scenario, my daughter and I have done a lot less of the structured activities. Life is busy enough these days and I cherish my days at home more than anything. As a result, she’s much better at entertaining herself than her brother ever was, but I sometimes get the guilts that I’ve yet to enrol her in baby ballet!

But they both still mostly fit around our schedule, rather than the other way round. Dinners are decided at the last minute, activities are spontaneous, and the summer holidays have meant late nights while we’ve all enjoyed BBQs, beach outings and sleepovers at grandparents’ homes.

Both kids will sleep in after a late night and this works for us as a family, but the downside has meant that over the holidays any routine they had is so far out the window I fear I’ll never retrieve it. Late nights are fun when Mummy is on board, but when I’m tired or have to work and they’re both still refusing to sleep at 10pm they’re patience-testing.


So is that a sign that routine is king and my relaxed style has too many drawbacks? I would agree that, as a rule, kids thrive on routine. Particularly during school terms and toddler years, structure is really important. But I also think the needs of the parents should count for something, and you have to do what works for you.

If staying at home all day makes you feel depressed and lonely, then activities and baby sleeps in the pram will make you a happier parent. If structure and home time while your child sleeps in their bed is more your thing, you’ll both prefer a routine. As long as your child is getting enough sleep in a 24-hour period they’ll be okay either way.

I’ve loved the summer holidays but am looking forward to school going back, and our semblance of routine starting up again. Although, sadly, with the next few months I’m going to have, I don’t see too many home days on the horizon anytime soon. And I fear I’ll have a battle on my hands when Miss 2 realises the party’s over and 7pm bedtime returns, so stay tuned for a toddler tantrum post coming soon! 

What works best for your family? Do your children need a routine, or do you take a more relaxed approach to the day? Have your say in the Essential Baby forum