Empowering Our Babies With Rituals

Bore that I am, I do the exact same thing every morning. Up before my family, I turn on the tea kettle and walk to the street with Dulce (our Ridgeback- Pitbull-whatever rescue dog) to collect the LA Times. (Yes, I still read hard copy sometimes.) Then I make a smoothie with vitamin powder, soy milk and frozen fruit while I steep green tea. Alternate sips of hot tea and cold smoothie miraculously transform the beast. As Lumière, the candlestick in the Disney musical sang, “…I’m human again. Only human again. Poised and polished and gleaming with charm…” 

I like to break out and do different things once in awhile, but one of the many things I have in common with babies (arrested development?) is my attraction to routine.  My habits have shifted over the years, and some have been healthier than others, but they’ve always given me comfort. I look forward to these rituals and really like knowing I can depend on them.

Imagine what it’s like to be an infant. The world is all brand new — a fascinating, stimulating sensory delight — but the constant transitions, surprises and novelty can be intense and overwhelming.  Combine that with the fact that we are growing, changing more rapidly than we ever will, so even what we know can feel different the next day. (Like the way my adolescent daughter feels when she wakes at noon and thinks the kitchen table and her mom have shrunk because she’s grown a half inch.)

We need responsive, reliable parents and caregivers to feel secure, but wouldn’t it also be nice to depend on some daily experiences? To be able to predict, for example, that after our morning meal and diaper change we’ll go to a familiar place to play. Or know that after our dinner and evening bath we will enjoy a book, close the shades, hear a lullaby we’ve begun to recognize and be gently placed in a cozy bed to sleep.

In a life full of changes we cannot control, creating routines and rituals is one of the most respectful and empowering things we can do for our babies.

Infant expert Magda Gerber emphasized the importance of establishing a daily sequence of events — not arbitrarily imposed, inflexible, or on the clock, but formed together with our babies in response to their individual needs. “In a predictable environment, and with regular, dependable schedules, they feel comfortable, cry less, and life is easier for both infant and parents. Infants who do not need to adjust to too much unnecessary stimulation will eventually regulate their sleeping and eating patterns. This regularity will, in turn, give parents some predictable time for their own needs and interests.”

It takes a little time to find a rhythm with our babies. Even in the giddy, chaotic, sleepless first days with a newborn, we can begin by getting into the habit of telling our infant what will happen next. “I’m going to carry you to the diaper table. Then we will unsnap your pajamas.” Soon our baby learns what he can expect. He feels more participatory in experiences he can predict and anticipate for himself. “After I drink milk in the morning, we usually go outside to my playpen under the tree.”

As our infants become toddlers, it’s easy to recognize that even the simplest rituals empower them. And when children know what to expect, they are inspired to immerse themselves in an experience and gain more pleasure from it. If I had any doubt about babies loving rituals, it would be shattered by the way the children in my life have always enjoyed creating them on their own.

One example of this began spontaneously. Snack time in the weekly RIE Parent/Toddler Classes is all about ritual. Each ceremonial step is anticipated and relished by the children, and as they get older they gradually help and participate more, physically, communicatively, and then verbally. First we place the mat on the floor, or the deck outside if it’s nice weather. Then we bring out the table and stools. The children who want to participate sit, and we take turns washing hands with a wet cloth. Then each child chooses a bib. Next they get a turn to help peel the first banana, and are then are offered pieces to eat. After eating some banana we bring out the glasses (yes, glasses!) and little glass carafes from which the toddlers learn to pour water into their glasses…and boy, do they love that part.

One day, a 17 month old boy choked a little and coughed when he drank a sip of water, so I patted him gently on the back.  He then coughed again, and I repeated the patting. Then a girl at the table coughed. When I responded with a pat, she grinned. Before long others tried it too, and we all laughed uproariously. Predictably, fake coughing, patting and laughing became a reliable and highly anticipated addition to our snack ritual each week.

Some believe that our babies will learn to be more adaptable if we expose them to our hectic lives. They argue that the parent’s constant presence and responsive care is the only consistency a baby needs to feel secure.  The years Magda Gerber spent studying infants led her to disagree. “Being exposed to circumstances we cannot anticipate nor understand, and in which we cannot actively participate, makes us feel helpless, like riding on a perpetual merry-go-round. Anticipating a change, on the other hand, gives us a feeling of being prepared, of being in control,” she wrote in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect.

Magda believed that a secure, self-confident baby who has had the opportunity to build trust in his environment is more flexible and amenable to changes in his routine, and I’ve found this to be true with my children. They have quite different personalities, but all three are amazingly secure, self-confident, independent and much more adaptable to change than I ever was…or probably ever will be.

Do you have rituals with your children? Do you have your own?

I share many more ways to empower children with respectful care in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I love that babies thrive on rituals! My 5.5mo old daughter and I have set up a great daily routine. I find rituals very comforting myself—I can only imagine how much more important it is when everything is still pretty new and big and you don’t have as much control over the world as you’d like.

  2. Beth Volkmann says:

    Janet, kindred spirit! I, too, have very predictable routines and food choices, stark likes and dislikes that help me to “govern” my life. I don’t feel that I am rigid or without flexibility BUT I do know that the routines I have and the choices I make provide such a base of security for me (at 41!) and they allow me to be open to the chaos that a day can bring – or that I can bring on myself being a slightly flighty, fickle person.

    Life when my children were young also brought “gentle” routines and I do believe they were able to gain independence and confidence as a result of this predictability. “Self regulation” is so important to learning academically and socially and I am sure that this “skill” has its seeds in us (adults) providing children with rhythms that provide a model, as well as the opportunity to build self confidence seeped in security that is the basis for the development of “Self”.

    If I think about what I really want for my children – yes, I want them to be adaptable and be able to stand strong in the midst of a storm but I don’t want them to be “stormy” or “chaotic”. I want to offer them an inner recognition and regulation of security and the ability to find their “true North” which can only be found if it is experienced and valued.

    Thank you, as always, for your wonderful sharings and insights!


    1. Beth, thanks for adding your insights, eloquence, and great imagery!

  3. I love the way you wrote this one, Janet. *smile* I have a morning routine that includes reading a hard copy newspaper, too! (Perhaps we are both ‘arrested’?)

    Routines do build emotional and cognitive (anticipation) strength – it happens in the brain at a very important time – pathways that are used strengthen and those that are not used fade-away (pruned – I know, bad visual).

    1. Glad I’m not the only one ‘arrested’.:-) And I’ll be very sad when newspapers and magazines fall by the wayside. Do you think they will?

      I love the way you describe the strength routines build, and I don’t mind the visual used by neuroscientists and psychologists as long as I remember that it’s the gardening kind of ‘pruning’ and not the drying out kind!

      1. hehe. I envision those big hedge clippers – not the kind of tool I want near my brain! Hadn’t even thought of drying plums!

        Not willing to take bets on the future of newspapers. Although the ‘industry’ is often a topic IN the newspaper. Similar discussion in book publication. Which does not seem to be dying within my lifetime.

  4. Great post. Routines are a welcome part of my life and I can tell that my daughter likes them as well. She enjoys when she knows what happens next and I try to keep our morning and evening rituals very similar. Of course, there are times when you just have to wing it but most times I stick to it. I’ve noticed that our RIE school also has routines and I try to incorporate some of those into our home as well. They do the same with the pitchers and cups of water (although they are plastic cups).
    I’ve missed quite a bit of your blog lately! I miss the full RSS feeds. I try to get over when I can though.

  5. Janet, I love this post. I totally agree with you about the value of routine. But it is something I struggle with because I am NOT a routine person at all. I hardly ever order the same meal or drink twice. I like change. But I know Audrey does best with routine, so I try to provide. She has a great bedtime ritual that is wonderful. And I am working at building more routine into our mornings. I can break the routine rules when she isn’t with me. 🙂

    1. Kathleen, thanks! I think it’s important to keep the value of routine for our babies as a guideline, but one of the things I loved learning from Magda Gerber is that our needs matter, too. Parenting is building a relationship that respects the needs of the parent and the child. If you can’t bear ‘sameness’, and routine days are not making your life as a parent easier, then take care of yourself , change it up so that you don’t feel resentful. I have a feeling you might know that already…

      By the way, I’ll bet you know what got me thinking about this topic!:-) It was the interesting discussion you hosted about Babywise: http://amoment2think.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/thoughts-on-babywise-type-parenting/

  6. While I am new to this philosophy you’re presenting, I do know that routines have helped my 2 little ones immensely. I read “The Happiest Toddler on the Block.” By Harvey Carp about a year ago and instantly introduced routines. He explained that for a toddler, not having a routine is similar to an adult being stuck in a room with no clock available. I HATE that feeling and don’t want to impose that on my little one!

    1. Yes, I agree that our children appreciate anchors in a world that can feel very unsteady and overwhelming. The more we can provide them, the more secure they feel, the more readily they accept life’s changes. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Although I am not s fan of routines for myself (i fear making a mistake or breaking the routine and get anxious) I have been doing quite a bit of reading about routines for toddlers in hopes that creating more of an evening routine will help my very intense little guy easy into bedtime with less resistance.

    Thank you for the helpful article!

  8. This may sound silly but I love words. While to others it’s just semantics, to me it is so important that I find exactly the right word to use when explaining something. So, imagine how exciting it is for me to find that many of the words you use are the same ones that I use – “rituals” and “rhythms” in particular in this case. Nappy change time is rich in rituals for our toddlers. For one child it’s touching a picture or pattern on each of the children’s bags on the way to the change table. I stay silent until he pats the bag and looks at me – that’s my cue to ask “whose bag is that?” and he grins and attempts to say the child’s name to whom the bag belongs. Another child loves counting the steps to the change table and he has created a game where he steps up one step then down again – at which time I count backwards. We both laugh, and then he continues up again. Our children love having their nappies changed, and I believe it’s these rituals that have been initiated by the child, established and respected that make it a time we all look forward to.

    1. Nicole, wow! Once again I have to admire the beautiful way you treat the children in your care. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. I love rituals both with my daily life and the life of the children in my care. I find I am more ritualized at work ( school) with my wobblers than I am at home, and I can see the difference! My boys predict what comes next, and sometimes when I try and shake things up, they begin to get antsy. My adult need for change is uncomfortable for them! I find the same thing when I rearrange our environment. It was the most clear the other day when I moved our eating table. They always bring their dishes to the table after I hand them out, and I directed them to place them on the table and everyone walked over to where the table used to be, passing by the new spot for our table. It wasn’t until I was available to show them physically where I had moved it that they were able to move through the steps of preparing to eat. There was definitely a moment of anxiety building as well as dishes clashing, and even louder voices.
    I love when they remind me of the importance of order in their lives, even if it makes my day ‘harder.’ It’s how they challenge me to be more aware, which is never a bad thing. In fact, if more awareness was in the world, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

    1. This sounds good, Briana. One thing Magda Gerber used to mention that I have found true as a parent is that babies and young children who are accustomed to predictable routines are actually more amenable to occasional surprises and “shake ups” in their day. They are more adaptable than children who are constantly asked to accept change and novelty, and much more confident generally. Maybe that’s because they sense that they “matter” enough for us to make the effort to accomodate their needs.

      1. Yes Janet I noticed that with our daughter. Her days are very predictable but when it happens that I need to run an errand, say going to Whole Foods, she LOVES it. My husband says because she never gets to go or she is always doing the same things … I dont know whatever it is but it makes my life so much easier 🙂

  10. Routines do not come easily for me, in fact, quite the opposite. While I can see the benefit, it seems almost impossible (rather, I am having a really hard time figuring out how to make it natural and possible) for the benefit of my children. Every time I try to set something up that is “routine-y” something seems to blow it out of the water. I recently found your blog and have been reading tons, and love the stuff I’m learning (and using it with my interactions with my 4 month old daughter), I’m trying to figure out how to turn back the 3 1/2 years of nonRIE with my son. It seems like we’re in a really tough place and I lack the personal resources to get things to a more gentle and respectful place. We’re spanking less, but nothing else seems to be any better…it just seems more adversarial. (sorry for the digression, probably not really related to routine)

    Anyway, thanks for your gentle words. We’ll muddle through together, and I’ll work on more stability in our day somehow.

    1. Sarah, congrats on the new baby!

      Janet has lots of articles that may help with your toddler. I suspect that you may have to do some soul searching to help with your connection to him.

      Ahaparenting.com,though not RIE is a good resource as well for toddlers. Dr. Laura is doing a ‘spring cleaning your psyche’ series, and it helps me look at the way I am and how to silence that internal critic.

      With regards to routines etc, they don’t have to be as romantic sounding as this article 🙂

      In the morning, we get up, change diaper, brush our teeth, see dada off to work and then we do chores. My daughter (13 months) plays by herself while I unload the dishwasher and make coffee. It didn’t occur to me till I read this article that it’s because I do the same thing every morning!

      Good luck to you, and I hope you find the answers that you are looking for!

  11. This was very interesting to me. My son has some routines, things we do specifically around when he gets up, goes down for naps, around meals and bedtimes, but he also really thrives on the unexpected trips out to the park or library…visiting Dad, or the Grandparents stopping by! He enjoys the trip to the meat market or out to the farm to pick up veggies, and that’s not in the regular “routine!” I really try to follow “his” lead on what he’d enjoy playing with, whether he’d like to be inside or outside, if he’s getting antsy to go out, if he’s showing signs of needing his nap yet…and things like that to determine what’s next in the day. I do think with young toddlers, the attention span makes too much of a rigid schedule pretty impossible. Granted I guess there is a general schedule or routine in the day, but I really do try to let his needs guide it.

  12. I love your examples of rituals, your own and those for little ones. Humanity is all about rituals, from big ceremonial ones to everyday routines. People who decry rituals as boring, stifling, or unimaginative may simply need better rituals! Studies tell us that a great deal of pleasure comes from anticipating an experience, and that’s one of the simple joys found in rituals. The toddler who knows that daddy will always call her his “dumpling” and kiss her neck first thing in the morning will wake up with delicious anticipation of that loving connection.

    Thanks for this post!

  13. Gwen Logan says:

    I met with a group of parents yesterday at our school and each shared the rituals they and their babies relied on. It was precious to see how lovingly the parents described these. There eyes lit up and filled with tears of tenderness! Parents are amazing. Again, thank you so much for your postings as these are so valuable for parents!

  14. I too loved this article, after a professional development workshop last year I was interested to discover within myself that “routine” and “ritual” are two very different things. To me rituals are what make routines extraordinary and a settling experience for children.

    for instance take a nappy change, you have a routine where every morning once the child is awake and has had their milk they get a nappy change. That is their routine. The rituals are in the details, at least this is my understanding. Its in the words we use every time, the involvement and interaction of the child, the special things that signal to the child that this is an important time for us both.

    Hope that makes sense! it does in my head 🙂

  15. This article really resonated with me. I am trying very hard to create ritual. The only one that I have been able to keep constant is her evening meal, bath, and sleep. The day routine is always up in the air due to who will care for her that day. Am hoping to stablize it a bit more, but thanks for the reminder.

    I want a secure and self-confident baby.

  16. i always find myself talking to my son, now 4, about what we will be doing even when it seems he is not listening. it didnt occur to me how much he internalized this until the other day in his first clay sculpting class he asked the teacher who was giving instruction “so what is the next step?”

    completely off topic, soymilk? try coconut. it will change your life 🙂

  17. Janet, I sincerely appreciate this post. When I had one child, we had a typical routine but after the birth of our second child, it fell apart totally and have never adapted a routine since then. Beyond meal times and a miniscual bedtime routine, it seems like this is one of my biggest let downs on my kids. Now they are aged 5 and 3. We have play times etc but nothing regular about it. I understand routines importance as your article clearly stated, but really don’t know how to get back on track. What advise would you recommend? (For reference, we are about to begin homeschooling Kindergarten in one month too so structure is eminent, but I do desire for it to be balanced.) Thank you again for your wonderful resources!!!! Sincerely, Sherra

  18. Okay, my children are 30mo, 8mo, and 8 weeks in utero. Here is my issue: I am DESPERATE for a routine for our family. I know that I need routine. I had something of a routine before I had my second child. But childbirth and a newborn brings enormous upheaval, exhaustion of all faculties, and life becomes a grueling endurance race. At least that is what it is for me. When I’m up many times in the night, I try to sleep as long as I can in the morning rather than getting up at a set time every day (which I really wish I could do.) Now I am queasy most days. How can I give my children predictability and stability when I am just trying to survive? I hate it. I hate living this way, and I know it isn’t good for my kids. I am constantly on the verge of snapping. How can I break out of this cycle?

  19. Sarah Norwood says:

    Thank you for another lovely and well paced piece of insight.
    What if one of the kids doesn’t want to wear a bib?

  20. I love this article! I created a unique aromatherapy spray with essential oils for bedtime. I spray it, introduce our baby to her stuffed animals in her crib, read, and sing while nursing.

    The rhythm has been set. She loves it, and so do I.

    It makes travel easier too!

  21. My 3.5 year old son loves his night time routine. I am the primary parent involved in this routine and except for a few sleepovers at grandmas, this has been the case for a long time now. I am concerned because I would like my husband to put our son to bed or at least do part of the routine but our son has a meltdown if any of the routine changes. When my husband tries to even get our son changed into his pjs it ends up in a meltdown. Any advice is welcome, thank you in advance!

  22. Hi Janet 🙂 Is a routine something that can be done with a little baby? My son is 7 weeks old and I feel like our days are at the mercy of his naps and nursing, which seem to be different everyday. We have rituals for bathtime, diaper changes and bedtime, but no overall routine (unless it’s perhaps a really loose one). At what age do you think it’s viable to begin a daily routine, if not with a newborn?

    1. Hi Carina! Yes, this is the perfect time to begin slowwwllly, graduallly working toward a routine that you and your baby develop together, based on her rhythms. This routine will empower both of you, because it will help her to sleep, eat and “play” better when she can predict these events. The routine will be about a sequence of events, rather than doing things at a particular time. Tell your baby about what will happen next…a couple of steps ahead, i.e., “after we nurse, we’ll see if you need a burp, and then it will time to change your diaper… ” 🙂 Most of all, try to enjoy this time.

  23. Hi Janet,

    I have a question about my 13 month old little girl. We live about an hour away from my parents, and so every week we go to stay with them for a night or two. Sometimes we go up north to a friends house as well. I do my best to keep the same routine for eating, naps, play time, etc (and toys) in each of these settings. And I try to keep the days of the week that we go the same… She does seem to handle this all very well but after reading your article, I wonder if some of her resistance in other areas (like bed time etc.) are where the stress is coming out? Do you have any suggestions on how I can make these trips as easy and relaxing for her as possible?

    Thank you,

  24. I hate routine 🙁 I force myself to create some for of routine for my daughter’s sake. The weekends are the hardest though b/c we are out and about getting things done and visiting family/friends.

  25. Shannon Minkley says:

    I loved this post and agree with how important routine is for little ones (and often adults!) One thing I have struggled with my 10 mo old, though, is how to develop routines when I work 5 days a week. I was good about it when I was on maternity leave, but struggle with how to keep my baby’s days predicatable when they are being watched by someone else.

  26. What would you suggest for when traveling? My boy will be 9.5 months when we go away for a week. We also will spend about 3 weeks visiting friends and family out-of-state right before he turns 1 year old. I actually feel I need these visits for my sanity, which in a way I believe helps me be a better mother. I live a 4 hour flight from my family and my husband’s family lives out of the USA. So I feel that traveling to visit family is a must. How can I reconcile this with realizing that it is very disruptive to our boy?

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