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Routines – parents want them and they are so important


Any birth and parent educator will frequently have facilitated discussions about ‘getting babies and small children into a routine’. Parents-to-be and new parents are anxious about this because they see a routine as a means of regaining some control over their own lives and ensuring that the new baby doesn’t deprive them of all the ‘me-time’ and ‘our-time’ that they need in order to be mentally healthy. And this is, of course, entirely legitimate. Mothers and fathers who are enjoying their lives as well as their parenting make far better parents which, in turn, means that their offspring enjoy greater well-being. There’s also another reason for parents’ instinctive focus on developing routines. They’re manifesting an evolutionary adaptive response to keeping their children (and themselves) safe and healthy. When group of humans meet together at regular, pre-determined intervals to talk, eat or sleep together, the group can check on its members. Are they all present? Is everyone well? Does anyone have concerns which should be shared because they might affect the safety of the whole group? Are group members aware of the needs of others in the group?

Sleep routines are critical to ensure that children are in a state of ‘learning-readiness’ when they get up in the morning. Toddlers are ready to start a hard day’s play through which they explore their world and try out different ways of relating to it. School-age children are ready to make the most of classroom and playground opportunities to learn about the world and to interact with and enjoy the companionship of their peers.

There will be several articles on the importance of sleep routines and helping toddlers get enough sleep in the October issue of the IJBPE. Helen Ball from the Sleep Lab in Durham, who has done as much as anyone in the UK to help mothers and fathers and health professionals understand how babies sleep and why sleep is important for toddlers, will be writing one of those articles.

The other critically important routine is around eating. A recent news item in the papers dealt with research which shows that grazing is the healthiest way to eat – and probably how human beings ate long ago (i.e. if there was something available to eat, you would naturally eat it because you really didn’t know when something else might be available). However, this can be only part of the truth because meat-eating early humans must have cooked together to ensure that the tribe or village got the most out of whatever beast had been killed. With no means of preserving food, it would have been important to feed as many people as possible with the kill. Presumably, cooking took place in the evening because the fire would have kept away potential predators. And everyone would have had a share of the meal.

Not only would the group have eaten together, they would have socialised together, and probably this was the time when stories, real, imaginary and a mixture of both, were recounted and became a part of the individual and collective memory.

How does this affect us as parent educators? A survey carried out four years ago by GrowingUpMilkInfo.com found that two out of three toddlers watch screens at meal times and 12 per cent play on a hand-held games device while eating. Not surprising because six out of ten parents who responded to the survey admitted that they themselves checked their smartphone at mealtimes and answered emails and Facebook posts. The same survey noted that toddlers were more familiar with cartoon characters than the names of a variety of foods. They were more likely to be able to name Peppa Pig than broccoli.

Child psychologists advise banning electronic gadgets from the meal table; they also advise having a table – a table that allows the entire family to sit round it and to talk. Parent educators can cash in on new parents’ concern about routines to raise awareness of the importance of meal times for building relationships with their children and for establishing one or more occasions for children to benefit from the security of the family group. I was very taken recently when I came across the mantra of an American nutritionist who said that adults should decide what, when and where children eat, and children should decide how much they ate and whether they ate. Children’s right to choose is thus protected, but within the safe parameters laid down by the older people whom they rely on to provide the external (social) and internal environments (created by good nutrition) that enable them to flourish.

Human beings haven’t changed that much over the centuries. The environment in which we live our lives has changed out of all recognition, but our fundamental needs remain stubbornly resistant to change. Routines are, I think, very much harder to establish in 2017 than they were when I was being brought up or when I was bringing my own children up (1980s and 90s). But we know they’re just as important today as they were for our hunter gatherer ancestors.

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