When and How to 'Give in': Modifying a Routine


Nineteen month old Ava typically enjoyed a few minutes of rocking in her mother’s arms, and then reached toward the crib signaling she was ready to go in, whereupon she would promptly fall asleep.  That was it.     That’s all it took for her bedtime routine.  But on this night she did not reach for the crib and instead clung to her mom’s neck pleading for more rocking.  Mom continued rocking then tiptoed toward the crib with Ava in her arms.  Near panic screams halted her movement.  Back to the chair she went repeating the process 5 times – without success. Finally with both of them exhausted mom laid Ava in her bed and they went to sleep.  But the next day she contacted us worried she’d made a major mistake and started a “bad habit.”   She hadn’t.  

One of the benefits of maintaining predictable routines is that
when they don’t work it’s a “red flag” that something is wrong.

Your child maybe stressed, ill or experiencing a major growth spurt or something else.

We asked mom if anything had occurred that might have upset Ava.  She thought for a moment before replying, “We were at a birthday party that afternoon.  She missed her nap and her dad was traveling which he doesn’t usually do.”  There it was – life – the stuff that we cannot completely control. The “junk” which can innocently push children and us into the “red zone” of tense energy, making it much more difficult to settle and sleep even with the best of routines.  

We assured Mom that she had not made a mistake.  Instead she had made an astute “modification” to her routine.  

So how do you know when the “best choice” is to make changes when everyone – including Lynn and me - are constantly preaching be predictable?  Keep your routines consistent.

1. First you have to have a predictable routine in place, one which works smoothly the majority of the time.  If that’s in place, when your child does not respond in the way she normally does, you can easily recognize something is up.   This is an unusual reaction. 

But how do you distinguish a real “issue” worthy of modification from a child’s “test” of the limits?  

2.  Investigate.  First you can make small adjustments to the existing routine.  Follow the same order but lengthen or shorten segments depending on what’s happening. This is what mom did.  Rocking was a normal piece of their routine, she simply extended the time to add more soothing and calming.  The sequence remained the same.  No steps were skipped.      

Yet despite these adjustments it still was not enough to calm Ava.  Five attempts proved this fact.   It’s true, Ava’s protests could still be a “test” and we may indeed need to persist, but after 3-5 cracks at it, rather than continuing to pound your head against the wall it’s time to evaluate what’s been going on.

3. Reflect on the day or even the week, what’s been happening that might explain a change in your child’s behavior?  Have there been disruptions that made her day unpredictable?  Is a parent stressed, traveling, ill or working longer than normal hours? When it’s blatantly clear, as in this situation that there are contributing factors you know this is not simply a “test.”  Your child really is in the “red zone” and needs more help and support calming.  

4.   Know your goal.  It was late.  Mom was single parenting.  She was exhausted and getting frustrated and so was Ava.  At this point it’s important to dig down to the basics.  What’s the bottom line in all of this? Of course it’s sleep for everyone.  

5.  A clear goal allows you to explore potential solutions that are workable and acceptable to you.  Yes, we know you’re cringing right now, thinking, “My spirited child would never let me get away with doing something different just one time.”   The persistent child may need a little more nudging but at 10:00 at night, rather than allowing yourself and your child to become even more upset – call it a day and do what it takes to let everyone get the sleep they need.  Talk with your child. Explain that tonight “something is up” and you are “modifying and amending” the routine.  It doesn’t mean the changes will be permanent.  

6.  The next day return to your routine.  Expect success.  (If it’s a major stress it may be longer but we’ll address that later.)  That’s what mom did.  Dad had returned from his trip, Ava napped well and the normal routine was implemented.  The tendrils of stress however, still lingered in her system so there were a few bumps.  Ava insisted that mom rather than dad put her to bed and adamantly repeated, “Rock, rock, rock." The usual 10 minutes extended to 30 and even then when mom strode toward the crib Ava protested.  But after mom laid her down and left the room, the complaints stopped abruptly.  Monitor in hand, even before she reached the kitchen mom saw that Ava quickly dropped to the mattress and went to sleep.   She did however, wake an hour early.  But the following night, after a good nap and thanks to the sound routine in place, dad was able to put Ava into her bed.  After the usual few minutes of rocking Ava reached for her crib and went into it without a peep.  She slept until her normal wake time. 

Why did this go so smoothly?  

Routine gives children a sense of security and trust.

Despite their occasional protests they really do appreciate the predictability and emotional safety they provide.  So after unusually high stress levels have required you to make a modification, once those needs are addressed, your child is perfectly willing to go back to her “familiar and comforting” routine.  

7.  Adjust your perspective.  Research demonstrates that most effective parents are picking up the cues of their children and responding sensitively.  This is not giving in.  It’s taking time to think before you say something so that what you say is what you are going to follow through with and feel comfortable doing so. It’s making a decision based on reflection and a little detective work to understand the “fuel source.”  

Modifying your routine only happens rarely.

If it’s happening every day or even once a week, this is not a modification it’s unpredictability.  

If you are a persistent person it can be very difficult to “adjust.”  

Commitment to your goals is an asset, but it’s also critical to step back and take a look at the “whole” picture.  When you do, you will know when it’s time to modify your routine.  That’s what emotion coaches do.

Next time we’ll talk about the “exception” to your routine – when you’re out and having fun and just for today want to skip that nap time or shoot for a later bedtime.  

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