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Create Your Own Parent-of-Small-Kids Routine (20 Tips)

Reader Marilyn asks:

“I am struggling to set some kind of schedule for my family. I’m new to the SAHM thing (I went back to work after my son was five months) and have a five-month-old and a three-year-old who is now at home with me. I’ve been kind of going with the flow, but that is losing its effectiveness, and I have to take a bit more of a proactive approach. I’d love any tips on balancing the bedtimes, eating, naps and various activities of two different-aged kids.”

I had a five-month-old and a three-year-old at this time a year ago, but no matter the ages, I think it’s always a struggle to juggle multiple kids throughout the day.

The key with little kids at home is to just plan something.

Kids thrive on a routine—it’s comforting for them to know what’s next in their day, even those things they don’t like.

I’m not talking about planning every single minute of your day, and I’m not talking about weekends. We all know that moms work 24 hours a day, but I’m talking about allocating tasks to total a roughly 40-hour work week. This helps channel your energy appropriately throughout the day.

Photo by Lindsey T

There’s nothing magical about any one particular routine; it’ll probably change in a month anyway, as routines often do with little ones. But simply having some sort of written-out plan helps me know what’s next, how to stay focused, and not feel like I’m running in a pointless hamster wheel.

Here’s a few observations from my routine.

1. Write a schedule, but keep it loose.

The planner in me likes creating a weekly schedule of my work, and if you were to see my color-coded spreadsheet, you would think I was a schedule nazi. Nope—I’d prefer things with specific times in mind, but rarely does it work exactly. I say we do story time around 4:00, but really, I mean “late afternoon.” Dinner is really the only thing to which we try to stick a hard-and-fast time. Everything else is subject to change.

2. Re-visit it weekly.

Just because your schedule worked well last week, it doesn’t mean it will this week. You may have a play date when you’d normally pay the bills, or your son has a dentist appointment right during your younger one’s nap time. There’s no rule that there has to be a “master schedule.” Just make a new one each week.

3. Touch base with your spouse.

Sit down with your spouse on the weekend to discuss the upcoming week. It helps me so much when Kyle and I touch base with each other about our upcoming work weeks. I ask him if there’s anything I can do for him, and he’ll find out if I need anything from him.

4. Do what you can to have your little ones help you.

Marilyn, you specifically asked me about handling little ones. Most preschoolers think chores are great fun, so have them help. He or she can put away silverware, fold towels, pick up toys, and even wash dishes (just put a bit of watery soap in the sink with some safe dishes and a sponge).

Photo by Rolands Lakis

5. Teach them the value of waiting.

It’s okay for kids to learn that Mom has a job, and she can’t play all the time. The world doesn’t revolve around them, and this is a good truth to learn as early as possible.

6. Clean as you go.

Completely clean from each mealtime before moving on to the next task. Loosely straighten up a room before heading to another. Set a timer for three minutes, and have a pick-up blitz with your child. It may sound stressful to clean so often during your day, but I’ve found it to be much less stressful than tackling the entire house at one set time of day. It’s usually more chaotic if I wait, and it feels overwhelming before I begin.

7. Find your three most important tasks.

Focus your energy on only getting three things done per day. Don’t try to get your to-do list completely scratched off, because it’ll very rarely happen. Accept the fact that in this stage of life with littles at home, the to-do list doesn’t end.

But you can probably accomplish three things each day. Pick the three things that, if finished, would make you feel like you had a decent day. Work on those when your energy is at your highest, and if you accomplish anything else—well, those are gravy.

Photo by Nadia Badaoui

8. Write things down.

Have a brain dump at least once during the day (transfer everything swimming around in your head on to paper). I usually do this during breakfast, and I immediately feel so much better. Don’t bother doing this neatly; just jot it all down as it comes to you, and then you can organize your ideas.

9. Be happy with partial solutions.

Partial solutions are when it’s not exactly how you’d have things if life were perfect, but it’ll work for now. So you wanted to scrub the bathroom, but you only got around to tidying it up. Or you planned to roast a chicken for dinner, but you didn’t get a chance to thaw it, so now it’s taco night. That’s okay. Don’t aim for perfection.

10. Identify daily chores, weekly chores, monthly chores.

You probably have a general rhythm of doing repeated things each day, week, and month, even if you don’t notice it. Jot down those things you find necessary to do every day, and when you create your week’s routine, make sure you’ve allocated daily time for those tasks. (p.s. I have a bonus lesson on this very thing—called a timeventory—in Like Your Life.)

11. Create a calendar-type system.

Fnd a good system for maintaining your schedule, whether it’s using something manual, like a Bullet Journal, or something like Google Calendar (I happen to use both). There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It just needs to work for you.

12. Don’t try to do everything.

No one can do everything. There are probably lots of things you’re good at, and with other things you’re not so good. Welcome to membership in the human race. We still need to do certain essential tasks, even if we don’t feel up to par, but play up your strengths, and don’t sweat over your weaknesses.

13. Don’t watch much TV.

I’m still amazed at how much more I got done once I stopped watching most TV. Cut back to only those few shows you really love. You won’t miss the rest.

Photo by Lauren Ventriello

14. Make naps and quiet times essential.

Little kids need lots of sleep, slightly older kids need to learn the value of alone time, and mama needs a break to do grown-up work.

15. Have everyone eat, sleep, and play at the same time.

This isn’t always seamless, depending on your kids’ ages, but you can tweak ideal situations a little to have everyone down at the same time, eating at the same time, and playing together as often as possible. If your baby needs his nap at 1:00, and your daughter really needs some rest time in the afternoon, make it happen during the baby’s nap.

16. Accept the messes.

Okay, I’m telling myself this as much as you, because it really is hard to accept the fact that my kids don’t care about the messes as much as me. They need to learn the value of work, and we need to model that hard work by keeping our home neat.

But that doesn’t mean our homes are never messy. I have a friend who has this quote hung on her fridge: “Cleaning house while kids are growing is like shoveling snow while it’s still snowing.” I love this.

17. Know your energy levels.

Are you a morning, afternoon, or evening person? When do you hit your slump? I’m a morning person, so I make every effort to rise before my kids and get my much-needed quiet time in then. I hit a wall at around 3 p.m., so I know I’ll be spinning my wheels trying to get anything significant done then. In the morning, I focus on tasks that require full brain engagement. In the afternoon, I fold laundry and play with the kids on the floor. Make the most of your energy.

18. Think of your job as a job.

Don’t apologize for keeping a thorough work routine. Don’t feel guilty for turning down a friend for coffee because you have work to do. Even if your work at home doesn’t earn a paycheck, you need to create boundaries with your job .

Photo by Chris Scott

19. Have intentional down time.

Schedule in down time, and make it really good down time. Don’t answer phone calls while you’re taking a walk with your family. Only check your email during certain times of the day, and certainly don’t use down time for your inbox. Treat relaxation as a vital part of your schedule, just as you would cleaning or cooking.

20. Get enough sleep, water, and exercise.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. How silly that we all often forget to take care of ourselves while we take care of others under our roof. Get rest. Stay hydrated. Make your health a priority.

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  1. erin

    great post, I put a link on my blog and posted to Facebook:)
    .-= erin´s last blog ..daily rhythm =-.

  2. FindSavings

    Great advice. The “set it in stone” but treat like a clay is excellent advice, as well as the other 19 suggestions. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information.

  3. Lisa

    Lots of great ideas in this post – it is one I will definitely have to revisit from time to time. Funny you included that quote about cleaning and shoveling snow. A friend whose daughters just turned 18 gifted her copy of that quote to me a couple days ago. I love it!
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Baci Bistro =-.

  4. Julie

    I think it was here that I first read about the 3 MITs. Since then, I have followed that advice and have found it invaluable. As mother of a 21 month old and 7 month old, life can get pretty busy, but I get my MITs done MOST days.

    I am a real planner and I do have to keep reminding myself that my schedule is flexible. I tend to get stressed when the kids are not on my schedule and don’t allow me to get certain jobs done when I want them done. I am slowly learning to just “go with the flow”
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..Crayons for little hands =-.

  5. Nadene

    I love the practical simplicity of your ideas. Even if we make just one ar two improvements and train, train, train our young children in these, home life does remain sane! I seem to be reminding my youngest to clean up before she can move to the next game. It seems tedious, but this will be a helpful habit as she grows up.
    .-= Nadene´s last blog ..Famous Artists Lapbook ~ loads of minibooks! =-.

  6. Sarah Baldwin

    As a Waldorf early childhood educator, my colleagues and I talk a lot about “rhythm” in our work with young children. We have a “rhythm of the day,” “rhythm of the week” and “rhythm of the year.” This article offers wonderful suggestions for moms on creating their own rhythms at home, which are so important for the young child. Your statement “Kids thrive on a routine as well — it’s comforting for them to know what’s next in their day, even those things they don’t like.” is so true! When children know exactly what to expect, and what is coming next, so many conflicts and tantrums can be avoided. This article is full of gems, and I plan to share it!
    Sarah Baldwin, M.S.Ed.
    Owner, Bella Luna Toys

  7. Rana

    Great tips and everyone of them is essential to keeping your sanity while staying home with your kids. Even if you don’t do everything on the list just taking a few a week and working on them makes you feel like you are getting ahead of the game.
    .-= Rana´s last blog ..Home Management Binder =-.

  8. exhale. return to center.

    this is absolutely fantastic. thank you so much.

    much of what you’ve listed i’ve sort of come to learn on my own (often the hard way by experiencing what happens when we *don’t* get enough rest, have scheduled down time etc.) but the words you chose to explain why we’re doing them really helped me to reconnect with my motivation for my rhythms and routines.

    the only thing i would add is figure out a meal plan that works for your family. that, and getting intimately acquainted with our crockpot, has made a world of difference in the flow of our days!!!

    .-= exhale. return to center.´s last blog ..sponsor giveaway :: hip mountain mama =-.

  9. Laura

    This is a great article. Last year when I was the only one at home, I made sure there were certain things they could count on everyday. One of them was that we went outside at 11am every single day unless it was raining or extremely cold. We stayed for an hour everday. They new that we were going to have lunch by noon everyday and quiet time would be following about 30 minutes after lunch. My children thrived on the things they expected. Adding another WAH parent to the routine this year has turned everything upside down but I’m going to be referring back to this list because it is a good one.
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..The Little House on The Prairie Musical =-.

  10. Jackie Lee

    Thank you so much for this one. I was gnashing my teeth throughout the weekend over this whole “routine” thing. As we don’t really have one. These ideas are a great place to start. I think our lives will be much easier once we get something set up. I guess better late than never. 🙂
    .-= Jackie Lee´s last blog ..How Judgement Is Throwing Your Life Out of Balance =-.

  11. Christen

    Fantastic article – thank you for sharing. I probably ere on the side of an overly scheduled day and was especially that way when my three-year old was an infant.

    I do believe that schedules are one of the first ways toddlers learn discipline. It teaches them boundaries, respect for others’ time, and the ever-so- important lesson that the world does not revolve around them. I feel my daughter appreciates her schedule, as she knows (generally) what to expect each day. She also feels secure knowing that certain times each day, she has my undivided attention.

    However, with this energetic toddler in tow and a baby on the way (coming this week or next), I realize I need to adapt your first premise: “Write a set-in-stone schedule, but keep it soft as clay.” Great advice and something that I will surely come back to again and again.

    Christen’s last post: One Pot Wonders for Babies & Toddlers

  12. Katie

    Wow, this is a great post! I have also recently transitioned from full-time work to being a stay-at-home-mom, and those first couple of months were quite honestly the most challenging of my life! I thought it would be dandelions and roses being able to stay home with my kids (ages 3 and 1), and while I love it now, it’s the most challenging AND most rewarding job of my life. Thanks for the pointers, I think I’ll print this one out for when I need reminders!!
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..Gift Wrap Ideas =-.

  13. Bomi Jolly

    Really great advice – very nicely put together – and this couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I have bookmarked this post and will be sure to look at it again and again in the future. Thanks for sharing!

    .-= Bomi Jolly´s last blog ..Got Your Shot? =-.

  14. Angela @ Homegrown Mom

    What a great, great list of tips! I revisit my schedule far too often, I am always “tweaking” it because I try to add too much in. So relaxing and prioritizing are at the top of my list regarding this.
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom´s last blog ..Resurrection Rolls: An Easy Easter Treat =-.

  15. Shannon

    Great post – especially about taking “intentional downtime.” Even if I think I am relaxing, I still often check my blackberry and login to check my work email. This is a good reminder of something I need to work on – for my family and for myself. Thanks – great read!
    .-= Shannon´s last blog ..Restaurants + two year old = not relaxing =-.

  16. Tracee

    Tsh, I just joined the world of motherhood…well, kind of…I’m a new step-mom. I want to be the best mom/step-mom I can be…but it’s hard to figure out how to have routine and make an impact on such a back and forth schedule. Do you know of any resources or have any insights into making the most of things with kids/family when they are only with us sometimes? Thanks!! 🙂
    I love all your stuff…hadn’t got to visit for awhile and I’m having fun looking through things now. 🙂

  17. Sharee

    Thanks! I needed this article. I’ve been worried about how things are going to change around my home when I have surgery and I’m not able to say time for homework, chores, or bathtime. This has helped me see it doesn’t have to be the same week after week. I can just point out a few important times of day for my children, so they have some security. Such as: when carpool picks up and drops off, meal times, and nap time for the baby. The rest doesn’t have to be done at a certain time or the way I would do it.

  18. Rosie

    Thanks Tsh. You have some really good advice there. I really appreciated the part about having a schedule or a routine not being incompatible with flexibility. So often I feel like I’ve failed when I’ve created a routine and then not “kept” to it, when that really should not be the case at all. I linked to your article from the blog for my HomeRoutines iphone app, because it is very much in alignment with the philosophy of the app. Thanks again!
    .-= Rosie´s last blog ..Great post on SimpleMom about the value of routines with kids =-.

  19. Joelle

    I really appreciated this post. Thank you. I also linked to it on my blog.
    .-= Joelle´s last blog ..Weekly wrap-up =-.

  20. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    I’ve been staying home with my daughter for 3 years now and I’m still struggling a bit to find our sync, our routine. Very helpful! I linked to this on my weekly roundup, post is under my name. Thanks!
    .-= Lenetta @ Nettacow´s last blog ..40 Bags Update – Bags 34 – 44 =-.

  21. The Activity Mom

    I love this and needed it so much. Thanks!

  22. Tanya

    Its so easy to get overwhelmed and to think you “ought” to be able to get everything done but kids are a full-time job in themselves and I the way I get through each day, is by having set times for food. Only doing cleaning on a specified day (Saturday), shopping for food on a day when all are at school (when possible), and planning my meals on Sunday, so I know what needs to be cooked each day and I can plan that. I often found trying to figure out what we were going to eat, was one of the hardest things.

  23. Heather

    I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am to have found this article. I’m a SAHM of a 4 & a 3 yo, and our life has devolved to near chaos. It’s not good for anybody. My husband is on vacation this week and next, and we’re taking that time to organize our house and set a new schedule that would allow for all of our major needs to be met. It would be lovely to feel closer to our personal goals at the end of each day. Take care.

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