There are so many factors and variables to creating a solid daily routine with toddlers (and all kid ages). It can be overwhelming to know where to start or how a day might even look. This post shares the ins-and-outs of a family’s daily schedule with three kids under five and a stay-at-home-parent.
What’s your daily routine with toddlers?
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked about my daily routine…. well, I’d have like $100 but I know you get me. I’m asked this question all the time and I’m more than happy to share what our typical day looks like.
But here’s the truth that I need you to know and remember:
The best daily routine is what’s best for you.
Every family is different and it would be wild to think we’d all have a similar schedule. We have different variables, different kids, different homes, different jobs, different everything.
The best schedule is whatever schedule works for you and your kids (I’m going to keep repeating this so get used to it). Don’t get bogged down by my schedule and think you have to replicate it because this is what some lady on the Internet does.
I’m sharing my schedule as a jumping off point.
Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe it’ll get you thinking about what might work for you. Maybe you’ll notice parts of my day that you hate and think “absolutely not.” But even finding the negatives can help you create the best daily schedule for your family.
Things to know about my family
1. My kids aren’t in any activities outside the home. We don’t have school or day care, we don’t have sports or dance, we don’t take any lessons. Being “unbusy” is a big deal to me but that’s a topic for a whole different post on living a slower life with kids. But I wanted to mention it so you weren’t trying to figure out how I juggle those pieces. I don’t juggle them because they aren’t there.
2. My kids are all 20 months apart from each other. At the time of this post, my kids were newly 5, 3 years old, and 21 months old.
3. This has pretty much been my daily routine since my first born came home from the hospital and a large part of this schedule remains in place today. My kids are now 10, 8, and 6.
The minute-by-minute break down of a daily routine with toddlers
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7 am (ish): Wake Up – I get ready first
I start my day before my kids.
Let me rephrase that: I start my day WITHOUT my kids. I wake up a tad before them or at the same time, and begin getting myself showered and ready WITHOUT them. Call me what you will, but I don’t need an audience for my shower.
Where are my kids?
With exception to any child still in “baby” form, my kids are playing quietly in their rooms. We taught them to do this when we transitioned them from crib to bed. When they wake up, they simply begin quietly playing. This is around 6:30 – 7 am.
Here’s how we taught them to do this: First, we placed a toddler safety lock on their doors for safety reasons when they transitioned to a bed. I didn’t need to worry about a toddler wandering my house at night. They were safe in their room locked in a crib. Now having a whole room to play in is already a major upgrade.
Second, we sneak a bowl of dry cereal into their room before my husband and I go to bed. We jokingly call this the offering. It’s an offering to keep playing quietly. This gives the kids something to safely munch on while they play. Please think critically about whether this will work and be safe for your family.
When they got older and needed to use the bathroom, we removed the lock but the expectation remained the same: quietly play until we (mom or dad) come get you. Since this had always been the routine, it was easy to keep it in place.
Want to start this process with your child? Try using an OK to Wake Clock. Let your child know they can’t leave their room until the clock turns green. It works. I know lots of friends who do this.
I wake up and start getting dressed while my oldest two have independent playtime. They love this and I love this. My 21 month old is still in “baby form”, so he’s my morning get-ready helper and I’m cool with that. By about age 2, he had phased into the “stay in the room” system and I was able to get ready totally in peace.
My whole day hinges on this. It sets the tone. A clean and showered Mom who had a chance to start coffee and maybe make her bed, is a happy Mom.
8 am (ish): Get the “Big” Kids – and tidy up
Now that I’m dressed and ready for the day, it’s time to get the big kids, around 8 am. They’ve just had plenty of time to wake up, have had loads of independent/imaginative play, and are ready to start the day.
First stop: tidying up their room WITH THEM immediately after saying good morning.
Well, for starters, we’re all there so we might as well clean up. AND it motivates them to NOT make it a giant mess. Little messes clean up quick.
Breakfast and TV time
Yep, it’s cartoon time. Or Mister Rogers time. Or whatever we feel like that morning. Paw Patrol to the rescue.
I make breakfast while they watch one show. This helps me cook in peace and get things set downstairs without answering 47 “but why” questions.
But I try (keyword: try) to turn off the TV after that single episode rather than leaving it on. Life is better for us that way. It becomes harder and harder to turn off as the morning wears on.
Having TV time as part of the routine means my kids don’t have to ask for it throughout the day or worry they’ll never see a screen again. It’s routine. It’s in the schedule. They know when it’ll be available again and for how long. This is crucial.
RELATED: You can read more about my screen time policy with my kids in this post.
Time for some “every day” chores
We all eat breakfast together but the kids eat slow so I finish and chat with them as I unload the dishwasher (I always start it after dinner the night before). I clean up the kitchen from breakfast and by now, the kids are done and it’s 9:00 am (ish).
I wipe the kids down and off they scatter to go play – back to independent play. I’m a big believer in what Jean Piaget said, “Play is the work of childhood.”
So off they go to their jobs, and I can do mine.
My kids honed a lot of their independent play skills during our morning routine. Having play be predictable and part of their everyday schedule (as opposed to being a dismissive “just go play” or only when I’m frustrated and need a break) means better play.
During this bit of independent play is when I start laundry, tidy up the downstairs, and get kids dressed.
My trick to keeping the house clean?
I never clean the house all-at-once. I don’t have an hour to devote to cleaning.
You know what I do have?
Five minutes here and Five minutes there. I can wipe the bathroom after I use it. I start the laundry as I come downstairs to get the kids snacks. I can do windows while they’re eating lunch. A little here. A little there.
When do I do activities?
Right here. In this time block.
If we need a little something extra and fun to do OR if we have time before we need to be somewhere. I never do a complicated activity – those aren’t my style. Just something quick and easy, and fun for the kids.
I also set up activities if I need a minute to breathe.
Or I need to do some extra cleaning.
Or someone is having a rough morning and needs something extra.
Activities are a tool I use. I don’t set them up to be “wonder parent” or a “Pinterest parent.” I set up activities as a parent helper. It also means we don’t do activities every day because not every day needs help.
**if I have a baby who is taking a morning nap, this is when that nap would happen and we’d leave the house after their nap.
UPDATE: This is now the time when my family homeschools. Even five years after first writing this schedule, it remains largely the same. This block of time is now when my kids homeschool.
Looking for more structure each day?
Check out Playing Preschool: Busy Toddler’s 190-day at-home activities program
10:30 ish: Leave the House
Everyday, around 10-10:30 am, we have a quick snack and then leave the house.
This is crucial to my day. My mom taught me to leave the house everyday. “It’s something to do!”
We don’t do giant activities each day, like visit a zoo. We do small things.
Mondays are the grocery store. On Thursday, we see grandma. Costco is an outing. Going to a construction site and sitting in the car is an outing. Taking a walk around the block counts. Driving to Starbucks just to go through the drive-thru – it counts!
Anything to leave the house.
12:30 pm: We come back home for lunch.
Around noon-ish, we come back home for lunch.
I often make our lunch sandwiches in the morning – back around breakfast time when things were calm.
Now it’s mid-day, naps are near and people are hangry. Making sandwiches ahead of time is a HUGE help.
We have lunch and then guess what? The kids scatter to play (yep, back to playing) and I tidy up from lunch. This is their 3rd expected, scheduled, and known block of time to play. There’s no push back because this is as ingrained in their life as meals.
Before their naps, we ALL do one final “blitz” of the house and tidy up their toys, we all play “vacuum chase” and suddenly it’s 1:30 pm and the biggest chunk of the day is mostly done (insert dancing lady emoji).
1:30 pm – 3:30 pm: Nap time is sacred time.
I’m a big believer in naps.
I’m a big believer in quiet time.
My two youngest nap from about 1:30-3:30 pm.
My oldest plays in his room quietly and has his own personal time in there. We kept the nap time ritual / expectation with him: play quietly and rest up (read more about quite time here).
I have some strict rules for myself during this time: I don’t clean at nap time. I don’t do house work. I take my “union break” and rest.
Actually, this is when I worked on my Instagram and web site. But it was still restful and relaxing to me. Like doing a hobby. Eventually that hobby became my job.
How to get dinner prepped
You know the very end of nap time? How you can just “hear” it coming? You hear the moving of beds and bodies. That’s when I move to the kitchen real quick to get dinner prepped.
Sometimes, I get it all prepped into little bowls so I can play “Food Network Star” as I throw my ingredients together later.
Other times, I’ll make the whole casserole and set it to the side to bake later.
Sometimes, I prep dinner while they eat lunch because they are contained and busy eating so no one bugs me – wink.
3:30 – 5:30 pm: The end of day, before dinner drag
We’re lucky: we have neighborhood kids who all play together almost every day. Days when we don’t all play together are days I remember how lucky I am.
The before dinner, after nap time can draaaaaag.
So this is another time where we do activities – but I always pick an easy one. I call these the “hero activities” because they’re a hero for my life.
I wrote a parenting book
Check out “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” for advice from tabies to big kids
5:30 pm: Dinnertime and the changing of the guard
Around 5:30 pm, my husband gets home and we high five – and transfer the “primary parenting role” from one to the other.
He takes over as primary caregiver for the evening. He facilitates after dinner play, baths, and getting ready for bed. I’m his behind the scenes assistant getting things ready like laying out pajamas and tidying up from dinner.
We start the bedtime process at 7 pm and all kids are in bed with the lights off by 7:30.
Baths and bedtime go fast for us – we keep things smooth, on schedule, and on script.
Our tip: We put all the bedtime supplies in our room which has an en suite bathroom. No one leaves the room. No running and chasing kids down. Everyone is contained. Pajamas are laid out on our bed, teeth are brushed in there, books read on my bed and the kids are walked down to their rooms from there. We work like a well oiled factory machine getting the kids clean, dressed, and ready for bed.
7:30 pm: The day is done!
My husband and I walk from room to room saying our good nights separately. This also means it’s easier to keep an eye on kids while we play zone defense to get them into bed.
Each child sleeps with a water bottle in their bed so there’s no need for anyone to come get drinks from us.
Once the last kid door is shut, we take a quick 15 minutes to clean up what was left out so that I can start the next day with a clean-enough slate.
Frequently Asked Questions
I’ve been sharing our daily routine for five years so I’m pretty up to speed on the FAQs that come from this routine. Take a look at the below list and see if your question or more information you could use is in this list.
If not, pop it into the comments so I can make sure to answer it.
When I had a morning nap to put baby down for, this always happened right after breakfast, around 9 am. Baby could nap, big kids could play and do activities, and I could get some housework done. Once baby was up, we’d hit the road. As baby got older, we might make that morning nap a road nap, depending on the kind of activity we were trying to get to.
I expect it. I know that may seem harsh or lackluster, but that was the case. It was an expectation and part of our routine. The entire day was built around them playing so I could get the house and life running smoothly. It’s amazing how well kids can learn to play when there isn’t another option. If this hasn’t been the case with your family or your child (I get that, my third born didn’t come into the world knowing how to play independently): please read this post with my step-by-step method for how to help kids grow their ability to play independently. This goes for toddlers to big kids, only children to those with many siblings.
I taught myself how. We didn’t go to the zoo on the first day. We went to McDonalds, my Mom was our adult chaperone, and it was a complete disaster. But I kept trying. Through baby steps, believing in myself, being willing to ask strangers for help, and by having the attitude that “worst case scenario: we leave and go back home” – we learned. I learned how to handle my kids in public, what their triggers were, what mine were, and how to have simple fun with them out of the house.
I’ll be honest: I don’t. That’s not a part of my schedule. If it’s a part of yours, make time for it and make it a priority.
Swim lessons are different than clubs and sports. That’s for life saving and a complete safety must (no different than car seats). Yes, I carved time out for swim lessons and did my best to pick time slots that worked well in our daily schedule.
I like starting school after breakfast. I call the kids back from playing and we begin the school portion of our day. This works well for us – my kids learn best in the AM.
I spend all day as the primary parent for my kids. I’m the parent at home, working with them, leading, guiding, handling things for them. In the evening, that’s my husband’s job. He takes over leading, guiding, and handling things for them. I work behind the scenes to help and support him, the same way that he works behind the scenes to help and support me.
Susie Allison, M. Ed
Susie Allison is the creator of Busy Toddler and has more than 2 million followers on Instagram. A former teacher and early childhood education advocate, Susie’s parenting book “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” is available on Amazon.
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