Today’s article is brought to you through the generous support of our friends at the Jockey Being Family Foundation, who share our vision to provide education and support to strengthen families.
Parenting a child with prenatal exposure often requires additional scaffolding to help them learn the daily routines we take for granted. Establishing consistent daily routines for your child with prenatal exposure gives repetitive experiential learning that supports him as he acquires the skills to grow to adulthood.
The impact of prenatal exposure on the developing brain often leads to challenges with executive function, sequencing tasks, and understanding cause and effect. Each of those skills requires a ton of repetition for kids with prenatal experience. We get it: the repetition can be grating and wearying for parents – especially if you aren’t a creature of habit yourself. However, changing your perspective on routine and repeating yourself can go a long way toward empowering the child and deepening trust and attachment between you. You are also establishing the foundation for building skills by communicating that you understand and accept the way his brain works.
Start with a Good Night’s Sleep
One of the most fundamental daily routines you can help your child establish is healthy sleep habits. Currently known as “sleep hygiene,” the trending topic is easy to research if you haven’t already seen content on social media or in the news yet. It’s the practice of setting a sleep routine that maximizes the opportunity for restorative, restful sleep. The benefits of sleep are numerous – including but not limited to:
- Overall health and immunity boosts
- Clearer, sharper minds
- Improved energy levels and emotional health
- Heart health
- Blood sugar leveling and weight management
If you don’t already have a peaceful, consistent bedtime routine for your child with prenatal exposure, here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Put your child to bed at the same time every night.
For many families driven by the school schedule, the bus schedule or first bell of the day determines your rising time. If you know your rising time, count back to find the right time to turn out your child’s lights at night. Here’s a resource to help you determine how much sleep your child needs.
2. Create a relaxing routine leading up to bedtime.
We know – that sounds almost impossible for a busy household that juggles work, therapies, music lessons, sports, homework, dishes, laundry, and …the list goes on! However, your child’s brain and body will benefit from a slowed pace to prepare her for falling asleep peacefully and more quickly once she’s in bed. Some things to try in the hour before “lights out” can include:
- Limiting screentime for everyone in that time frame
- Gentle yoga or stretching time
- Reading chapter books out loud together
- Quiet instrumental music while talking over the day
- Relaxing bath or shower time
- Consistent nighttime tasks (teeth brushing, laying out clothes for school, etc.)
3. Prepare a restful sleeping environment.
Your child’s bedroom is likely where he plays games, does homework, listens to music, or builds with Legos. However, when it’s time to sleep, his room should be a haven of peace and rest. Look around the room to see what might be countering that feeling. What can you do to help him transition from playtime to bedtime? Would it help to put toys away nightly in storage bins to minimize distractions?
The room should also be cool and dark. Nightlights are okay if they don’t cast scary shadows or make the room too bright. Layered bedding is helpful for children who benefit from the sensory need for weight to help them calm down. You might also consider some sort of soothing background noise to block out household or outdoor sounds that would disrupt a sleep cycle.
4. Be patient.
Be patient with the process if sleep routines or consistent bedtimes are new to you and your child with prenatal exposure. Keep at it as you try to figure out what works best for the child and your family unit. In many instances, consistency is the key to training our bodies to sleep well. Also, consider changing only one variable at a time while you are experimenting so that you can gauge what is successful in your routine and what should be tweaked.
Begin the Day Consistently
Another healthy routine to establish with your child with prenatal exposure is a regular waking schedule. Yes, we know – many kids get up at the same time of day no matter what time we put them to bed. That’s helpful during the week, but it can be a bummer on the weekends for parents.
However, a consistent morning routine is a necessary structure for kids. Your goal is to help them create healthy habits by following a standard daily routine. You will build their muscle memory by sheer repetition. The bonus is another predictable routine that increases their sense of safety in your home.
1. Make it visual for your kids with prenatal exposure.
There are tons of tools online to help you create a task list for your morning routine. Look for one that meets your child’s age and ability to understand the tasks listed. Some kids benefit from a rewards-style chart – though your child with prenatal exposure will likely need short-term rewards to start. Others like the immediate gratification of a flipchart. Consider posting the task lists where the activities occur – for example, the bathroom wall for hygiene tasks.
2. Break the routine down into chunks.
Many kids with prenatal exposure struggle to manage big tasks with many steps. To help them manage that more successfully, consider where natural breaks in the routine occur and then break the steps down even further. Help her brain make connections by pairing similar tasks with your visual prompts.
For example, when the morning alarm goes off, her tasks are to:
- Get dressed
- Make the bed
- Put pj’s under the pillow
Then, she will follow breakfast time with:
- Brush teeth
- Brush hair
- Wipe down counter and sink
3. Keep it simple and specific.
Both you and your child will benefit from a streamlined approach to his daily routine. Directions should be offered consistently, in the simplest terms possible. One common impact of prenatal exposure is that a child’s processing time can be noticeably longer than their peers. They also often struggle to keep things in sequence. You can reduce the risk of frustration or failure by taking your routines down to the most basic elements, supported by the visual aids we mentioned above.
When you can, rehearse the routines with him. During the bedtime routine, remind him of your morning routine. Then in the morning, when you wake him up, recite a script of what happens next:
“Good morning! The sun is out, and we get to start the day together. Once you get your feet on the floor, please put on the school clothes we picked last night. Then you can make the bed and put your jammies away under the pillow. I’ll see you down in the kitchen when you finish dressing, making your bed, and putting your pj’s away.”
Replicate Routines Across the Day
When you take your daily routine down to its simplest parts across the whole day, it’s easier for your child to make the connections she needs to navigate.
Cut and Paste the Schedule.
So if your morning routine looks like the above tasks of getting dressed, making the bed, and brushing her teeth and hair, copy that routine for her bedtime. Break it down into those chunks where ever there is a natural point to do so in your family’s flow:
- Put pj’s on
- Get the bed covers rolled back
- Lay out clothes for tomorrow
- Brush teeth
- Brush hair
- Go to the bathroom
Make it easy for yourself and your child by taking the “copy and paste” approach to establishing daily routines for your family. During your family’s day, you will find other times that you can replicate tasks for your child, which will further streamline things for you all. You can bolster your efforts by using the same language, the same graphics for picture charts, or the same alarms on your phones for specific tasks across the day.
Use the Chunking Method All Day.
Create routines for the other parts of the day using a similar structure, with visuals, that help your child pair time of day with actions necessary to navigate the day. Again, the repetition might make you feel slightly crazy, but it builds connections in your child’s brain about how the day flows. Her brain is taking this information and laying roadmaps for taking care of herself across the course of a day.
Schedule Snacks and Drinks for Your Child with Prenatal Exposure.
Healthy food and regular hydration are as vital to our kids as sleep is. Children who have been prenatally exposed can struggle with cause and effect. They won’t necessarily connect that forgetting to eat might mean a blood sugar crash or that ugly “angry” mood later. Include snack time, water breaks, and healthy movement into the routines of your day.
When your kids are very young, make snack time fun with songs you sing at that time of day or special snacks in their favorite shapes and colors. As they grow, encourage healthy eating by working in the kitchen together, finding exercise you might mutually enjoy, or adding “Water Bottles Filled” to the morning task list. Continue to prioritize family mealtime and expand their roles in the preparation and menu choices as they grow in their ability to handle those tasks.
Use Technology to Support Consistency
Turn on the Alarm.
Speaking of alarms, consider setting alarms on your devices to keep you on track together. Use one signal to start the bedtime routine and then again for “lights out.” Find a different sound to wake up and later for breakfast time. Pairing the alarms in these ways is one more connection of tasks that go together for your child’s brain.
Make it a fun, light-hearted thing by asking your child to pick the tones or sounds for each chunk of the day. When the alarms go off, give the child a moment to think about what it means, and then use your scripts to help him navigate his way through that part of the day.
“Hey Johnny, what does the quacking duck mean?”
“It means it’s time to start my homework.”
“Yes, and after your homework, you set the table while I make the salad. Then we’ll eat dinner and talk about our day.”
Expand Your Use of Technology as a Tool.
Remember, our kids are “digital natives.” Make this culture work for you by developing with him the habit of using technology to support you both. With care and supervision, you can expand from simple alarms to online calendars or online checklists to help him “own” his routine as his skills increase. Many tools are available now for managing daily, weekly, and monthly routines, so it might take some trial and error to find the right fit.
Be patient with the process of using the alarms and calendars. As with any new skill, remember that a child with prenatal exposure may need extra scaffolding to use these tools. Be prepared to repeat the instructions several times while he’s learning how to use them. Choosing the most straightforward app or online resource you can find will set him up for success and confidence.
Make Your Self-Care a Routine
No matter how well you structure your child’s daily routines, it’s entirely likely that you will still get wearied by the sheer number of times you repeat yourself. Even parents who thrive on routine can feel burned out by the sameness of consistently managing the days. When you feel that frustration rising, it’s time to assess how you are caring for yourself as a matter of routine. Regular self-care is necessary to keep you fueled and able to meet your child’s needs, but it also models the value of routine and structure for your child around the idea of healthy self-care.
Enlist Help When Parenting a Child with Prenatal Exposure.
If you haven’t already, look at those in your life who are committed to your family’s success – your spouse or partner, a trusted friend, or a hired childcare person. Ask them to schedule regular times to come to stay with the kids to give you a break from parenting. Then keep that appointment! Get yourself out of the house and out of the role of “Manager of All the Things.”
Put it on the Calendar.
Just as your child benefits from the visual prompts for her daily routine, you will benefit from seeing the commitment to self-care in writing. You might gain an added layer of accountability if your self-care date appears both on your personal planner and on the family calendar. Normalize it for the whole family by calling it the same thing every time, like “Mom’s Night Out” or “Mom and Dad’s Date Night.”
Establishing Daily Routines
Parenting a child with prenatal exposure can be challenging and overwhelming when you understand how they learn. As you establish daily routines for and with them, you will know more about how your child makes the connections he needs to navigate his day. As you grow together, you can build on that to give him the best possible foundation from which to guide his future.
How have you established daily routines for your child with prenatal exposure? We’d love to hear more ideas for all ages in the comments.
Image Credits: Marco Verch Professional; John Morgan; Pinterest (cropped); Carissa Rogers