Ask a Pediatrician: It’s the Holidays—How Much Should I Worry About My Kids Sticking to a Routine?

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Holidays give us a chance to rest and spend quality time with family, so it can be natural for daily routines to relax as well during this time. One thing I have seen repeatedly in my practice: what works for one child/family doesn’t necessarily work for another. Sticking to a daily schedule does help create lifelong wellness habits; routines and structure are important for kids of all ages to maintain both physical and mental health. That said, it’s OK to let go of this structure slightly as we enjoy the holiday season. Here are some guidelines for finding that balance.

Make a Plan in Advance

Start thinking about what changes in your child’s routine you are OK with making before the start of break or travel. This will allow you to consider the whole picture and make sound choices before things have a chance to get chaotic. Figure out where you want to draw a hard line, what parts of the schedule you are willing to be flexible on. (More on how to make these decisions in a bit!) As a general rule, the younger the child, the more important it is to stick to the routine.

Share the plan with your family and be transparent about your reasoning. Make sure to explain that this laxity is temporary, and that all routines will be back in order once the holidays are through. This way, everyone understands the why behind these changes and is more inclined to transition smoothly in and out of the break.

Draw the Hard Lines

Figuring out which parts of your children’s daily routine you want to let slide during the holidays is a personal choice for all families. Having said that, there are some non-negotiables that I urge you to continue following no matter what:

  • Ongoing medications for chronic conditions
  • Courses of antibiotics, if applicable
  • Basic hygiene (toothbrushing, bathing, laundry, etc.)

Beyond this, there are considerations of personal triggers for each child. Depending on each kid’s temperament and health situation, they might have different parts of their routine that are more or less important to hold on to. For example, if a child struggles with chronic gastrointestinal concerns, maintaining a somewhat healthy diet is more important for them than it is for those without ongoing tummy troubles. Or, if a child has a history of sleep concerns, maintaining a bedtime routine is going to be more crucial for them.

Whatever decisions you make about changes to the routine, keep in mind that your goal is to reduce stress and the chance of a negative outcome in this situation. If you suspect that relaxing a certain part of the norm will actually bring more harm than joy in the long run, keep that part consistent. If your kids are older, talk to them to figure out which parts of their day cause them stress and which parts they could benefit to take a break from.

Structuring Unstructured Time

Once you’ve figured out the parts of the daily routine that you want to maintain, you will have a better understanding of what the break might look like. You can then plan structured and unstructured periods of time, managing your family’s expectations for the holiday.

For example, let’s say it’s important to you that your children keep reading regularly throughout the break. Set aside a specific time each day to have quiet reading time—maybe even together as a family, if possible. Then, give your kids a period of free time afterwards, hopefully achieving a good balance between continuing a part of the routine and relaxing.

In the end, it’s all about planning and understanding how you envision your vacation time. A little wiggle room is OK, but a free-for-all is hard to bounce back from. So, choose the routine items you want to keep, know what you are willing to relax on, and communicate this with your children as best you can ahead of time. This way, your children can enjoy the magic of the season while still feeling a sense of structure. Ultimately, the decision on how much to worry about your kids sticking to a routine during the winter holidays should be based on your family's unique dynamics and your children's individual needs and preferences.

Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S.

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Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S. She received her undergraduate...