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Help Young Children Create and Maintain Healthy Habits


Child brushing his teeth

Positive habits and routines can lay the foundation for healthy and fulfilling lives. Here’s how we can help children create those habits from an early age.


There’s no question that adhering to healthy habits and routines can lay the groundwork for health, focus, and success throughout one’s life. Parents and caregivers can help babies and toddlers create those positive habits from an early age.


As adults, it’s easy to spend most of our time monitoring our children’s developmental milestones, like teaching them to crawl, grip a toy, or potty training. These developmental wins are certainly important, and it’s exciting when our kids meet and surpass them. Still, it’s just as important to teach and expose our young children to healthy lifestyle habits, such as stress mitigation, good-quality sleep patterns, choosing healthy foods, and incorporating physical activity early in their lives.


But, teaching these skills can be difficult, especially when many adults struggle to hold on to healthy habits themselves. Fortunately, there are research tools to help us when we’re not quite sure what to do. Author and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg suggests that all habits follow a pattern called the habit loop, which involves a clear cue or something that triggers the desired behavior, an easy-to-follow routine, and a reward that motivates our kids to repeat that routine.


With an understanding of how habits are formed, here are some suggestions to help our young children develop positive habits.


Establish Routines


Create consistent and straightforward routines around the desired positive habit you’d like your child to assume and repeat. For example, if you are trying to teach healthy bedtime and sleep habits, it’s important to implement the same bedtime routine every night, which will eventually spark the desire for sleep in your child. This routine can take many forms. Here’s an example:

Pick a time to consistently implement your bedtime routine. From there, you can move into bath time, change into sleep clothes, read a book, brush teeth, get in bed, sing a song, and then lights out.

After consistent repetition of your chosen bedtime routine, you will have established a positive pattern, and your child will have full insight into what happens next, making bedtime much more successful and enjoyable for everyone.


Model Positive Behaviors


Children learn by watching the everyday behaviors of the adults around them, so it’s important to model the habits you want to instill in your young audience. For example, try to eat meals and snacks with your child when possible, and let them see you enjoy healthy foods like whole grains and fresh produce during mealtimes. You can also help model positive hygiene habits by letting your kids join you when brushing your teeth or washing your hands. Our kids are also paying attention to how we react in stressful or frustrating situations, so show them how taking a few deep breaths can help us to move forward in a calm and levelheaded manner.


Acknowledge and Reward


Positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful forms of motivation, and behaviors that get rewarded get repeated. When it comes to establishing routines, the reward is what helps our children determine if that behavior is worth doing again and again. When establishing new routines or positive behaviors, choosing rewards that your child cares about is important. It can be a sticker, a trip to the museum, or a special treat. Anything that you can truthfully provide will work. If a reward is promised, it needs to be delivered.


Once a habit is established, the initial reward can be phased out but continue to celebrate desired behaviors. When you see your child doing things right, take that opportunity to express your happiness, acknowledge the behavior in a positive and excited manner, and celebrate the little victories when you see them.

Over time, our kids will become more intrinsically motivated, and healthy habits will become mainstays in their day-to-day lives.


About Us: Early Intervention Colorado provides services and supports to children experiencing delays from birth until the child’s third birthday. Services are available at no cost to families. To learn more, visit www.rmhumanservices.org/ei.

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