Many families who wish to sleep train encounter the conundrum of how to create and maintain healthy sleep habits while their child attends daycare. Spoiler alert: daycare and sleep training can absolutely go together! Or, perhaps you are considering the different care options for your child for when you return to work. (And daycare is at the top of your list.) Finally, it may be the case that you have sleep trained successfully at home, and have found yourself ready to put your child into daycare. Below we explore these various situations to help you support your child, and their sleep while they are in daycare.

daycare and sleep training

Photo Credit: Marisa Howenstine

Picking a Daycare

Maybe you are trying to figure out the best form of childcare to suit your family’s needs. Whenever possible, I advise families to keep kids under the age of 18 months at home. Think: a nanny, nanny-share, parent, or at-home daycare provider. It can be extremely challenging for babies under the age of 18 months to sleep well at daycare. (For reasons we will discuss below.)

While daycare can be an attractive and affordable option for many families, exploring other options where your child is able to sleep in an ideal sleep environment is key. Daycares are often restricted in how they are able to handle your child’s sleep. I confess, many families I work with have chosen to leave daycare when they find their child is simply unable to get the quality sleep they need while there.

This mainly comes down to your child’s innate sensitivity level. The more strong willed and/or sensitive your baby is, the more they will struggle to sleep in any environment that isn’t dark and free of distractions. You cannot train a human to sleep better in a non-ideal environment. So when possible, select a care option that allows your baby to stay at home, or in a home.

If your child must attend daycare, opt for an in-home option that can be flexible with your baby’s needs. (Perhaps allowing your child to sleep in a separate bedroom, as opposed to with all the other kids in the same room.) When visiting daycares, ask specific questions about…

a) how they handle sleep, and

b) ask to see where the babies sleep.

If you see that all babies must sleep in the same bright room where other kids are playing, this is not a good fit to support healthy sleep habits. Also, ask them if they are allowed to put babies down awake, and allow them to fall asleep 100% on their own. (Even if they protest cry for a brief time before falling asleep.) If they have a “no cry” policy, this means they will assist your child to sleep for naps. And then your child will expect that same assistance when they fall asleep at bedtime, and as they wake overnight. In short, make certain your chosen daycare center knows sleep is a top priority for your family.

Ready to sleep train?

Transitioning to Daycare

It may be the case that you’ve successfully sleep trained at home, and now it’s time to transition to daycare. As soon as you’ve decided to sleep train, and if you already know where your child will be going to daycare, ask them the questions outlined above. Make sure they will allow your child to fall asleep on their own. And ask to bring in your own white noise machine.

If your child is under 18 months, also ask that they only sleep in a crib or Pack n Play. (As opposed to a mat, where baby is free to come and go as they please as this may require the presence of a caretaker to assist them to sleep).

If you are confident this daycare is a good fit, you’ll be glad to hear you don’t need to worry about the transition! I would suggest starting on a Monday morning, and allowing your child to attend as many days of full time daycare in a row as they will continue to do in the future. (No need to transition slowly!)

If they take fewer naps at daycare than you give them at home – this can still work. For example, if your daycare puts all 12-month-olds on 1 nap, even if your child is on a two nap schedule at home, keep your child on their appropriate nap schedule at home and allow daycare to do their thing.

The number one thing to emphasize is that they not assist your child to sleep in anyway. As long as they comply with this request, the only other things you want to make sure of are…

  1. That your child does not fall asleep, or become drowsy, on the way home from daycare after 4 pm. (This late sleep will massively disrupt bedtime and overnight sleep.)
  2. That you not begin to assist them to sleep if they wake up overnight in the first few nights of starting daycare.

If your child is totally sleep trained, ask your pediatrician if it’s okay to be “hands off” with overnight wakings for the first week of daycare. (Checking on baby only if you suspect something may be wrong, or if your baby is ill.) If your child has night wakings and you begin to assist them to sleep, sleep training will unravel quickly.

Already in Daycare During Sleep Training

Perhaps your child attends full time daycare, and you want to train them. I would wait to train for a time when they can spend at least 72 hours straight at home. If you have other caretakers who can help (for example, a grandparent who can stay with baby for a few days instead of baby going to daycare), this will make a massive difference in your child’s sleep training success.

The more days your child can stay home in a row before starting back up at daycare, the more successful baby will be at making the transition back. I would urge you to start training Friday evening, and allow your child to stay home as many days as possible into the next work week.

What If Daycare Won’t Honor My Wishes?

Many parents ask me what to do if their daycare is simply unable to honor their requests when it comes to their child’s sleep. To this I want to share the following… Did you know that a human will die from lack of sleep before they’ll die from lack of food? If your daycare simply refused or was unable to honor your requests around feeding your child, say by withholding food or refusing to feed them all together, or by only feeding them junk food instead of the nutritious food you provide, what would you do? We both know you’d find another care option.

You would never leave your child in a caretaking situation that was harming their physical well-being. Sleep is absolutely vital when it comes to your baby or toddler’s brain and physical development. It is at least as important as the food they consume each day to fuel their growth. You should go to the same extent to protect their sleep as you would to protect their need to eat.

More Frequently Asked Questions about Daycare

My child sleeps better at daycare. Why? 

This occurs most commonly with toddlers than infants. Children are very good at understanding boundaries, as well as social cues, the older they get. If all kids are laying silently and sleeping, your child will think that’s what they’re supposed to do. If you haven’t yet established expectations at home that your child should be an independent sleeper, they’re more likely to sleep better at daycare and struggle with sleep at home.

My child sleeps worse at daycare/childcare. Do I give him another nap at home?

Yes, provided that nap ends prior to 4:00 pm. You want to avoid allowing your child to nap between 4:00 pm and bedtime, or else nighttime sleep may become disrupted. Further, even if naps are short at daycare, I caution you against adding a third nap (for babies over 7 months) or a second nap (for children over 18 months). Too many daytime naps will also cause nighttime sleep disruptions.

My child naps at different times at home vs daycare. Is this okay?

Yes. For reasons described above, daycare may keep one schedule when you want to keep a different one at home. That is just fine.

My child naps more times at daycare, or less times than at home. Is this okay? (i.e. 3 vs 2 naps)

YES! Always keep your child on an age appropriate nap schedule at home, even if daycare is doing something different. Kids can often handle fewer naps at daycare because the environment is so stimulating. At home, they may want to revert to their age appropriate schedule and nap more often, and that’s ok.

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