A definitive ‘how to’ guide for daycare + sleep
We’re often asked by parents about how they can support their children to sleep well at daycare, or how to minimise any disruption in hard-earned sleep that starting daycare might bring.
I’ve put together the following guide to help you make the transition easier from a sleep perspective, and to help your little one protect their precious zzz's.
First, check the place out
The first thing to do when you’re selecting (or have selected) a daycare, is to do a visit.
Make sure that you check out the sleep environment while you’re there. Consider in what ways it is similar or different to what your child is used to at home.
Is it a darkened room?
Do they have any white noise on, or music playing? (The former is preferable to the latter, because music can be a bit more engaging).
Also, carers are required to check on sleeping children frequently, so find out what their policies are around this – do they have one carer who stays in the room constantly, or will they be opening the door every ten minutes or so to check on children?
Ask lots of questions
Chances are when you do your daycare visit, you’ll have lots of questions you already want answered – but here are a couple of sleep-related ones that you might consider adding to your list.
- How do they settle children to sleep? Some rock babies, some put them to sleep with a bottle.
- You’ll know what you want for your child, but if your baby can self-settle, the preference is for very little in the way of actively assisting them, or they will start to want that at home.
- What is their food schedule? All daycares have to keep a log throughout the day and you can ask to see these. It’s a good way of knowing whether they are feeding them to sleep with a bottle as they go down too.
- How flexible are they on the food schedule? Is lunch always at a fixed time, or is there some movement allowed based on what will work for your baby?
- If they have lunch later than you do at home – and this is immovable – you might find you need to try to lengthen your child’s morning sleep at home, or risk them being too tired and cranky to eat their lunch properly.
- What is their sleep schedule like? Is this fixed so that all babies nap at the same time, or will they work with when your baby is tired, or the routine that you set out for them? It’s also worth asking whether they follow a clock-based routine or your baby’s cues.
- The latter can be a challenge in a room with multiple children to one carer – it’s hard for them to notice, and be able to act on, those early tired signs.
- Do they try to resettle babies that wake early, or give them a chance to go back to sleep? Or do they get them up as soon as they wake – even if they are in their bed happily?
- Lastly, will they wake a sleeping baby? This may not seem like a problem for a six month old, but you don’t want to be stuck at a centre with a strict ‘no waking’ policy when your toddler starts fighting their night-time sleep because they’re enjoying too long a stretch during the day.
- We’ll come to more on that soon…
Home doesn’t have to match what happens at daycare
One of the most common questions we get asked is about how important it is to run with the daycare schedule on the days that your child is at home.
In my experience, children are very good at maintaining two different schedules and can adapt to a different routine in different places (they’re perceptive – and know more than they let on!)
If your child has shorter or fewer sleeps at daycare, it’s OK to let them sleep in over the weekend or similar.
Even if they’re sleeping well at daycare, there is a lot of stimulation and it’s common that children may need more sleep to catch up and process all of that input.
Hints to help when starting daycare
- Lower your expectations in terms of how much sleep your child will get during the day, especially as they are just newly getting used to the place.
- Allow for a 3+ week settling in period when it comes to sleep. Some kids transition to daycare easily, while others find the changes more challenging for a time.
- Transition gradually if you can. I know it’s not always possible, but some half days to get your child used to it can be a good short-term option. This allows a child on two naps a day to do one nap at daycare, and their longer one at home for a while before moving into full days.
- Try to get your child used to a comfort item that they are able to take to daycare with them. A cuddly, sleeping bag, or even a special toy or beloved blanket can help your child to settle and signal to them that it is sleep time, even in a different environment.
- Allow extra time in the evenings with your child. Offer an earlier bedtime, if they need it, but also take your time going through their pre-sleep routine with them (if you can avoid flying into a flurry of dinner-making activity). Starting daycare can be a time of increased separation anxiety, so plan to play or do some quiet activities in their room before bed, especially with slightly older children (toddlers). Giving them back this one-on-one time means they’re less likely to wake in the night looking for it.
- Try not to overthink things. Too many parents jump on the guilt-train and worry that when their children are upset at bedtime, it’s because they left them during the day. It’s likely that your child is tired from a full-on day, so stick to what you do consistently. If you need to do a little more to assist them to sleep, try to descend the hierarchy of soothing slowly, instead of panicking and jumping to the bottom.
- The same goes for when your child is sick, which will likely happen in the first weeks after starting daycare, and may affect their sleep. Offer early bedtimes to build their immune system back up and try not to fully assist them to sleep. If they do need your support, see the point above and proceed down the list of soothing methods slowly.
When daycare sleeps go wrong
Even with the best laid plans, sometimes sleep goes awry with the move into daycare, or sometimes later in the piece too. Here are the most common challenges and how you could look to resolve them…
Not getting enough sleep
For babies under 12 months old who are not getting sufficient day sleeps, or are having two very short naps, we often suggest offering a third sleep between 3:30 and 5pm.
This could be a case of asking the daycare to add another for your child, or it could be that they nod off in the car on the way home. While we give a window of time, we suggest limiting this sleep to 30 minutes in order to protect bedtime.
If your child is over 12 months, and not getting enough sleep across their two naps during the day, it might be worth considering swapping to just one nap instead.
While we don’t usually advise dropping to just one sleep until children are between 15 and 18 months of age, it can work better at daycare, as they have a stronger biological need to sleep in the middle of the day and often consolidate to do a longer stretch then.
You may also find that they will still happily do two naps for you on their days at home also – like I said, it’s OK to have a different routine for the different places.
Getting too much day-time sleep
For toddlers over two, the more common challenge comes when they are getting too much sleep during the day. Signs that this might be happening are if you are struggling to get them into bed in the evening, if they are waking up really early in the morning, or if they are waking multiple times overnight.
Talk to the daycare about capping their daytime sleeps to a length you are comfortable with – it can be a case of trial and error. This is when it helps to have checked out whether you’re at a daycare that will wake a child if asked.
With a little planning and forethought, and awareness without over-thinking it, it is possible to navigate a transition to daycare while still supporting your child to get the quality sleep they need.
Talk to your child’s daycare and get comfortable that they will work with the sleep hygiene habits that you like, and that you’ve seen your child respond too. It’s all part of feeling comfortable with where your little love is at!