Sleep Training and Daycare: What You Need to Know and Do


Juggling sleep training and daycare is something that many parents worry about. How can sleep training and daycare (whether starting or already attending) happen together successfully?

Sleep training and daycare are not mutually exclusive. Sleep training while starting (or going to) daycare can happen as long as both the parents and the childcare provider are on the same page, support each other, and communicate regularly.

There’s so much to know about daycare and sleep training. So let’s go over 25 things you need to know about sleep training and going to daycare.

Sleep Training and Daycare is a Common Concern

Whether you’re just starting your baby in daycare or they’re already there, adding in sleep training is something that worries many parents. You aren’t alone.

Many parents are even trying to start both at the same time! Often it’s because you’re headed back to work after maternity leave, and that’s okay, too.

So no matter which you’re starting first, know that you’re in good company.

Select a Daycare Partner You Trust

Picking a trustworthy daycare is vital. After all, they’re going to be on your team. So pick a daycare partner that shares your same goals, values, and will work with you.

Now, in some cases, the daycare you really want isn’t available – or it has a long wait time to get in. In those cases, it’s still important to pick someone you trust and can work with. After all, your child may be there for quite some time!

Sometimes, the ideal daycares aren’t available. In those cases, pick the best option you can from what is available. You can always keep searching and switch your child later.

One final note about picking the right daycare: if you ever feel like something’s wrong, listen to that intuition. Or if your daycare won’t work with you? Go ahead and swap daycares.

Talk to Your Childcare Provider about Your Baby’s Sleep Needs

Whether you’re interviewing potential daycares or already have one, make sure you’re talking to the director and caretakers about your baby’s sleep needs. Not all babies have the exact same needs.

And while the daycare might be able to guess your child’s needs, it will be much easier for everyone involved if you talk about it openly.

Some babies require more sleep than others. Maybe your baby takes longer naps during the day. Or perhaps your baby won’t nap well unless they’re at home in their own crib.

Whatever the case, talk to them. They want to know these things. And they will work with you to make sleep a priority.

Then, be sure to talk to them about the fact that sleep training is happening at home. I interviewed several daycare providers and each expressed a particular interest in knowing when this was happening at home.

That way, they could keep a closer eye on the baby for sleep cues.

Talk to the Daycare Director about Sleep Policies

When you’re talking to the daycare, make sure you ask them about any sleep policies. Some daycares have a no-cry policy when it comes to sleep.

In other words, they’ll try putting your baby down for a nap, but if the baby starts crying, the childcare provider will go get them. Then, the caretaker will either hold the baby and attempt to calm them to sleep or they’ll get them back up to try napping again later.

If your baby normally fusses for 2-3 minutes before self-soothing and going down for a nap, this kind of policy might cause naps to become a huge issue. Especially when you’re picking up an overtired, exhausted, and cranky baby who didn’t get any naps at daycare!

In many cases, the daycares with a zero cry policy would work with a child who fusses for a few minutes before falling asleep. They just needed to know that a short crying interval was normal – and that they could wait to intervene.

So let them know what’s been working in your sleep training – so that they can be consistent with what’s going on at home.

Ask Daycare About Nap Schedules

Also, be sure to ask the daycare about how they do naps. Some daycares have set nap schedules while others will put babies down for naps as needed.

It’s going to depend on their policies, how many children attend daycare, and child-to-provider ratios. So make sure you ask what the daycare’s nap schedules are like.

Please note that some daycares may have different schedules for different aged children. For example, one daycare may schedule two for babies under 10 months and only one for toddlers.

Then be sure to ask if the daycare can work with your nap schedule – especially while you’re sleep training. They may be willing to work with your schedule – especially if it helps the baby adjust better.

Smart Childcare Providers Protect Sleep

After extensive research and interviewing daycare providers, I was struck by one important fact: smart childcare providers know how important sleep is to children.

They try to do everything they can to help babies get the quality naps they need. That being said, they are watching multiple children, so they can’t spend all day with one child.

That’s why many daycares will limit how many infants they agree to watch – to make sure that each child is getting the care they need while also being able to protect and encourage adequate naps.

And because these daycare providers have cared for so many babies, many of them are experts at behavioral sleep training techniques. They may even have an easier time getting your child to nap. These are the kinds of daycare providers you want to find and use.

Talk to Your Childcare Provider about Feeding Schedules

Why would you want to talk to your childcare provider about feeding schedules while you’re sleep training? Well, when a baby eats is a big factor in when they sleep.

When babies sleep, they aren’t just dreaming. They’re also digesting food. So babies that have gotten all of their food and nutrition during daytime hours are far more likely to be able to sleep all night.

On the other hand, a baby who hasn’t eaten enough during the day will be waking up at night to make up caloric requirements.

So talk to your daycare provider. See what the feeding schedule will be like for your child. Let them know what has (or hasn’t) worked at home. Definitely let them know if your baby has any food allergies.

Then regularly follow up to see how your baby is actually eating while at daycare. Because that’s going to affect how well sleep training goes.

Where Will Your Baby Nap at Daycare?

Some babies are able to nap anywhere. Others require a consistent and familiar place to sleep. And other babies just won’t nap at daycare no matter what happens.

That’s why it’s important to know where your baby will nap while at daycare. And why it’s important to share nap insights with your daycare provider.

Example: the friends who watched my boys didn’t have cribs. My boys also don’t nap well except at home in their own cribs. So they often fell asleep on beds, in car seats, or even on floors – but only once they were beyond exhausted from playing.

I knew my boys wouldn’t nap well no matter where they slept. So we didn’t much worry about it – and I made other plans that fit with our sleep training goals.

So talk to your daycare provider. Work out what you can. Then adjust your sleep training as needed to make things work.

Babies Know the Difference Between Home and Daycare

Many parents wonder about how their babies will do at daycare – and how that will affect at-home sleep and sleep training.

Well, here’s the good news: babies can usually tell the difference. They quickly learn that daycare and home are two separate environments.

There are some babies that have more difficulty figuring it out, but once a schedule has developed, almost all babies settle into things just fine.

Even my own boys were able to settle into things just fine – eventually.

Have a Daycare-Approved Sleep Training Support Plan

Now, ideally, your daycare will follow your exact sleep training plan as you’ve written it out.

But here’s the reality: we’re all humans. And even if your childcare provider does the best they can, there’s still no guarantee that your baby will sleep on demand.

So as you talk with your daycare, be open to their input. If they cannot alter their policies and schedules and they are still your top choice, consider changing your sleep training plan for while your baby is in their care.

Having two plans – one for at home and another for daycare – is totally fine. Your baby will adjust. It’s going to take about a month either way. So make a plan that’s more likely to succeed and go with that.

Know that Starting Daycare May Trigger Sleep Regressions

Next, it’s important to know that any big change can cause sleep regressions. That’s totally normal. If you’re sleep training and just starting daycare? That could trigger sleep regression. In fact, it will cause one.

On average, it takes babies (and families) about a month to adjust to daycare. That’s because it affects the whole family – and sleep. And it takes that long to adjust to the change.

So if you’re sleep training while starting daycare? Keep sleep training. That will help keep the sleep regression to its shortest possible duration while also making the adjustment easier.

Babies Adjust – Give it Time

Any change takes time. My favorite model for change says to expect 66 days to see changes that make a huge, lasting, and positive impact. In fact, it says:

  • The first 22 days are difficult and messy.
  • The next 22 days are hard but there is hope.
  • After the last 22 days, you wonder why you didn’t start earlier.

So while it does take time (66+ days, in fact!) to see a lasting change become the new reality, it’s that first few weeks that are hardest.

After extensive research and surveying families who go to daycare, the average time to things settling down is about a month.

So plan on a difficult month – and then things should settle into the new normal.

How to Help Your Baby Nap at Daycare

Whether you’re just starting daycare or just starting sleep training while at daycare, here’s a quick tip to help naps happen. It’s to make use of external sleep cues to help your baby sleep better.

External sleep associations or cues are things that remind your baby of sleep but have no negative association. They can be things like a stuffed animal, a blankie, a pacifier, or a small white noise machine that sits inside of their daycare sleeping spot.

Just make sure it’s something that your baby uses at home to help them sleep, too. That way, it’s a special sleep-triggering cue that can help at daycare. Plus, it’s something from home, so that’s extra comforting, too.

Example: my kids had a special blankie they used at naptimes. It went in their backpack, then they got it out when they were tired. That ended up being a great cue for their caregivers, because my boys fought naps tooth and nail – until they got out their blankies.

Communicate with Daycare about Sleep Regularly

While we’ve already mentioned (several times) how important it is to talk about sleep when picking a daycare, let’s state the obvious. It’s also important to talk to your daycare provider about sleep in general on a regular and ongoing basis.

So talk with them at the end of every day, week, month, or however long is needed to check-in and see how things are going. See how they’re sleeping, because that’s going to affect sleep training efforts at home.

Provide Healthy Daytime Daycare Snacks

While providing sugary treats (that you know your kids will eat) at daycare is tempting. However, make sure you’re providing a good variety of healthy snacks, depending on your child’s ability to eat solid foods.

After all, if they’re 100% bottle-fed or breastfeeding, they’re just going to be drinking milk. But if they also eat some solid foods? Make sure to provide a balanced variety of proteins, fats, fruits, and vegetables.

Doing so won’t just help your child eat better; it will also help them sleep better. Children who’ve gotten adequate nutrition during the day sleep better at night – and that’s going to make sleep training (both at home and at daycare) go that much more smoothly.

Get Updates on Feeding Schedules

So as you check in with your baby’s daycare provider each day, ask about their diet, too. Ask what they ate, how much they ate, and if any new feeding trends have emerged.

Because if you can keep an eye on feeding schedules, that’s going to directly impact how nights go.

For example, my oldest boy would not eat any foods my daycare provider gave him that weren’t from a lunchbox he recognized as ours. And even then, he wouldn’t eat much of his provided snacks – despite being there all day.

And if your baby isn’t eating enough during the day? You’re going to want to know – because that’s going to cause some reverse cycling.

Know the Dangers of Reverse Cycling

Reverse cycling happens when your baby doesn’t eat enough during the day (like at daycare). Because they didn’t get enough to eat, they wake up more at night. That’s going to throw a massive wrench in any sleep training efforts.

However, your baby has to get enough food. So here’s where there’s some bad news. If your baby can’t adjust to eating during the day, you’re going to be stuck reverse cycling for quite some time – however long it takes for them to adjust.

My oldest boy was never able to adjust to eating better during the days I worked, at least until he weaned. So until he was about one, any time I worked I just expected to spend the next few nights recovering from another reverse cycle.

Now, my son was an extreme case – it turned out he has some extreme food allergies and aversions. Most babies will learn to adjust much sooner.

Limit Change While Adjusting to New Schedules

While you’re sleep training, you want to limit any extra changes. And if you’re adding in daycare? That’s plenty of change. Until things settle down, don’t feel bad cutting other things out for the time being.

Don’t feel bad saying no to meeting up with friends or family. Let them know that you’re in an extreme period of adjustment – and that it’ll last about a month.

Limiting any extra scheduling changes will help keep the disruption to about that month – and help everyone get back to sleeping better sooner.

Talk to Your Kids about What to Expect at Daycare

While young babies may not understand everything you say, they do comprehend an awful lot. So go ahead and explain, in a very calm and reassuring tone, what they can expect at daycare.

In fact, talk to them before (and after) daycare every day. That way, it’s an extra moment together that also builds their confidence. Then, as they start talking, it should be a smooth transition to asking them what they did that day.

It always cracks me up when I ask my kids what they did that day at daycare – and I mentally keep track of how closely it matches what the childcare provider says happened.

That way, we can have a fun chat, and I can keep my husband up to date on what’s going on, and we can have a good laugh about how kids and adults describe things differently.

Expect Exhausted Kids After Daycare

After you pick up your kiddo from daycare, expect them to be exhausted. After all, they just had a full day of kid’s work (playing). It’s only natural that they’d be exhausted.

Give them extra snuggles to give them the emotional support they need while exhausted. Then, make sure you use sleep training and a regular routine to help them get the sleep they need.

Know that Sleep Plans Fail: Not Every Child Naps at Daycare

No matter how many amazing plans you make, some of them may fail. Sometimes, your baby won’t nap long enough at daycare. Other days your baby won’t nap well enough. And other times, your baby will have a rough day and won’t nap at all.

In some worst-case scenarios, your baby may even go several days (or longer) without adequate naps while at daycare. In these cases, it’s going to vital that you have an after-daycare recovery plan.

Have an After-Daycare Recovery Plan

Some days both sleep training and daycare will go well. Other times, only one will go well. And some days will be rough – neither sleep training nor daycare will go well.

The key to rough days at daycare is having an after-daycare recovery plan – while staying flexible. After doing a ton of research and talking to other parents, here are the most commonly used after-daycare recovery plans.

  • Move bedtimes up by 15-30 minutes for exhausted babies after a long day at daycare.
  • Let your baby nap for a bit (30-60 minutes) after daycare. Then, wake the baby up for some family time, dinner time, and snuggles before a regular bedtime.
  • If you have a long enough drive between daycare and home, let your baby take a short nap. Some parents then transfer their baby to their bed for a slightly longer nap. Then, depending on how long the nap was, adjust bedtime as needed.

In some cases, having just the after-daycare recovery plan is enough. But if it isn’t, read this next step.

Build a Sleep Schedule for the Family Based on the Day

Sometimes what works best is creating a family schedule that’s based on what day it is. This may especially be the case if your baby isn’t able to get adequate sleep at daycare.

Here’s the gist of how this might work.

  • On workdays, your baby may either need an after-daycare nap or early bedtime.
  • On days off (or weekends), plan on focusing on naps so that your family can enjoy some quality time together before a regular bedtime.
  • If everyone is exhausted enough, have a few weekends where you go to bed early and focus on sleep training so that you can get back to normal ASAP.

Here’s how we did things: on days I worked, my son didn’t nap well at daycare so he got an early bedtime. On days I had off, we focused on long naps to make up the sleep debt acquired at daycare. Then we could spend time together before a normal bedtime.

Now, count on it taking some time to figure things out. Ideally, you’ll be able to get this all sorted out during that first, most difficult month. In some cases, it may take longer. If it does, don’t feel bad. It took me a while to figure things out, too.

Spend Extra Time Cuddling after Daycare

Being away from each other is hard. So when you pick up your baby from daycare, spend some extra time cuddling. This isn’t just to make up for time apart, though.

It’s also to make sure that your baby is getting the cuddles they need during the daytime so that they can focus on sleep at night.

That’s right: babies need cuddles just as much as they do food or anything else. So if they aren’t getting enough daytime cuddles, they’re going to need nighttime cuddles.

So after daycare, cuddle your baby. It’s a legitimate part of sleep training!

Be Prepared, Be Flexible, Be Calm

Finally, it’s important to be calm, prepared, and flexible. Sleep training is a lot of hard work. But when you’re prepared, you’re better able to make changes as needed. And it gives you a sense of calm.

And when you’re calm, there’s a twofold benefit. The first is that your baby will pick up on your mood, and they’ll be calmer, too. The second is that you’ll be able to handle whatever tricks sleep training and daycare try to throw at you.

Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too. To read more about me, click here.

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