Sleep Training and Going Back To Work: 25 Things to Know


Going back to work after having a baby isn’t easy. Then you realize that this change in schedule may mess with all of your careful sleep training plans – and you wonder what you can do.

Sleep training while going back to work can be managed with careful planning, support, and by being adaptable where it matters. It’s also important to communicate openly with employers and daycare providers to plan for every possibility before you actually return to work.

That being said, there’s still an awful lot to know about sleep training and going back to work if we’re going to help calm those nerves. So here are 25 things to know for sleep training and going back to work.

Sleep Training and Going Back to Work is a Common Concern

When you’re going back to work, it’s completely understandable that you worry about all the things, including sleep training. Sleep is hugely important to our health, well-being, and ability to function.

So not only do you need to get sleep, but you also want your baby to get enough sleep. Ideally, you also want your baby to stay on track with sleep training even while at daycare. Because the idea of starting over is, well, depressing.

So know that your fears and concerns are not only 100% valid, they’re also shared by every other parent who’s going back to work and has thought about sleep training.

The fact that you’re worried about this isn’t at all weird or abnormal. And the fact that you’re looking for ideas and reading this shows that you’re trying to make sure that both you and your baby have a positive back-to-work experience – even while sleep training.

And just to help allay some of the other common fears when going back to work, let’s answer them briefly right now.

Do Babies Suffer When Mothers Return to Work?

Studies show that babies do not suffer; in fact, studies show that in many instances it has a net positive impact on the whole family, particularly in low-income families.

One study in particular (click here to access the abstract) was particularly reassuring. It concluded that mom going back to work had a positive impact on children’s learning, education, and socialization while also benefiting the family finances.

Will Lack of Sleep Affect Baby’s Development?

Yes, a lack of sleep will affect your baby. Lack of sleep affects any and every human’s cognition, development, coordination, and ability to process data and emotions.

Lack of sleep is a big deal. Studies repeatedly show that sleep deprivation is unhealthy, problematic, and dangerous to our health. Sleep-deprived babies aren’t just cranky; they’re desperately in need of sleep so that they can get back to functioning and growing.

How Can I Help My Baby with Sleep Deprivation?

Overtired babies have a harder time sleeping. Behavioral sleep training helps babies get past that normal block so that they can overcome that sleep debt.

In other words, sleep training will help both of you recover from being overtired (or exhausted) and get better sleep – both quantity and quality.

How Long Sleep Training Usually Takes When Going Back to Work

In general, sleep training usually takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks to see success. When you’re going back to work, sleep training during the transition may take anywhere from 2-8 weeks.

This is because going back to work is a huge scheduling and family transition. Your baby isn’t used to this. You aren’t used to this. And all of that stress and anxiety is going to make for a longer transition.

The thing is, that’s totally normal. After extensive research and surveying parents who did go back to work, it takes an average of about 4-6 weeks to sleep train. This was from start to finish – and often included removal of some negative sleep association.

This timeline also covers both those who started practicing before going back to work – and those who chose to wait until actually going back to work to sleep train. Hence the range.

But those parents who researched and started practicing beforehand usually saw everything settle into a sustainable (and awesome) schedule faster than those who didn’t.

What to Do for Infants too Young for “Official” Sleep Training

Now, not every infant is old enough to “officially” sleep train when it’s time for you to go back to work. Given current laws, individual financial situations, and everything else, that’s just the current normal.

So if your baby isn’t at least 4-6 months old when you’re going back to work, you may feel as if you’re in a tough spot. And while you can’t officially sleep train your baby yet, there’s still hope.

You see, even though a baby can’t really sleep train until their brains have developed enough to settle into a more adult sleep pattern (and this happens at around 4-6 months of age), they can still practice good sleeping habits.

In other words, start using a schedule with your baby – from the moment they’re born. Sure, it’s not actual sleep training. But it’s like a sleep training practice.

Not only will this help your baby get into the rhythm of sleeping better, but it’ll also help everyone slide into better sleep habits faster. Parents who started practicing good sleep hygiene (as taught by behavioral sleep training) often report that they don’t need to use actual sleep training.

And in these cases, they also discover that their baby may be sleeping through the night even before they’re 4 months old.

Example: my sister-in-law practiced good sleep hygiene habits with her children starting when they were born. Her youngest was sleeping through the night by 2 months of age.

So even if you can’t officially sleep train, keep learning, reading, and implementing. It’ll make things so much easier.

Pick a Sleep Training Method that Jives with Your Style

As you’re getting ready to head back to work, make sure that you pick a sleep training method that jives with both your parenting style – and your work schedule.

Ideally, that means starting your research earlier so that you’ve got time to let the sleep training work.

However, sometimes you’re going back to work soon – and you need a sleep training method that promises quick results. In that kind of a scenario, a controlled crying (with or without timed fading) may be your best bet. It’s what’s most commonly used by parents on a tight back-to-work deadline.

But if you do have at least a few weeks before you go back to work, make sure you check out all of the behavioral-based sleep training methods. Pick the one that appeals most to your parenting style. And then go for it.

Prepare for Sleep Training Before Going Back to Work

Once you’ve got your sleep training method picked out, it’s time to make sure that you’re all set to implement sleep training.

In other words, it’s time to get everything set up for how it’s going to be while sleep training. Here’s what getting set for sleep training looked like for us:

  1. Set up the crib in the baby’s bedroom, if it isn’t already. Make sure it’s safe and age-appropriate for your baby.
  2. Temporarily move any older siblings into a separate room – or prepare them to deal with any nighttime screaming.
  3. Make sure any blackout blinds (if any) are properly installed.
  4. Test the white noise machine to make sure it works.
  5. Make sure any lights, fans, or any other alarm clocks work.
  6. Buy yourself a treat or do something to mentally prepare yourself. Sleep training is coming!

If you’d like to check out the products I’ve used and love, you can check out my recommended resources and gear right here.

Start to Sleep Train Before Going Back to Work

Now it’s time to actually start sleep training! But here’s the thing: things work better if you start sleep training before you go back to work. Why?

It helps set up the schedule for success.

If you wait until you’re actually going back to work, it’s a lot easier to get overwhelmed. Trust me!

Instead, make a mental note (and put it in your plan) to start sleep training first. Then, when you go back to work, it’ll be a whole lot easier.

Start Official Sleep Training on a Friday

Schedule sleep training to start on a Friday. That way, you have a weekend at home before you have to be anywhere the following week. Or, if you can, schedule sleep training to start over a long weekend or a week’s staycation.

That way, if things don’t go as well as you hope they do (and it probably won’t), you’ve got some built-in recovery time over the weekend. You and your partner can alternate naps all weekend so that you can both be well-rested when work resumes.

Or, if you haven’t gone back to work just yet, then still plan on starting on a Friday. That way, you’ve got your partner home with you for moral support.

Having that support – and a weekend to adjust – seriously makes all of the difference.

Expect the First Month Back to Work to Be Difficult and Exhausting

As you go back to work, keep in mind that even with preparatory sleep training, things are going to be exhausting. The new schedule, work demands, and a tired baby trying to adjust to daycare – it’s going to leave everyone overwhelmed.

So make plans for that whole first month back at work to be stressful. Do what you can to make things less stressful. Here are some examples and advice I’ve gotten (from research and talking to other parents):

  • If you can make some freezer meals beforehand, do it.
  • Don’t be afraid to get takeout when everything goes south.
  • Early bedtimes will be everyone’s best friend.
  • Don’t take on any new projects during the first month.
  • Wait to start any DIY or remodeling projects.
  • Ask for help – from friends and family.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no to social engagements for the time being.

Stick to the Schedule

Once your back-to-work sleep training schedule has been made, it’s going to take time for it to work. So give it the time it needs to succeed.

On average, it’s going to take 4-6 weeks of dedicated consistency to see reliable results – and to see everyone getting enough sleep.

Stick to it. You can do this.

Have Your Pediatrician on Speed Dial

It’s always important to make sure that your pediatrician is on board with sleep training. And when you’re going back, it’s doubly important.

First off, they help make sure that there are no underlying medical conditions that would make sleep training crazy hard. Sleep training a healthy baby can be hard enough. Adding in common baby concerns like reflux, colic, and teething can make things harder.

Your pediatrician can give you important tips to keep sleep training – while still making things easier.

Example: babies with reflux need to be kept upright longer after eating. Dream feeding them may not work well, if at all. But they may do better with a medicine that treats reflux.

Then, if sleep training hits any snags, your doctor can help see if something like an ear infection (or an incoming tooth) is the culprit. If it is, be sure to ask them for the age and weight-appropriate dosage of pain medicine for your baby.

Babies Can Tell the Difference Between Home and Daycare

It’s common to worry that the different schedule at daycare will cause schedule confusion for your baby. That worry exists because it does happen – for a very small percentage of children.

Most babies, however, are able to separate the two. They know that what happens at daycare is usual for daycare; and that what happens at home is for at home.

Now, it’ll take them some time to make that separation and adjust to everything in general. On average, it takes about a month. But once that month has passed, things generally settle down and become much more bearable.

Pick a Daycare Partner You Trust

When you’re headed back to work, it’s important to pick a daycare provider who’s also your partner. After all, they’re going to be watching your child for a good-sized portion of the day!

So as you screen the various daycare providers, make sure you talk to them about all aspects of the daycare, including sleep. That way, you can discover issues before you’ve enrolled your child – so that you can keep looking.

Also, keep in mind that even after you’ve started daycare, should you ever feel like something’s not right, it’s okay to pull your child out. Go find a better daycare fit.

Know Your Daycare’s Sleep Policies

As you’re vetting potential daycares, talk to them about their sleep policies. Some daycares have set nap schedules. Others will accommodate your child’s nap schedule, whatever it may be. It’s going to depend on the daycare and its policies. So ask about them.

Then, ask what their policies are for getting babies to sleep. Some daycares are able to rock babies to sleep. Others have a time limit on nap attempts.

There is enough to know about daycare that it’s a whole other topic – and you can read that article I wrote right here (coming soon).

Communicate about Sleep Training with Daycare

You want your childcare provider to be a partner in regards to taking care of your children. For example, you want them to be on board with your existing sleep training plan – and your baby’s sleep schedule.

But the only way that’ll happen is with regular and consistent communication. So even after you’ve picked your daycare, make sure that you’re talking to them and getting updates about how everything is going – including anything related to sleep.

Never Change the Sleep Training Plan after 9 PM

When you’re exhausted, you’re a lot more likely to cave. (At least, I am.) That’s why we created a rule: no changing the sleep training plan after 9 PM.

That way, when the baby screams at 3 AM you don’t wonder if you ought to cave and go snuggle the baby on the couch. You refer to your pre-written sleep training plan and you follow it.

Just make sure your plan accounts for surprise events, like an ear infection. Because in that scenario, taking the baby to go snuggle on the couch might end up being the best thing you could do.

Tag Team Nights with Your Partner or Spouse

Getting up with the baby every night is beyond exhausting and completely unrealistic – especially if you have work the next morning. So talk to your spouse or partner – and come up with some kind of plan to tag-team it.

Maybe that means he takes care of any comforting the baby when they’re crying (and it’s not a set feeding time). Or maybe that means your partner gets up, too, to make sure that the baby doesn’t need a diaper change. Perhaps it means having assigned nights to get up and bottlefeed the baby.

However you do it, find a way to make things equitable and sustainable. Then plan on spending the weekend at home, taking turns taking naps.

Have a Daytime Feeding Schedule to Make Nights Easier

One major reason babies get up a lot at night (and then require sleep training) is because they’re trying to eat enough to get their daily caloric intake.

Create a daytime feeding schedule and plan to encourage your baby to get all of their nutrition during daytime hours. This way, your baby will be far more likely to sleep through the night.

Just be sure to talk to your daycare provider. Let them know that the feeding schedule is vital to their sleep training success. Odds are, they’ll be more than happy to accommodate you when they can.

Have a Nighttime Feeding Plan

On the flip side, make sure you’ve also got a nighttime feeding plan. It’s a lot harder to keep track of your baby’s caloric needs when you’ve just been woken up and it’s 3:16 in the morning.

So make a plan and stick to it. As your baby is growing, know that it’s just fine to adjust the plan. Because as babies eat more solid foods, they’ll be able to go longer stretches at night without eating – and it’ll take them longer to digest those foods.

Example: our nighttime feeding plan had set feeding times, depending on the baby’s age and if I worked that day. Usually, those times were cluster feeds before bed, after 2 AM, and 5 AM.

Know that Reverse Cycling May Affect Your Sleep Training Plan

Some babies have a difficult time eating at daycare. Our oldest son still doesn’t eat well if he’s not at home. And as a baby, he drank the bare minimum out of a bottle to stay hydrated. He simply did not like to take bottles.

Then he spent all night nursing and snuggling, trying to make up the calories he didn’t eat during the day.

This is known as reverse cycling. It’s especially common at around 4-5 months of age – and when moms return to work.

Reverse cycling: when a breastfed baby doesn’t eat enough except when their mother is at home to nurse them. Working moms with babies who are in a reverse cycle will often spend the majority of the night nursing their baby.

Reverse cycling is hard to deal with because the only real way to manage it is to wait it out and let your baby nurse on demand.

In our case, our son wouldn’t take bottles – no matter what. And every time I went to work, I knew to expect a few rough nights afterward. Things improved dramatically once he learned to drink out of a sippy cup. But he only completely grew out of it once he weaned.

Other babies grow out of it much easier and faster. Just keep up on regular sleep training and offering bottles and sippy cups to help it happen sooner.

Become Your Child’s Sleep Expert

As you’re going back to work, that first month will be rough. And in order to navigate all of the changes, it’s vital that you become your baby’s advocate in all things – and especially in regards to sleep.

Now, there’s a few ways you can become your child’s resident sleep expert.

No matter which option you pick, though, you’ll want to read and learn everything you can about babies, sleep training, and sleep regressions. Then, you’ll learn more by experience and practice – with your own children.

So here are your options for helping you get to sleep expert status:

  • Do it all on your own.
  • Talk to other parents for ideas and insights. Just remember that they’re the experts for their children – and you’ll be the expert for yours.
  • Consider hiring a baby sleep consultant or coach to give you insights and ideas.

You can also mix and match options if that’s more your style. In any case, you’re already on your way there just by reading this article.

Allow Everyone Time to Adjust to Change

Change takes time to happen.

After extensive research on change (and how long it takes), I’ve found one model that’s really rung true. It’s this:

  • The first 22 days are strenuously difficult.
  • The next 22 days are just plain hard, but there’s hope.
  • After the last 22 days, it’s glorious and life-changing.

In other words, lasting change takes 66 days or more. It’s the first 3-4 weeks of that change, though, that is the hardest. Once you get through that, there’s hope.

So give everyone time to change while you’re both sleep training and going back to work. Things will improve – but it’s going to take a few weeks.

Talk to Your Employer about Pumping at Work

As you’re sleep training and going back to work, make sure you talk to your employer – especially if you’re pumping. Your employer is required to provide you with regular breaks and a safe, private environment in which to pump. Now, even if you aren’t pumping, still talk to your employer or manager.

An open dialogue always helps, especially as you’re still sleep deprived while sleep training. And who knows? Maybe they’ll have some ideas or insights that either help at home (with sleep training) or for while you’re at work.

Or maybe they’ll be able to make your transition back to work easier by offering a flexible schedule.

Be Flexible When Everyone’s Exhausted After a Long Day

Working all day is exhausting, both mentally and physically. That’s totally normal.

For children, play is their work. And what did they do at daycare? They played and learned and did all sorts of fun stuff that’s their version of work. They’re exhausted, too.

So be flexible, especially if naps didn’t go as planned that day.

In that case, you may also want to consider being flexible on bedtimes – and move it up to make up for the loss of sleep during the naptime that didn’t happen.

Or perhaps it means letting your baby fall asleep for a short nap – either on the ride home or once you get home. Then, go ahead and wake them up for a little bit of dinner, abbreviated family time, and snuggles before the usual bedtime routine.

Create Alternate Schedules for Days Off

If your baby has a difficult time sleeping at daycare, you may want to be so flexible as to create alternate schedules for days off.

For example, on days you’re at work, bedtime may be on the earlier end of things. Then on weekends (when the baby will actually nap), plan longer nap times and a normal-to-later bedtime.

Doing this is totally fine – especially if it works. Go ahead and experiment with things. That’s what your first-rough-month back at work is for – to find a sustainable schedule that’s right for your family.

Example: On days I worked day shift, my son was in bed early, usually before I got home. The next day, I would put him down for earlier (and longer) naps. And then bedtime would be on time. This worked really well for us.

Use External Sleep Associations to Help Everyone Sleep Better

Finally, use external sleep associations to help promote healthy, restful sleep. Because they are external (they don’t require another person present), they don’t have any negative outcomes on sleep.

So plug that white noise machine in and use it. Install some blackout curtains that can be used at nap time. And let your baby have an age-appropriate stuffed animal or blankie that they can hug and love.

If you’d like to see the white noise machines that we’ve used and love, you can check them out right here.

Then make sure you’ve got any external sleep associations for yourself – well, the blackout curtains and white noise machine, anyway. Although if you’d like your own teddy bear, too, then go for it.

The point is, do what helps everyone get a better night’s sleep. That way, everyone can do better tomorrow at daycare and at work. And really, that’s the trick to sleep training and going back to work.

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.

Recent Content