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Daycare & Baby Sleep

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Cara Dumaplin

babies playing with blocks at daycare

Parents, whether working inside or outside of the home, all have challenges with baby sleep. However, some unique questions and situations come up specifically for those who have babies at daycare. I'd love to talk through a few common questions with you.

Can we still have a great little sleeper if our baby needs to be at daycare?

YES! We have so many daycare babies with parents on the Taking Cara Babies team and in our community who have successful nights even with irregular nap schedules at daycare.

With all of my classes, it is just fine to focus on nights at home. When babies are older than 5 months, some families do choose to do nap training for their babies who attend daycare. I talk all about this in my class on Conquering Naps.

Why won’t daycare use swaddles, white noise, a pitch dark room, etc?

Let’s consider why those regulations or limitations might exist at daycare. In a daycare environment, safety is the top priority, and daycare teachers have to consider not just the safety of one child but of several babies at different stages with different physical and developmental needs.

Infant daycare teachers are trained to watch the rise and fall that indicates breathing, to listen for certain indicators that might indicate distress, and to regularly check on sleeping babies. This requires that babies are never in a completely dark environment (use code Cara for 10% off) and, in many cases, without sound machines that can be so soothing to babies.

For swaddling to be safe, we need to know the physical skills of each individual baby. This may not be possible in a daycare environment, and many babies begin their time in daycare around the same age we typically see those signs of rolling. To keep all babies as safe as possible, a universal no-swaddling policy makes sense.

How can I help my baby sleep at daycare?

This is something daycares must address every day with every baby in the infant room. Out of necessity, daycare teachers find ways to help babies sleep the best they can without the use of these tools. It may not always look the same as sleep at home, but that’s okay. Teachers in the infant and toddler rooms are often AMAZING at helping with sleep, and your baby may just shock you with his ability to adapt.

Try my daycare printable as an easy way to communicate your baby’s daily needs and preferences with your baby’s teachers. (Get the digital version of the daycare download here.)

If your baby has consistent nap struggles at daycare, here are a few ideas that you can discuss with your child’s teacher:

  • For younger babies with a still-strong Moro reflex, a swaddle transition like Swaddle Sleeves Sack (CARA10 saves you 10%) or Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit may be worth considering.

  • Offer to bring a sleep sack from home.

  • For babies who are easily awoken by other noises in the classroom, ask your baby’s teacher about bringing a portable sound machine to keep by your little one’s crib.

  • Ask if it’s possible for your baby’s crib to be as far away from any commotion as possible.

  • Be patient. It can take time for babies to adjust to napping in a new environment.

Please note: For some daycares, these simply aren’t options because of legal regulations, daycare policies, or individual baby considerations.

How can we see sleep progress if daycare doesn’t follow the Taking Cara Babies strategies or plan we use at home? Won’t this destroy our efforts to teach our baby how to sleep?

To put it simply: this won’t likely cause any problems.

Babies can usually tell the difference between sleeping at daycare vs. sleeping at home. Try not to stress about what happens during the day at daycare, and continue to use the same tools and techniques you’ve learned from my classes when you have your little one with you at night. That sleep progress will come.

Parents who have a great little sleeper after taking the ABCs of Sleep often fear the strategies that daycare uses for naps will destroy the success they saw with sleep training. Let me assure you: this is rarely a concern.

If sleep is rough, please know my class The 5–24 Month Collection: Everything You Need for Great Sleep has been successful with so many daycare families (including several on the Taking Cara Babies team). Sometimes, daycare families have to be flexible with bedtime, but daycare naps seldom prevent great nights.

How do I handle the car ride home? Should I try to keep my baby awake?

If you can easily keep your baby awake in the car, do it! If your baby is tired when you arrive at home, aim for an early bedtime instead of offering a catnap. Night sleep is more restorative than day sleep, so that early bedtime would be my first recommendation.

If your baby is exhausted after daycare and your drive is longer than a few minutes, keeping your baby awake may be a virtual impossibility. Please hear me: A catnap on the drive home is unlikely to keep you from great nights. Simply make sure to wake your baby when you arrive at home and get some quality awake time between that catnap and bedtime. In fact, this short nap can make life easier by helping an overtired baby get to bedtime without a complete meltdown.

Sometimes, daycare sleep CAN impact nights. We find these are the most common reasons:

Reason #1 - Baby is in a constant pattern of significant sleep debt from daycare.

Daycare sleepers typically become the best nappers ... eventually. But at first, some babies get hours less daytime sleep than we would want when they’re at daycare. An overtired baby may sleep poorly at night, which can result in nap struggles again the next day. This cycle can feel so defeating for both parents and daycare teachers.

Here are two ways to help:

  • Early bedtime: Because night sleep is more restorative than day sleep, an early bedtime is the best way to help an overtired baby. I know it can be tempting to offer a catnap when you get home from daycare, but this will push bedtime later. Instead, forgo the catnap and offer a bedtime as early as 6pm. (For babies 5 months and younger, we may need to offer both the catnap and the early bedtime.)

  • Share with your daycare teacher about strategies that help your baby to nap well at home (your nap time routine, wake windows, environment, etc.). Be assured: your teacher wants your baby to get good naps too!

Reason #2 - Baby is sleeping too much at daycare.

A baby who sleeps too much during the day won’t sleep well at night. Most of his sleep needs have already been met, and he will be hungry for the calories he missed during the day. This is what we call reverse cycling.

The best way to deal with this? Talk to your daycare teacher! Discuss your concerns about reverse cycling, calorie needs, and the need for stimulating awake times during the day. Share the feeding and wake window routines that seem to work best with your baby at home. You can use my daycare printable to help! (Get the digital version of the daycare download here.) In some cases, a note from your doctor with a similar message can be helpful as well.

Reason #3 - Baby was transitioned to one nap too early.

Transitioning to one nap before a baby is ready can cause real sleep struggles. Now, daycares do a really great job of helping this at school with all of the activity that happens during awake times. Many babies who wouldn’t be ready at home for a one-nap schedule actually do just fine at daycare. However, this can still cause some struggles at night.

If your little one is struggling during this transition, here are ways we can help:

  • Early bedtime: This is always my first suggestion because it typically makes the biggest difference. Offer a bedtime as early as 6pm. I know this doesn’t feel ideal for many families, but often the choice is to offer that early bedtime or deal with rough nights and early morning wakings.

  • Ask about options at school for a cot or resting area for your little one to allow for just a tiny catnap in the morning. For babies not quite ready for the 2 to 1 transition, a midmorning catnap can make a huge difference in preventing an overtired little one.

Big things to keep in mind:

1) The RIGHT daycare is so important.

Knowing that you can trust the providers and facility where you leave your child during the day is everything. You can use my Safe Sleep Checklist to ask questions or review daycare policies.

2) Babies can thrive at daycare.

Babies can often adapt to different situations better than we ever expect. Those who are at daycare learn to sleep out of swaddles, nap in muted light, and stay on cots for naptime. They can be securely attached to their parents, and at the same time learn to trust other caring adults. Daycare can be a place where babies sleep well and truly thrive.

3) Daycare teachers are part of your team.

Teachers in the baby and toddler rooms choose to surround themselves with little children and are so gifted in loving babies well. When parents view daycare caregivers as a trusted part of their baby support team, communication is usually productive and encouraging to everyone involved.

4) Daytime sleep really is different than nighttime sleep.

Babies have all sorts of different sleep experiences at daycare; some sleeping very well and some struggling during the day. Nighttime sleep can still be successful no matter what the days look like if you have a plan you can trust and a willingness to be flexible with parts you can control.

5) There’s no reason to stop what’s working at home.

Babies are smart and can tell the difference between home and daycare. If swaddling, white noise, dark room, etc. are helping your baby girl at home, continue to use them. If your baby transitioned to one nap early at daycare, he can still take two naps on the weekends. There’s no reason to change what’s working for you at home.

As a daycare parent, you will have to celebrate the successes you do have, and let go of what you can’t control. You can have a hugely positive daycare experience even if daycare sleep isn’t exactly what you would have hoped for. You can still have a great little night sleeper even if your baby goes to daycare. It probably won’t be perfect, BUT parents who stay at home don’t get perfection either.

baby walking with Mom during awake time

How to Drop a Nap

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