If you are sending your infant to daycare for the first time, you probably have a lot of questions—maybe some fear or worry too, (which is completely normal!) about how they’ll be able to sleep in a new environment.
We asked pediatric sleep expert Shannon Parker, the best ways to prepare your baby to get excellent sleep at daycare. Here are her pro tips.
The Difference Between Newborn and Infant Sleep
Newborns notoriously sleep anywhere and everywhere. Then there’s that magic transition when your baby “wakes up” and no longer happily falls asleep, but rather needs rocking, soothing, sound, or sucking to properly get to sleep. Why is this? And how does it relate to infant sleep at daycare?
When a baby is in the newborn stage (0-2 months, give or take) they have two sleep cycles—they go between REM sleep to non-REM sleep, back and forth. It’s why in the newborn phase they can more easily sleep through noise or movement—it’s easier for them to fall into a deeper sleep quickly. It’s also easier for them to move between those two cycles.
Somewhere between two and six months, babies go through a big sleep development where they now have five distinct sleep cycles (the same as adults). They develop lighter sleep cycles, like when they are dozing off. Just like adults, these lighter sleep cycles can make it difficult to fall asleep quickly.
Many babies are rocked, held, or nursed through that first sleep cycle and laid down in their bed only when they’ve fallen into a deeper sleep. While this is helpful for the moment (less crying perhaps?) they usually wake up and realize they aren’t being rocked, held or nursed anymore. They won’t be able to get to that deeper sleep cycle on their own because they haven't had the practice.
When infants transition to daycare, there may be noises (like a nearby friend who wakes from their nap) that interrupt deep sleep throughout their daytime naps. It’s important to help your infant practice falling asleep through these lighter sleep cycles at home, so that they can do it at daycare as well.
Ways to Set Your Infant Up for Great Sleep at Daycare
1. Get Them to Sleep Independently at Home
The best way to help ensure your child will sleep well at daycare is if they can sleep independently at home.
Independent sleep means falling asleep on their own without any sleep crutches. It’s not going to happen overnight (for most babies).
While your baby may not fall asleep on their own immediately, you can practice independent sleep at home, and encourage your daycare teachers to help them fall asleep at daycare as well. Here are a few ways to help them get to independent sleep.
Set up a clear routine. You may think infants don’t notice, but they do. If you can set up a simple pre-sleep routine and follow it every time you put them down to sleep, they’ll start to understand what’s next. The routine can be as simple as this: diaper change, sleep sack, sing, sound machine.
Give them white noise. To make sure they aren’t woken up by the doorbell or a dog bark, set them up with some white noise in their room. Don’t be afraid to turn the volume of the sound machine up. This can help cancel out other noises and give them a sleep cue when you turn it on.
Switch who puts them down. Yes, routine is key, but some variation in routine is also important. At daycare there will likely be many different people who help put your child to sleep. Give your baby a bit of practice at home by enlisting other adults to put down for naps. Ask a grandparent, babysitter, an aunt, or uncle.
Shannon says, “You want to practice any sleep transitions (like changing your pre-nap routine or moving from three naps to two) at home where you have a control situation. Set them up at home and communicate what’s working with their daycare teachers. Having a solid foundation at home will help them transition to daycare, they may be more flexible with new people putting them down, or a slight change in their routine.”
2. Give Them a Familiar Setup
If you can give your baby a similar sleep environment every time you put them down for a nap, there’s a higher likelihood of them falling asleep independently. The routine and familiarity will help them accept that it’s time for sleep.
Here are some ways you can match the daycare sleep environment with what you have set up at home.
Give them the same textures. If your child naps with a sleep sack, buy two. Use one at home and send the other one to daycare. By feeling the exact same texture, there will be no confusion for your baby about what comes after you put it on them—sleep! You can do the same thing for a crib sheet.
Send a friend. While babies younger than 12 months shouldn’t have anything else in their crib (no blankets, loveys, or other objects) you can introduce a lovey to them while they are getting tired. By letting them give a hug or a face nuzzle to a lovey, this can be another cue for what will happen next—we say goodnight lovey, then we get in our bed, and then sleep.
Make it sound the same. Many daycares use sound machines to create a soothing atmosphere for sleep. But they may not use the same sounds you do at home. You can either ask what sounds your daycare uses and match that with what you use at home. Or you can buy a small, portable sound machine to hang on their crib at home and at daycare, so they will hear the same comforting sound in both places.
Shannon says, “Sending items that are familiar to your child is a great way for parents to feel like they have some control over their child’s sleep habits when they can't be with them. This familiarity can help your child feel safe and comfortable, which are necessary for them to fall asleep and stay asleep.”
3. Don’t Send Any Sleep Crutches
Did you notice that a pacifier wasn’t on the list above of comforting sleep items? A pacifier is a great tool to soothe and calm your baby. But if your baby uses a pacifier to fall asleep and they wake up when the pacifier falls out, it's probably not a helpful tool. When pacifiers are used to help babies fall asleep, they can quickly become a crutch and hinder quality sleep.
A sleep crutch is anything that your baby relies on to fall asleep. Common sleep crutches are motion and sucking, these might look like rocking or bouncing, using a pacifier or nursing to sleep. When a baby is completely reliant on a sleep crutch, they won’t be able to put themselves back to sleep when they wake up in the night. They may also have very short naps and become overtired because they are roused to a lighter sleep cycle and can’t get back to deeper sleep on their own.
If you are using any sleep crutches, try and ween your child from them before starting daycare. While daycare teachers may be able to use some sleep crutches (like a pacifier) on occasion, it’s not reliable. They may not be able to rock your baby to sleep and they definitely won’t be able to nurse your baby to sleep.
Shannon says, “Once babies are around eight months old, they develop the ability to grab a pacifier and put it back in their mouth on their own. You can work on that skill during the daytime. If they can reliably use a pacifier to help themselves back to sleep, you may want to start sending a pacifier as their support item."
How to Deal with Infant Sleep Issues at Daycare
Some signs that your infant isn’t getting quality sleep or enough sleep at daycare include waking up after 30 mins, not transferring to the crib, becoming overtired, and inconsolable fussiness.
Practice! The number one thing you can do is practice great sleep hygiene at home. Follow the tips above to help get your infant moving toward independent sleep. It may require blocking off a three-day weekend to focus on naps. Putting in consistent effort will pay off.
Shannon says, “It can take three to five days to see any type of change. It’s so important to stick with your plan for at least that long. If you get to day five and it’s clearly not working—you see absolutely no progress—only then should you take a step back and re-evaluate.”
Communicate! Start a dialogue with your daycare teachers and the daycare staff. Hopefully they have infant experience. They may be seeing patterns or issues that you don’t see at home. Communicate what’s working at home and ask what they can do to match your baby’s home routine.
Get help! There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. Hire a sleep consultant. They will help you devise a plan to meet your sleep goals – whether that’s independent sleep, weening from a sleep crutch, or simply helping your baby be less fussy during the day. By hiring an expert, you’ll have someone in your corner, giving you the confidence and the knowledge to help your family meet your goals.