Whether your child is 3 months old or 13 years old, there is always a transition period for both the child and parent when starting daycare, childcare, or a new school. Putting your trust in someone else to take care of your child is one of the hardest things we do as parents. Preparing your child for daycare, let alone sleeping at daycare is a gradual process that requires patience, consistency, understanding, and a little planning. Here are top tips to help you prepare your child for a successful naptime at daycare, prepared by Caryn Shender, pediatric sleep specialist and coach, and founder of Sleep Tight Tonight.
1. VISIT THE CHILDCARE CENTER IN ADVANCE WITH YOUR CHILD: Arrange a visit to the daycare or childcare center with your child before their official start date. This will help your child become familiar with the environment, the caregivers, and the nap area. Familiarizing them with the environment and getting them comfortable with the new surroundings can help reduce anxiety and make the experience less intimidating.
2. BRING FAMILIAR ITEMS: Another way to familiarize your child with the environment is to have familiar objects from home. Allow your child to bring a favorite comfort item from home, such as a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, and/or pacifier. Having familiar items nearby can provide a sense of security, make the unfamiliar setting feel more comforting, and make the naptime environment feel more like home.
3. COMMUNICATION: Having open communication with the daycare staff is important. Share your child's sleep schedule, preferences, and naptime routines so caregivers can try to replicate these strategies. Ask questions. Be your child’s best advocate. Talk with your child about what to expect in the days before. Use simple and age-appropriate language to explain what will happen. Talk about it a lot; share the teacher’s names, all the fun things your child will do at school, what the day will look like, etc. Read books about going to school. On the first day, use simple and age-appropriate language to explain what will happen at drop-off, during the day, and at pickup. Reassure them that you will pick them up, and be specific! (This also helps reduce separation anxiety). “It’s time for school! Mommy will pick you up after nap time! I love you so much!” Keep it brief, confident, and consistent.
4. ESTABLISH A CONSISTENT BEDTIME ROUTINE: Start at home by establishing a consistent bedtime routine. For a nap at home, do a mini version of the bedtime routine which could involve activities like reading a book and saying a goodnight phrase before naptime. By using a routine at home, your child will become accustomed to the cues that signal it's time to wind down and rest. Talk to the daycare to see if they can replicate the bedtime routine. If you don’t already have a calm, consistent routine in place, now is a great time to start.
5. FOLLOW AGE-APPROPRIATE DAYTIME WAKE WINDOWS: Day sleep impacts night sleep! Follow age-appropriate wake windows to ensure your child is getting the right amount of day sleep. If daycare can’t align with your home schedule, work on mirroring daycare’s naps and wake window timing at home. An overtired child will have fragmented sleep and struggle to fall asleep so making sure your child is on an age-appropriate daytime sleep schedule is critical. Unsure and wondering if your child is on the right schedule for their age? Check out the free Sleep Tight Tonight Sleep Chart Cheat Sheet.
6. TEACH INDEPENDENT SLEEP: Things like being able to nap in a crib is an essential skill for kids in daycare. If your child needs your assistance (relies on contact naps, needs to be rocked/touched or fed a bottle or nursed) in order to fall asleep, consider scheduling a free sleep assessment to teach your child to fall asleep without external assistance prior to their start day to make the transition easier.
7. SEPARATION ANXIETY: Separation anxiety is common and often begins when they have developed an understanding of object permanence. Gradually introduce your child to longer periods of time away from you. When dropping your child off at daycare or for periods of time at home, it is best to have a quick goodbye and not linger; say goodbye and leave. Practice giving your child some space at home. Start with bathroom breaks then build up to short playdates or visits with friends or family to help your child become more comfortable being away from you. This can help build their confidence, making the transition to daycare naptime smoother. While your child is playing, allow them the space to play independently and while they are playing allow them to see you leave. Do not sneak away as this often can increase your child’s mistrust or fear around separation. If your little one struggles with separation anxiety during daily activities or at bedtime, check out Sleep Tight Tonight’s tips on what you can do to help your little one with separation anxiety.
8. PRACTICE INDEPENDENT BEHAVIORS: Allow and encourage as much independence as possible. For babies that could be having tummy time and not constantly being held. For early toddlers, it could be sitting and eating on their own, using their fingers or utensils, or practicing putting toys away. For pre-k kiddos it is teaching potty training skills, zipping and buttoning, getting themselves dressed, opening and closing food items, etc. During reading time, limit or discourage your child from sitting on your lap while you’re reading to them to help them get used to things like circle time.
9. BOTTLE USAGE: If your child only nurses, it's important to introduce them to using a bottle so that other caregivers can feed your child. If your child is over 12 months old, start practicing with a sippy cup to transition away from bottle use.
10. POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: Offer positive reinforcement and rewards for their bravery and cooperation. You could promise a special treat as a way to motivate them and create a positive association with the experience. Building their confidence and excitement for doing a good job can encourage them to continue. Your support and reassurance can go a long way in making the experience smoother for both you and your child.
11. BE PREPARED FOR “RESTRAINT COLLAPSE” While we usually focus on the transition TO school, we can’t forget about the impact the transition may have on our child upon returning home. Once the day is over, be prepared for emotions upon coming home. When your child is at school, they (try to) hold themselves together for their teachers and classmates. When they get home, they let it all out, relax, and “fall apart” because you are their safe space. It may be hunger, exhaustion, frustration, an emotional release, etc. Give them the space they need to decompress in the car and once you’re home, spend 10-15 minutes filling their Love Bucket with dedicated, phone-free, one-on-one time with them by doing simple, calm activities together like playing, cuddling watching TV, going for a walk, getting the mail, unloading the dishwasher, etc.
12. REMIND YOURSELF: Your child will keep crying until you leave their sight. Remind yourself that your child will learn and grow in daycare and separation is good for them! It’s totally okay for you to cry when you get to your car, but do your best to stay strong and confident at drop-off. (I’m not saying to always hide your tears as it is healthy for children to see emotion, however, your confidence is contagious and they’ll feel safer if you exude safety and confidence.) Be patient. Stay confident, calm, and consistent. Give it time. This is an adjustment period and once your child feels safe and comfortable, they will likely nap. If your child doesn’t nap right away, keep offering a nap and remain consistent. Adjust bedtime earlier on days that naps are skipped. The first few weeks can be tough for everyone. It will get easier.
BONUS PRO TIP – HAND HEARTS
Draw a heart on your child’s hand and a matching heart on your hand. Tell your child, “When you miss me or are feeling scared, touch this heart on your hand. I will feel it and be sending you love back! I’ll be with you. I love you.”
Remember, every child is unique, and it may take time for them to adjust to the new environment. During this transition, it's crucial to be patient and responsive to your child's needs. Trust that your child will adapt, even if they haven't mastered a particular skill or schedule. Children behave differently with different adults and in different surroundings. Positive reinforcement, encouragement, trust, and consistency will all contribute to your child's comfort and confidence during nap time at daycare.
- Caryn Shender
Caryn Shender, founder of Sleep Tight Tonight, and author of My Scar is Beautiful, is a proud mom, certified pediatric sleep specialist and coach, and safe sleep ambassador who has guided thousands of families through the exhausting world of newborn, baby, and toddler sleep. She is trusted by parents and parenting coaches.
As a coach, an author, and mother of a heart warrior, she understands the weight and frustration of being sleep-deprived, and the anxiety that crying can cause parents,
while also understanding the power and importance of getting restful, restorative sleep. Caryn became certified through the Center for Pediatric Sleep Management so she could best help her daughter sleep after her surgeries and support other families, too. She is committed to helping families turn sleepless nights into easy, peaceful nights and sweet dreams. Being a parent is hard. Being an exhausted parent is next to impossible. Together, we’ll make sleep easy. Schedule your free 15-minute sleep assessment today sleeptighttonight.com/freeconsult
If your child (age 0-6 years old) is struggling with sleep, schedule your FREE 15-minute Sleep Assessment Call to talk through your child’s sleep challenges, your goals, and what Sleep Tight Tonight programs offer so that we can make a plan for change together.