Why Your Toddler Isn’t Sleeping Well Since Starting Daycare

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
February 13, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Starting daycare or preschool is a major life transition for toddlers and young children, and while exciting, any big change can cause sleep struggles or even a sleep regression for your toddler. This is so common! 

It makes sense if you are feeling confused, frustrated, and exhausted – sleep struggles and regressions can be disruptive for the whole family. 

This blog is intended to guide parents who are trying to make sense of why their child hasn’t been sleeping well since starting daycare. 

We’ll walk you through the common causes of daycare-related sleep struggles and regressions, how long it’ll take your toddler to adjust, and supportive strategies you can use at home to ease your child’s transition. With patience and consistency, you can help your little one adapt to the transition and restore rest in your home. 

The Difference Between Sleep Struggles and a Sleep Regression

When sleep struggles occur consistently over a period of time, it’s referred to as a “sleep regression.” If you’re wondering if your child is having sleep struggles or a sleep regression, consider these questions:

  • Are they struggling with a skill they have previously mastered? 
  • Is this sleep struggle persistent, occurring consistently over a period of time? 

If you answered yes to these questions, it’s likely a sleep regression. If you answered no to these questions, it’s most likely a sleep struggle. 

Example of a sleep struggle after starting daycare:
Tommy has always relied on a caregiver to help him fall asleep. Whether it’s being fed to sleep or rocked, he requires a lot of support. At home, his caregivers have been able to support these needs. Tommy recently started daycare, and it hasn’t been possible for his daycare providers to replicate his regular sleep regime at naptime. Since starting daycare, Tommy hasn’t been getting any daytime sleep because he hasn’t mastered the skill of falling asleep independently. 

Example of a sleep regression after starting daycare: 
Betty has been able to fall asleep independently since she was six months old. However, since starting daycare, she has been protesting naps and refusing to stay in her crib. This has been consistently happening since she started daycare over two weeks ago. 

Keep in mind there is no specific amount of time a problem has to persist for it to be considered a regression. Rather, consider the two questions above: have they previously mastered that skill and is the struggle happening consistently? For example, if Betty refused to take a nap sporadically throughout the two-week period since she started daycare, it wouldn’t classify as a regression. 

Related Post: Toddler Sleep Regression After a New Baby

Why Sleep May Change With Daycare

Starting daycare involves several key changes that can disrupt a toddler’s daytime sleep and nighttime sleep. Here are specific reasons why your child may not be sleeping well since starting daycare. 

First, the new environment itself can be overstimulating for little ones. Daycares are often noisy, busy places with many new sights, sounds, smells, people, and routines. This flood of novel stimulation keeps some children awake and alert when they would usually be napping or settling down to sleep.

New Routine
Second, children thrive on consistency and routine. When their regular sleep schedule gets disrupted by daycare’s different nap times, playground times, meal times and activities, it can throw off their circadian rhythms. Since daycares need to coordinate schedules for multiple children, it’s hard to match each child’s individual rhythms. This mismatch can lead to toddler sleep struggles.

Separation Anxiety
Third, being separated from parents and caregivers, especially for long periods throughout the day, can cause stress and anxiety. Separation anxiety is developmentally normal but can interfere with a child’s ability to relax and sleep while away from their trusted adults. The discomfort of this separation stress often affects naps and nighttime sleep.

Developmental Leaps
Finally, big developmental leaps can happen around the same time as starting daycare. When little ones work hard practicing new skills like walking, talking, or holding a spoon, their brain is in overdrive. Trying to master these skills can overstimulate their mind and make quality sleep more challenging.

Daycare transitions are typically the reason behind toddler sleep struggles if they start within the first few weeks of starting daycare. If your child’s sleep struggles started a few weeks after starting daycare, they are most likely related to a different source (i.e. sleep pressure, nighttime fears, separation anxiety). 

Use our FREE checklist to help identify why your child struggles with sleep!

Parents may notice one or more common sleep struggles that are causing their toddler not to sleep well after starting daycare. These can be new struggles or the amplification of pre-existing sleep struggles. Some typical toddler sleep struggles after starting daycare include:

Longer Naps
Daycares often have nap schedules that differ from home. Your child may end up napping longer at daycare than they need. These long naps can cause under-tiredness, making it hard for them to fall asleep at their regular bedtime or cause night wakings.

Nap Resistance 
With all the exciting stimulation and novel experiences, some children resist napping at daycare altogether. Missing these daytime naps leaves them overtired and prone to sleep disruptions at night.

Poor Quality or Short Naps
Between noise from other children and a different sleep environment, your child’s naps at daycare may be shorter or more interrupted compared to napping at home. These insufficient daytime naps can negatively impact their nighttime sleep because they are overtired. 

Bedtime Struggles
Your little one may fight bedtime or stall going to sleep as a way to reconnect after being separated from you during the day. Bedtime protests are common when children start daycare. 

Night Wakings
Frequent night wakings can result from inconsistent nap schedules between home and daycare. Overtiredness from short daytime naps or early bedtimes from long naps can also lead to night wakings.

How Long It Takes a Toddler to Adjust

The adjustment to daycare sleep schedules and routines can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months, depending on your child’s unique temperament and life circumstances. 

Children with a mild temperament may adjust to change more easily and settle into new routines faster. While other children, especially highly sensitive kids, often take more time to adjust after starting daycare.  

For example, Tommy has a more sensitive temperament, which illustrates why he has always needed more support to fall asleep. He might take longer to adjust to taking naps at daycare because of his temperament and because he’s always needed support to fall asleep. Meanwhile, Betty, who has a milder temperament, has been able to fall asleep independently before starting daycare; she will likely adjust to the transitions more quickly than Tommy because of her temperament and her pre-existing skills. 

It’s important to know your toddler’s unique needs before placing expectations on when their sleep will improve after starting daycare. When parents provide empathy, consistency, and support during the transition, it helps children feel safe and secure, which can improve their sleep. 

Being patient and responsive as your little one adapts to this major change in their life is key. Toddler sleep struggles and regressions after starting daycare are normal – shifting your focus from fixing sleep problems to understanding, empathizing with and supporting sleep problems can have a much more positive impact on the transition.  

How to Support Your Toddler’s Sleep During the Daycare Transition

This transition period calls for extra patience, empathy, and support from parents. Here are some strategies to help your toddler’s sleep during this adjustment:

Prepare for changes in advance: Talk about the upcoming changes with your child in a simple, positive way. Visit the new classroom and meet the teachers before the first day. Drive by the daycare so they recognize the building. Read books, role-play scenarios, and do fun activities to familiarize them with what to expect. These small steps can reduce anxiety.

Maintain consistency with their bedtime routine: Keep your normal soothing bedtime routine during this transition time. Make bedtime a consistent oasis. Do not choose this period to transition them to a toddler bed or make other big changes that could further disrupt sleep.  

Be responsive during periods of upheaval: Remember that this huge transition is genuinely difficult for your little one. What they need most is your empathy and understanding. Respond to their feelings, hold them close, and reassure them through this tough adjustment period.

Communicate with your childcare provider: Have open discussions with teachers about your child’s specific sleep struggles and habits. Work together to find solutions. Ask for updates about their daytime sleep and behaviour so you can make helpful adjustments at home.

Related Post: 3 Ways I Created a Calming Bedtime Routine to Help My Toddler Sleep

Case Study 1: Jack’s Story

Jack is a two-year-old boy who recently started attending daycare after being cared for by his grandmother for the past year. Jack has always slept well – taking long naps and sleeping peacefully through the night. 

However, Jack’s parents noticed some changes in his sleep habits in the first few weeks after starting daycare. At daycare, he was resisting his nap time. At home, he took longer to fall asleep at bedtime and woke up frequently in the middle of the night. 

At first, Jack’s parents were frustrated. He had always been a good sleeper, so this came as a surprise to them. When they got curious about the cause, they realized that these sleep issues could be due to the major change in his daily routine and environment. 

So, they worked closely with his daycare provider to ensure they kept specific elements of the sleep routine and sleep space consistent with Jack’s sleep routine and sleep space at home. The daycare providers sang Jack the same song his parents sang to him before bed and offered him the same lovey for his naps that he had been using to sleep at home. 

At home, Jack’s parents maintained a regular bedtime routine of a bath, book, song, and cuddles. During middle-of-the-night wakings, they would soothe him briefly without turning on lights or playing. They focused on connection and consistency, and soon enough, they started to see a shift. 

Within about two weeks, Jack started taking longer naps at daycare and was less restless at bedtime. Thanks to his parent’s empathetic support, he adjusted to the new childcare arrangement relatively quickly.

Case Study 2: Amy’s Story

Amy is a spirited and energetic three-year-old who has been home with her mom since birth. She is about to start preschool, which requires staying at school until 3 p.m. Amy has never been away from her mom for more than a couple of hours at a time, so this schedule presents a big change. 

Since the transition, Amy’s been fighting her parents at bedtime – taking almost two hours to fall asleep and waking up earlier than she had before starting preschool. 

After getting curious about the cause of their daughter’s sleep struggles, they reached out to the preschool teachers to see if they had any insights. They learned that Amy was taking a 45-minute nap each day during the scheduled rest time after lunch. Since Amy had dropped her afternoon nap a year prior, the sudden addition of an afternoon nap was the source of some of her sleep struggles. Once they knew this, they made some changes to her sleep schedule to help her adjust. They pushed bedtime back a half hour later and asked the preschool teachers to cut her nap short by 15 minutes, so she was tired enough to fall asleep at bedtime

In addition to adjusting her sleep schedule, they also prioritized more connection time before bed since Amy was likely struggling with separation anxiety as well. 

After about a month, Amy began adjusting to the new routine. She was falling asleep more quickly at night and waking up later in the mornings. Amy’s parents continued providing extra support until her sleep normalized. Their patience and consistency helped Amy feel secure. Within two months, she had completely adjusted to her new preschool schedule.

When to Seek Help

If your child’s sleep disruptions persist well beyond the initial adjustment period to daycare, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. Here are some signs to help you know when to consider reaching out for more support:

  • Disrupted sleep persists after three months in daycare.
  • Drastic changes in sleep patterns or total sleep time.  
  • Difficulty functioning due to inadequate sleep.

Remember, you know your child best. Trust your instincts if you feel your little one needs more help returning to healthy sleep habits after starting daycare. 

More Sleep Support

It’s completely understandable to feel frustrated when your child’s sleep suffers. Disrupted sleep impacts the whole family.  Focus on giving your little one what they need most right now – your reassurance, comfort and support as they navigate this transition. Each child adapts in their own time.  Until then, take it one day at a time and celebrate the small wins along the way.

If you’d like more bedtime tools for your toddler, check out our Solving Bedtime Battles course

This course has easy-to-digest lessons packed with tools to help you find sleep AND feel connected with your kids! We cover everything from setting up bedtime for success, transitioning from co-sleeping to independent sleeping, dropping the nap, night wakings, sibling room sharing, separation anxiety at night, nightmares, peeing in the night, and so much more!

Grab Solving Bedtime Battles here!

Get simple parenting tools sent straight to your inbox.

    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.