Theory and practice

Mastering the art of sleepy time

Quick tips for smoother sleepy time in early education
October 27, 2021
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story’s about sleepy time in early education, and how you can do it best. As you know, settling youngsters down for sleep isn’t always so simple.
  • The most important thing is to never force children to sleep, or to lay still and quietly. A good sleepy time should have alternative activities for the little ones who just aren’t feeling a snooze.
  • Read on to learn why enforcing sleep isn’t good for children, and to get top tips on how to set up a more successful sleepy time with your own children.

If you’ve never worked in early education, taking a midday snooze probably sounds like one of the most relaxing things you could do with your afternoon.

But as you know, it’s a different story when you’ve got to get a dozen toddlers on board with the idea too.

In early education, sleepy time isn’t always as simple as it seems. What might seem to be a restful break from the day’s hubbub can soon devolve into two hours of pleading with three-year-olds to get a bit of shut-eye — or at the very least, to not disturb the ones who do want to sleep.

Nobody wants to be the sleep police, of course. And if sleepy time gets us more stressed out than we were to begin with, it’s hard to see the point. So what can we do to give children (and ourselves) a smoother, more restful sleepy time in early education?

That’s what we’re here to explore today. As you’ll see, a good sleepy time doesn’t just focus on creating the conditions for sleep. It’s also about enabling the option not to sleep.

Let’s get into it.

Baby sleeping

Think about it as rest time, not sleep time

Though it might make life easier sometimes, children don’t just fall asleep on command. 

We know that it’s important for young children to get loads of sleep. Early education is sort of a transition zone for sleep schedules — it’s when children start to age out of daytime snoozes, and adjust to the full daytime wakefulness that us grown-ups are used to (whether we like it or not).

However, children don’t always follow the tidy guidelines of a development manual. There’s any reason why a three-year-old might not be sleepy during sleep time: Maybe they’re too excited because of an upcoming birthday. Maybe they’re all wound up thinking about what it’d be like if they opened a hot dog restaurant with Daniel Tiger. Or maybe they’re just not tired today.

And if that’s the case, you shouldn’t pressure children to sleep.

A 2018 study in Scientific Reports suggests that when we try to enforce sleep, everyone ends up more frustrated than rested. In the study, researchers looked at early education settings that had mandatory sleepy time, but no alternate activities for the non-sleepers — and they measured the level of stress hormones in children throughout the day. They found that if young children can’t fall asleep, but feel the pressure to do so, the effort of laying quietly for an hour or more can be quite draining for them, and can raise their overall stress levels. This defeats the purpose of sleepy time altogether.

So with sleep time, you’ve got to make room for children to rest however suits them best. And a good way to do that is with quiet, calming, alternate activities.

Mom holding her sleeping baby

Give children other options besides sleeping

It’s a good idea to have quiet, calm activities on hand during sleepy time, so that children have another way to recharge if they’re not feeling sleepy. 

Here’s why having these alternatives makes sleepy time easier:

  • It avoids the conflict of trying to wrangle children to sleep. As we explored above, this situation creates extra stress for you as an educator, and it often results in stressed-out, poorly-rested children.
  • It offers a productive outlet for your non-sleepers. Maybe you’ve got children who never seem to feel sleepy during the day, or perhaps some children tend to wake up a a lot earlier than others. Having quiet activities saves children from having to lay still and quiet while others sleep, which can challenge little ones’ self-regulation skills.

If your setting allows, it’s good to set up these alternate activities a little ways away from your sleeping area, so you don’t have to worry about that quiet play distracting your sleepers. If you’ve already got a designated space for calm in your environment, now is a great time to use it.

Here are some activities you might provide:

Baby girl sleeping

How much sleepy time is enough?

It’d be terrific if we had loads of research all saying the same thing on this one. However, this question seems to stump scientists.

While we know children need less sleep as they age out of infancy, we don’t have many hard rules beyond that. You’ll find some scientific research suggesting that the majority of 3 to 5 year olds regularly sleep during the day, when given the opportunity. However, there’s also a decent stack of studies out there suggesting that children outgrow the need for a midday snooze by that age. Without a strong scientific consensus here, it’s best you look to the individual needs of children in your care and your own daily schedule to make this decision.

Besides, it’s probably best that you don’t use some blanket rule (ha) to determine each individual child’s sleep needs. The same child might need loads of sleep one day, and be electrically energetic the day after. This is another reason why having alternate activities on hand is helpful, as it’s easy to accommodate children’s different sleep needs on a day-to-day basis.

The big ideas

Top tips for a smoother sleepy time

When shaping up your own sleepy time strategy, here are three points to keep in mind:

  • The younger the child, the more sleep they need. Infants need several hours more sleep during the day than your average four-year-old. You might want to schedule infant sleepy time separately to account for this, or let them rest longer than everyone else. In any case, it’s best to make sure your sleep times reflect age groups’ different needs.
  • Don’t pressure children to sleep if they aren’t feeling it. Having to lay quiet and still when you’re bubbling with energy can be a big drain on children’s self-regulatory abilities. If you try to enforce sleep, you’ll likely end up stressing out yourself and the children.
  • It’s always good to have quiet activities as an alternative. Your choice of activities will depend on what you’ve got on hand, your children’s ages, and your provision. But having these options available is key to creating a sleepy time that works for everybody.
download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below how Hungry Caterpillars got started with Famly so easily, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.