Why Will My Child Sleep Fine On A Mat At Daycare, But Not In Bed At Home?

A blog on Motivating Operations that influence behavior:

Maybe you already know it can be very difficult to keep a young, curious child who’s going through an explosion of cognitive developments, (and who is still developing impulse control), in a bed. And, when s/he finds something s/he REALLY wants (like, say, snuggling in bed with you…), keeping your child in their own bed is going to be an even more difficult endeavor! Your child is not trying to be difficult or cause you angst; the drive to get up is simply stronger than his or her still-developing self control to stay in a bed and drift off to sleep.

But then, drop her off at daycare or pre-school, and she sleeps on a mat just fine – no crib rails, no familiar home setting, no ideal sleep environment (although this would be beneficial!), no problem. What gives?


The answer to this lies partially in what’s motivating your child to behave a certain way, under certain conditions.

Think about the conditions in the daycare center or school that may be different from the conditions at home. In a daycare setting, your child has a history of following simple instructions surrounded by her peers who are also following simple instructions. There is built - in motivation to follow these instructions at daycare because of the contingencies your child has experienced when s/he has or has not followed the rules in the past, and because there’s a crowd of other little friends also following these instructions. You know, that whole “herd mentality” thing.

It is highly motivating to behave in a certain way when everyone else is doing it. Yup, that's peer pressure; even at such a young age. This can be a great thing when the behavior is positive! But, not only is your child behaving this way because everyone else is doing it, she’s also behaving this way because she’s observing a peer model do it too– someone like her, who she likes and can relate to.


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Peer models can actually be a useful tool in teaching desirable behaviors. Peer models your child responds to most reliably are those who are as similar to him or her as possible. And at daycare or school, that's pretty much everyone in the class; which sets your child up for success in that environment.


If you’ve found an effective way to maintain behavior in one environment – you’ve found an effective way to maintain behavior in one environment. Generalization of behavior from one environment to the next typically takes some work.


Which brings us to sleep at home.....

If you attempt to put a mat on the floor or transition your child to a bed before s/he’s ready and all of those things that are happening at daycare that sustain her behavior are not in place, you’re going to learn very quickly that you can’t expect the same results that you see from your child at school.

In most homes, you’re not going to have a room full of peers with a history of going to sleep on a mat when you say, “it’s night, night time”. And it's not just the absence of peer pressure either. You are also missing those important peer models who are modeling the behavior you want to happen.

What you do have, however, is a new sleeping location, party of one.

And believe it or not, the most influential factor that will motivate your child to stay awake and get out of bed instead of sleeping IS NOT present at daycare or pre-school. The motivation is you! You are an effective reinforcer. That's right, you have a harder job at home. Said a different way, your presence is highly valuable to your child at home. Now that she’s in a bed, what she really wants is a whole lot easier to get to, too.

So, if it makes you feel any better - the teachers at school or daycare aren't "better" at this than you are. It's your absence as the most powerful motivator that makes things go more smoothly for them!


To teach your child how to sleep like he or she does at daycare or school, it’ll take time with repeated exposure to the way you want things to happen at home. This blog does not cover HOW to do that, but you need to know that the effectiveness of what you choose to do in response to an undesirable behavior is influenced by Motivating Operations. The Motivating Operations that are likely at work during sleep times that can alter the result of what you do in a given environment are:

1. Biological influences (such as the circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep pressure) at work and/or your child’s developmental age.

Practically speaking this means you want to have an ideal nap environment, realistic expectations of how much sleep your child can do in a 24 hour period, age appropriate nap times, and consider if your child is old enough to expect him or her to learn to stay on a bed alone at home. Even the best, most consistent parenting won't work if expectations are unrealistic.

2. Whether Valuable Reinforcers are available/present or not.