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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.


Need More Help?

We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:

SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)

PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)

THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)


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.

You'll want to make sure valuable reinforcers are present during and/or after sleep times. Valuable reinforcers are things or events that take place in your child’s environment that will reliably increase their behavior. If your child already has an established favorite reinforcer that she sleeps with (e.g., lovey, blankie, paci), make sure it’s present during sleep times. If the reinforcer is you, make sure your child knows when she can expect to see you. For some families this will be during the entire nap. For others, it will be directly after the nap. In Daycare or school, valuable reinforcers may be her peer models, encouraging words from teachers, or a fun planned activity after nap time. Be aware that the value of a reinforcer can change. In some cases, you will have to teach your child that a reinforcer has value (or doesn’t) before she’ll be influenced to behave a certain way to get it. If you’re going to stay in the room with your child, it will be important to make yourself less valuable by the way you respond to your child’s attempts to interact with or get to you.

3. Your child’s history of behaving under a given set of circumstances in one environment.

Whatever your child is used to doing during sleep times is what you can reliably predict that she’ll do during the next sleep time – this is her history of behaving. If anything changes during sleep time, you can expect her behavior to change too. Your child needs to know what to expect in his or her environment before she’ll begin to behave in a predictable way. If you make the change to a bed, be prepared for major changes in behavior to occur and plan ahead accordingly. Be prepared to respond with consistency until the new way of doing things is established in the new location.

In a daycare or school setting, you might remember that it took some time for your child to behave as she does now during nap time. Now that she’s been doing it over and over again each time she goes to daycare/school, you can be more confident that she will continue this behavior until something changes.

4. The effort it takes to access the reinforcer

If it’s easy to get to you, a shelf full of toys, or a screen, your child is going to try more often than she would if it was difficult to get those reinforcers. You may need to increase the effort it takes to get to a reinforcer now that s/he's in a bed such a putting screens away or covering up a bookshelf of toys with an old quilt and saying, "night night toys". More often though, you’ll need to expect that since it’s easier to get out of bed now, your child will try. In response to your child’s inevitable new behaviors, you’ll have to teach your child what to expect from you when she makes the attempt.


Need More Help?

We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:

SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)

PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)

THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)


We hope you found this blog on Motivating Operations that influence behavior helpful. It answers the question of WHY your child behaves in a certain way. This particular blog does not teach you how to help your child learn to stay in his or her bed, but we believe understanding the behavior is always an important first step for parents. For specifics on how to solve a problem, please try some of the blogs below and consider booking a sleep consult.

We have some related blogs on this topic and hope these help too:

If you know you need to layer on some form of sleep training, we highly recommend a sleep consult.

Sundberg, M. L. (2013). Thirty points about motivation from Skinner’s book verbal behavior. Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 29, 13–40.

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