Some thoughts on cortisol, sleep and daycare

My two kids have just started daycare. One month down and we’re going pretty strong, but of course I worry. Wouldn’t anyone?

I’ve read numerous studies that link increases in cortisol levels to spending time in a daycare setting. There are various hypotheses as to what might be causing that. Is it the noise, the ratio of children to adults, the stressful peer relations, or all of these put together? There might be another factor. Sleep.

In case you’re not familiar with it, cortisol is also commonly known as the stress hormone. Cortisol levels have typical daily ebb and flow characterized by higher levels in the morning (which might seem counterintuitive but is actually caused by the waking up process) and declining levels during the day. Various stressors can cause increases in cortisol levels. That is because cortisol helps the body function better in stressful situations.

But what happens when the stressful situations go on and on? That is not the way nature intended for things to work. Increased cortisol levels have many negative impacts on health. Stressors are supposed to be brief and over quickly. In the modern world they seem to never end. Unfortunately that’s also true for our children.

There was a recent study that linked the quality of sleep in children to increased cortisol levels during the day. That study was done on older children, 8-18 years old, but it might have some applicability to younger children, as well. I know my kids sleep worse when they’re at daycare. A recent review study states that kids over the age of two have better sleep quality if they don’t nap. It’s not about the total hours but the quality of that sleep. Uninterrupted sleep is better sleep.

My 3-year-old (who hasn’t been napping for over six months and makes it through the day just fine) has started to nap in daycare. That has led to bedtime becoming very difficult for him. He only sleeps 9-10 hours per night when before it was 11-12. His total sleep time probably comes up to around the same, but the sleep quality is worse. Both boys wake up at least once every night where before they’d sleep the night through.

So one possible cause for increases in cortisol levels might be poor sleep patterns.  I’m not saying the solution is necessarily to keep the children who don’t nap at home from napping at daycare. The daycare setting is stressful in many other ways than sleep-wise so the younger children might genuinely not cope without a nap. Maybe it would be better to make sure that the nap doesn’t extend much beyond one sleep cycle, around 40 minutes, if going to sleep at night is a hassle.


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