Is your baby or toddler headed to daycare this fall? If so, you might be feeling a little apprehensive about how your child will handle the move away from the comforts of home — and it’s likely you’re going through a bit of separation anxiety as well.
“With the first, it was like someone was just ripping my guts out,” says Heather Wittenberg, a mom of four and a child psychologist who specializes in the development of babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
That gut-wrenching feeling is natural, says Wittenberg. But parents shouldn’t fret. Kids often adapt quicker than we expect, and attending a daycare where your tot can interact with new kids, other people and new experiences can be a good thing.
“We know from the research that a good daycare is very positive for your baby’s growing independence, learning and socialization,” Wittenberg says.
But to make that leap, we’ve rounded up a few tips to smooth the transition to daycare for both parent and child.
1. Bring something familiar.
A reminder of home will make those first few trips to daycare a little easier and provide comfort on difficult days. Wittenberg recommends “anything that smells like home” for babies. That might be a lovey, blanket or mom or dad’s T-shirt or other clothing item. A laminated family portrait that an older child can hold onto can help too.
2. Create a goodbye ritual.
Jennifer Davis, the head teacher of a 2-year-old class at Michigan State’s Child Development Lab and child care facility, recommends families create a consistent goodbye ritual to create a fuss-free drop off. That might mean giving a high-five, saying, "I love you," or a kiss on both cheeks — whatever feels natural to the parent and child. “Make sure you do the same routine each time, so your child knows what to expect,” she says. This daily sendoff helps set a “limit for yourself too,” so you won’t be tempted to linger at the door, making the goodbye harder for you both.
3. Talk it through.
Even the youngest babies will benefit from parents talking through what this new thing called daycare is going to be like, says Wittenberg. For example, you can say, “Starting tomorrow, we’re going to drop you off at so-and-so’s and there are going to be other babies there, and you’re going to have lunch and play with these toys, and then after naptime and snack, I’m going to come pick you up.”
“The baby is picking up on the cadence and the emotional tone and they’re going to get a sense of reassurance,” says Wittenberg. “It gives them a sense of predictability and that everything’s going to be OK.”
Repeat the story once daycare starts for continued reassurance. Reading a picture book about going to daycare is another option, as is sharing a picture of the teacher or classroom.
4. Try a gradual start.
If possible, let your child ease in to daycare by starting him off with a part-time schedule.
“The ideal transition into daycare is one that is gradual, so maybe you’re going with them for an hour one day, and the next day, you’ll leave them there for 20 minutes to play while you go get a coffee,” says Wittenberg.
Many daycare providers will recommend a similar gradual start, beginning with either a couple of half days or starting on a Thursday, rather than Monday, so the child or baby doesn’t immediately plunge into a five-day-a-week, full-time schedule.
5. Do your research.
Every working parent has likely read a daycare horror story or two in the news, making our fears about sending kids into the arms of strangers that much harder to face. Both Wittenberg and Davis recommend putting in the hours to research the best provider for your family. Ask plenty of questions like, “Is your staff CPR trained?” and make sure they’re readily providing answers that assuage those fears.
If you’ve “done your due diligence picking the right place,” including observing the staff in action, “then you can tell yourself the rest of it is your normal parent anxiety,” says Wittenberg.
Don’t be afraid to trust “that gut feeling you get when you walk in,” adds Davis.
6. Create a night-before checklist.
Daycare veterans will likely tell you one of the hardest things is actually just remembering to pack all that stuff! Babies need bottles filled and labeled, bibs, pacifiers, crib sheets and more, not to mention diapers, wipes, extra sets of clothes and possibly lunches and snacks — oh, and don’t forget the check.
Post a daycare checklist near the front door or on your phone to help remember daily items, but also seasonal stuff like sunscreen and hats or boots and hats and mittens, advises Davis. Pack everything the night before and you might just minimize a bit of that morning chaos, improving everyone’s mood!
7. Do regular check-ins.
Letting someone else care for your baby can make many parents feel a loss of control. You might worry about how much they’re sleeping or wonder who their favorite friend is at daycare. Foster a rapport with the provider to make asking such questions easier. It’ll provide a better glimpse into their new world away from home — hopefully one that makes you both happy. “It goes back to communication,” says Davis. “At pickup and dropoff, you can have some of these conversations with the teacher.”
Don’t be afraid to ask the daycare for advice on how to ease this transition, says Wittenberg. “Daycare providers are just a wealth of knowledge,” she says. “Good ones will have ‘been there, done that,’ and will be able to walk you through some recommendations.”
8. Expect some tears.
It can take anywhere from one day to four weeks, depending on their temperament, for a child to adjust to daycare, says Wittenberg. Until then, you might see a few tears upon pickup.
“The kid has been saving it up all day. Everyone needs to decompress after a facing a new social situation and your baby can’t do it any other way but crying,” says Wittenberg. “It shouldn’t make you question your decision unless it goes on.”
Those tears are also an important milestone for growing children as they learn to adapt to different social situations where there might be different rules than at home. “It really helps them with flexibility and adaptation,” says Wittenberg.
Rose Gordon Sala