Dr. Corinne Masur
Sending your infant or young child off to daycare or pre-school for the first time can be heart wrenching – for BOTH to you.
Suddenly, the baby you cared for so carefully will be in the hands of others. This can cause parents to feel more anxious than they anticipated feeling! Often parents feel a loss of control over their child’s care and wellbeing. Fear, guilt, and regret may follow.
What can you do?
The infant who is 6-months-old or younger:
Research and preparation! You will, of course, research your various daycare options and you will also be working to prepare yourself for the impending separation from your baby.
Below are some things to think about when choosing a daycare. But how do you prepare yourself to let go of your child? This can be excruciatingly difficult. You will need to start weeks in advance even though you won’t want to think about it. You’ll need to talk to your partner, your friends, your family, and others you know who have gone through this themselves. You may need to cry in anticipation of the sadness you may feel when you ultimately leave your child for the first time. Perhaps you’ll want to read a bit about separation. Some parents benefit from reading about how to prepare their child, some benefit from thinking more about how they themselves will cope.
In regard to finding a daycare center, be sure to choose the one with the lowest child to worker ratio you can find. You want to know that your child will receive attention when she needs it, not 30 minutes later. Second, try to find a daycare that understands the importance of assigning one or two workers to your baby rather than having whomever is available tend to your child. During infancy, we know that relationships are key to the baby’s security. Developing a special relationship with one or two workers will help your baby to feel safe and comfortable at daycare. Third, find a day care that understands that separation is difficult for both babies and parents. If the daycare suggests you drop your baby and leave immediately the first day, this may not be the center for you. Better for both you and your baby is a center where you can separate more gradually. Choosing a daycare center that allows you to visit without your baby in order to get to know the director and to observe the nursery is important. Parents need to see where their baby will be and to make sure that the center is well run and attuned to the needs of the infants under their care. Next, it is a good idea to bring your baby, no matter how young, to the center for an hour or two and to stay with your baby. Then, when the day comes time to leave your infant, the day care center is not entirely new to either of you. At this point, it’s important that the center allow you to leave at your own pace rather than rushing you out the door for their own convenience.
This separation will not be easy. Parents often feel distressed for the first few days of daycare. And infants normally also feel distressed at being left. It is very hard for a mother or a father to hear their baby crying as they leave. But if you trust the center, the best thing you can do is to remind yourself that your baby will be safe and, if you feel the need, to check in during those first few days to ask how your baby is adapting to the new environment.
“But how can I prepare my baby to go to daycare?” is a question parents often ask. For the infant under 6 months who does not understand verbal language, preparation is difficult. However, parents should remember that even babies of this age can be talked to ahead of time about where they are going, and they can be told “Mommy’s/Daddy’s coming back!” and “Mommies/Daddies always come back”. Sending along a list of your child’s preferences and routines can make the transition easier, and allowing your baby to have a special blanket or toy from home can be helpful if the daycare permits this. (And always remember to label this beloved item with your child’s name!)
The 6-month to 2-year-old
Older infants and toddlers should be told several weeks in advance that they’ll be going to daycare. Even 6 or 7 month olds can be talked to about what they are going to see and do. Babies and toddlers can also be told stories and read books about the first day at school and going to school.
For toddlers, you can expect excitement AND fear. The idea of going somewhere new and playing with other kids will, on the one hand, sound fun and on the other hand, sound scary. With toddlers, take some time to get down on the floor and play school with them. Take some stuffed animals and set them up with a “teacher” animal. Have a new animal come in and be introduced to the others. Talk with your child about the feelings the new one is having. Ham it up and make it fun and interesting. Repeatedly playing out the theme of “school” or daycare will help your child to anticipate what to expect – both in terms of what will happen and in terms of how she will feel.
2- to 4-years-old
The older toddler and the young child will have many thoughts and feelings about starting daycare or pre-school and they will be able to tell you some of them. Let them tell you how they feel and ask you their questions. You may find they have some unusual ideas about what will or will not happen at school, which you can correct. And again, be sure to start preparing them for the start of this new endeavor at least 3 weeks in advance. At this age, you can talk a great deal about what it will be like and how your child might feel. You can read books and tell stories about starting school. You can tell them about your own experiences when you started school and you can reassure them that at the end of the day they will always come home again.
It is very helpful to take children of this age to see the school a few weeks before they start. If there is a playground there they can play on, take them to do that a few times in advance. If a meeting can be set up to meet with the teacher before the start of school, do that. If all you do is go to see the building, go anyway. Young children are helped if they know all the concrete details: what the school looks like, where it is, who will take them, who will pick them up, what they will do there, etc.
And on the first day of school, remember: the drop and run strategy is not necessarily the best for you or your child. Some children are able to bounce back quickly and engage in their new environment, while others need more time to warm up. If the school allows it, stay for a few minutes or even up to an hour until your child seems settled. And if the school will continue to allow it, do this for the first several days. When you think your child is ready, tell her that you will not be staying that day. There may be tears, but the separation anxiety will fade as your child begins to explore and enjoy this exciting new experience.