The first day of daycare. The first day of preschool, or even school. We have all heard about the woes: parents of young children dropping off their little ones for the day for the first time.
It is never easy, but there are many things you can do to make it as smooth as possible.
Let me be the 1000th person to assure you that parents suffer as much as children when they leave them at daycare. It can make mothers question if they are doing the right thing, or if maybe they should have stayed home instead of returning to work. And that is why I want to start my list with a word about working moms.
Working mothers are a reality. And they are good moms, too.
Understanding that working moms are the norm and not the exception is the first key step into making the process easier. In the United States, more than half of mothers with young kids work outside of the home. And if that is your case, that is OK.
Some mothers continue to work after having spent years developing a career. Others continue to work soon after having their babies because that is what their employer requires in order for them not to lose certain career opportunities. Some women work because their family needs the extra income, but also because they seek career satisfaction.
Sometimes society can be quick to judge working moms. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for some people to think that being a “good mother” implies having to stay home with the kids. There is no scientific evidence that says that a mother working harms their children. A child can thrive if they are loved and well-cared for, regardless of whether their mother works or not.
1. Separation anxiety is completely normal
We know it is coming and yet it is, almost invariably, a very grueling process. We know it is coming because separation anxiety is normal behavior. All babies develop at unique times, but there are patterns that can be expected at certain age ranges. Even separation anxiety is age-dependent.
From birth to seven months
During the first seven months of life, babies will need mostly lots of love, comforting, basic care. This period of separation really is most difficult for the parent, since babies generally do not experience separation anxiety at this age.
Some babies can develop separation anxiety as early as 4 months – but most don’t develop more robust anxiety until later.
Babies will generally transition very well, especially if done consistently with the same daycare worker.
From 7 to 12 months
Stranger anxiety develops during this period, making it difficult for a child to stay with anyone who is not part of their immediate family. This is different from separation anxiety because it is a fear of the unknown person, rather than fear of separating from you.
This is one of the toughest periods for children to start at daycare, and if possible, you might even consider not starting during this time. If necessary, know that it will take more time to adjust.
From 12 to 24 months
After turning 1 year old, true separation anxiety peaks and children have a very difficult time staying with someone else, mostly because they are terrified that you will not return.
2. Prepare yourself and your child for daycare
The transition to daycare can go a lot smoother if certain steps are taken, in anticipation, to prepare for it. Read about childcare online or even from the local library books.
Plan a visit with your child to the daycare center or home that you have chosen. During this visit, you can do and say things that show to your child that you like this place and that this is a good place that can be trusted. If possible, introduce the caregivers to your child beforehand, during this visit.
Before starting at daycare (or preschool even?) talk to your child at home about this exciting new place where he is going to play, learn, take naps, etc. Talk nice things about this new caregiver person to prepare your child for the future. If there are going to be other children in this place, talk about how exciting it is that they are going to make all these new friends. A positive attitude can ease both of you into this new routine.
3. Practice being apart
Being apart from home and their family is an important sudden change in a child’s routine, no matter how well you do it. Children deal with sudden changes in different ways but it is often an upsetting process. It is possible for your child to be upset even if the new caregiver is super sweet and competent.
If possible, you can try to arrange for an in-home nanny to come and care for the child while you are there, or even if you need to run a short errand. This will introduce baby to the concept of being cared for by a different person but in the known environment of their own home.
4. Create goodbye rituals and be consistent
Long painful goodbyes are, well, long and painful. Your child may cry as they hold on to your leg begging you not to leave them. A goodbye ritual can help in this transition.
Anything can be a ritual, but it requires consistency. For example, you may hug each other, say goodbye, and leave promptly. Or you may give them a kiss on their forehead and do a little goodbye dance, then go.
It is super important that once you leave, resist urging to return immediately because you know your child was upset as you left. Come back at the designated pick-up time. Returning right after you left might give the child the wrong idea, and make transitions tougher for the next time.
5. Be specific about when you are coming back
The whole thing that makes this transition so difficult for children is that they think you are not coming back. They are scared that you will leave them there forever. It can be helpful to help them understand that yes, you are coming back.
It helps to be specific. A lot of young children cannot comprehend the time when you say that you are coming back at 3 pm. Or if you say that you will be back “after work”. Being time-specific with children might require using time references that they understand, for example, “I will be back after your afternoon nap”, or “Daddy will pick you up after snack time” – whatever the case may be.
6. Don’t lie
For the above to work, you must keep your promise. If you said you would be back after their afternoon nap, be there. That’s a no-brainer.
Along this line, don’t lie to your child when you are saying goodbye, only so that they will be momentarily calmed.
For example, don’t say “Stay here with Mrs. Caregiver while Mommy goes to the bathroom” – and then you don’t come back until 4 PM. Be honest, you will be back, but it won’t be “in a second”. This behavior can increase their distrust and anxiety, and make it harder down the line.
7. Avoid making it a huge fuss yourself
As an adult, you have a bit more power to control how you behave during that morning goodbye. If you have a hard time controlling your emotions, you might even end up being the one who makes the big fuss. This is important because when you portray an image of insecurity, anxiousness, or sadness, your child will know. This can further make them even more upset about the goodbye because they are sensing from you that something might be wrong. Be strong!
8. Praise their progress
In line with the philosophies of positive parenting, it is important to remember that positive reinforcement work so much better with children than negative ones. Punishing your child for being anxious and weepy during goodbyes is not going to do any good.
However, as you are preparing them for transitioning into daycare, preschool, or other long stays away from you, praise their independence. As said above, practicing being apart before starting one of these new settings helps greatly. Positive reinforcement even during these practice periods will help keep your child motivated.
9. Separation anxiety ends , but know when to seek help
The good news is, after the preschool years, most children’s separation anxiety will improve. A bit of anxiety on the first day of school here and it is normal. However, if your child is of school-age and they continue to have severe anxiety every morning before going to school, something might be up. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about it.
Beyond the first days of daycare and maybe even preschool, the stress of saying goodbye in the mornings should improve and eventually wear off. However, if you think that your child’s anxiety, when separated from you is showing up consistently outside of this context, your child may need additional help.
Sometimes it is straightforward to recognize an episode of separation anxiety but there are times when it is not clear. Some children present with frequent complaints of physical symptoms such as headaches, tummy aches, that are not really medically understood, and happen to be when transitions and separations are occurring.
Some children may get upset and weepy even in the anticipation of separating from their primary caregiver. Other children struggle to fall asleep if the primary caregiver is not with them. Some may even have a hard time socializing with other children because they would rather be with you.
It is important to know that more persistent and severe symptoms such as the ones described above may need a little more help, and your child’s pediatrician can help you identify resources that can help.