Enrolling a child in a day care center or family day care presents a whole set of potential adjustment problems. Not only is the child with a new caregiver, he or she is in an entirely new environment. The more time he or she has to get used to the idea before going to day care for the first time, the smoother the transition is likely to be.
One of the best ways to put your child at ease prior to starting day care is to have him or her visit the facility or family day care home, preferably more than once, for short visits. He or she can interact with the primary caregiver at the facility, as well as with the other children that will be in his or her room, or not interact at all. It may take some time before your child is ready to participate with his or her classmates, and that is all right. Your job is to be supportive of your child and not push him or her into playing with or talking to others if he or she is not yet comfortable doing so.
Some experts suggest reading books with your child about going to day care before the first day arrives. One children's book dealing with separation anxiety is Benjamin Comes Back, by Amy Brandt and Janice Lee Porter (Redleaf Press, 1999). Both before and after reading together, talk about your child's feelings. Always be reassuring, explain why this arrangement is going to be good for him or her (he or she will make friends, get to play, etc.), and above all, remain positive. Your child is likely to adopt your outlook. If you have a bad attitude about the childcare situation or your return to work, chances are good that he or she will feel the same.
Another way to ease this big change in your child's life is to get him or her on an adequate sleep schedule at least several days, if not weeks, before the first time at day care, if he or she is not already on one. Grade-school-aged children typically need at least 10 or 11 hours of sleep every night; toddlers and preschoolers need even more. Determine how much time you and your child will need to unhurriedly prepare to leave each morning, and make that your child's wake-up time. Then count backwards from that time, 10, 11, or 12 hours, depending on your child's age and sleep pattern, and make that bedtime. Then keep to that schedule. A regular bedtime every night will help give a sense of security to a child in transition.
Try to spend a few minutes with your child when putting him or her to bed. Sing to him or her, read a book, or just talk (or let him or her talk). Not only will these become cherished moments for both of you, but the dependability of the routine will help him or her deal with feelings of uncertainty about going to day care.
When packing up for day care either the night before or the morning of the first day, you could try having him or her pick out a special item to bring. Be sure to check with the day care director first, to see if there are items they will not allow. A good facility will have space to store this belonging, and should not have a problem with him or her bringing a blanket or a toy that does not pose a hazard to others. If there is a good reason for not letting him or her bring an item, let him or her pick out a pictureor better yet, help him or her make a small photo album or scrapbookthat he or she can look at during the day. Your child may even come up with his or her own ideas for making the first day more enjoyable.
The transition to the new childcare setting may go more smoothly if you can take it in small steps. If possible, consider bringing your child in for an hour or two the first time. Of course, if you are beginning a new job and cannot take time off, staying in the day care center or home with your child will not be an option. One way around this would be to go into the facility or home an hour earlier than you normally would for the first several days, to give your child time to become accustomed to the surroundings. If you do this, however, you will want to move bedtime up an hour as well, so that your child still gets the necessary amount of sleep.
On the big day, when it is time to leave your child with the caregiver and make your way to work, reassure him or her that you will return at a specific time (such as after lunch, after naptime, or some other time that your child will understand). Try, with the caregiver's help, to get him or her interested in an activity. Then you should leave. He or she may show some distress, and it is perfectly all right to give your child a big hug, but it also may be necessary to be firm in explaining that you have to leave. If he or she remains resistant to your leaving, the caregiver should take over and allow you to go. Of course, you can and should contact the childcare provider at least once during the course of the day to see how your child is progressing.
A pattern of separation anxiety may repeat for more than a week or two. It is important not to react strongly to your child's anxiety by becoming impatient with him or her, or by showing that his or her behavior is upsetting you. Keep communicating with the childcare provider to see if your child remains agitated for a good part of the day or if the tears dry up shortly after you leave. If the situation does not seem to resolve itself quickly, and the pattern continues for more than a couple of weeks, it will be necessary to examine the childcare setting to see if there is more than just separation anxiety.
In some cases, it is not your leaving the day care facility that is traumatic for your child, but simply arriving at the center or home with your child triggers the distress. Once a tantrum becomes a regular morning activity, it may be a difficult habit to break. If your child acts out in your presence but calms down once you leave, one possible answer might be to have someone else take your child to day care for several days. Most parents are familiar with the phenomenon of the child who is a little angel for everyone but his or her own mom or dad. Having an third party drop your child off (if you have a close friend or relative who can do this for you) may help to cut off the custom of throwing a fit at the day care door.
Even if your child is adjusting fantastically to the new childcare situation, your continued involvement in his or her day, whenever possible, will help to keep him or her happy and secure at the center or family care home. If your childcare is close to work, perhaps you can have lunch with him or her on the same day or days during the week. Even if it is hard to visit on a regular basis, visiting periodically to bring a special snack to your child or read a book to the class will reinforce that you have not forgotten about him or her just because you are apart.