Helping Your Child Adjust to Childcare

Learn how help your child adjust to different types of childcare environments.
Preparing for the Transition to Childcare

In this article, you will find:

Transitioning to Out-of-Home Care

Depending upon your family situation, your child may have no trouble at all getting used to a new childcare situation. On the other hand—particularly if he or she is a certain age and has been home with you as the primary caregiver for the past few years—going to a new location or having a new caregiver in the home all day may prove to be a difficult transition.

The good news is that most children do eventually make peace with the new order. If you did not ask the childcare provider during your interview how she handles children with separation anxiety, be sure to do so before the first day your child is in day care. In addition, there are steps that you can take to facilitate the change in routine and ensure your child is comfortable with the different setting.

More: Separation Anxiety: When New Moms Return to Work

Preparing Your Child: A Few Weeks Out

Read Books About Going to Daycare

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, they are in an entirely new environment. The more time they have 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 them visit the facility or family day care home, preferably more than once, for short visits. They can interact with the primary caregiver at the facility, as well as with the other children that will be in their room, or not interact at all.

It may take some time before your child is ready to participate with their 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. 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 them (they 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 they will feel the same.

Another way to ease this big change in your child's life is to get them on an adequate sleep schedule at least several days, if not weeks, before the first time at day care, if they are 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 backward 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 them to bed. Sing to them, read a book or just talk (or let them talk). Not only will these become cherished moments for both of you, but the dependability of the routine will help them deal with feelings of uncertainty about going to day care.

Preparing Your Child: The Night Before

When packing up for day care either the night before or the morning of the first day, you could try having them 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 them bringing a blanket or a toy that does not pose a hazard to others.

If there is a good reason for not letting them bring an item, let them pick out a picture—or better yet, help them make a small photo album or scrapbook—that they can look at during the day. Your child may even come up with their 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.

Preparing Your Child: The Big Day and Beyond

Preparing for the Big Day

On the big day, when it is time to leave your child with the caregiver and make your way to work, reassure them 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 them interested in an activity.

Then you should leave.

Your child may show some distress, and it is perfectly all right to give them a big hug, but it also may be necessary to be firm in explaining that you have to leave. If they remain 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 them, or by showing that their 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.

More: 8 Warning Signs Your Child's Daycare Isn't Right for You

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 their own mom or dad. Having a 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 their day, whenever possible, will help to keep them happy and secure at the center or family care home. If your childcare is close to work, perhaps you can have lunch with them 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 them just because you are apart.