Toddler behaviour

Returning to work

Headed back to work after maternity or parenting leave? Helpful transition tips for you and your child

By Susan Spicer
Returning to work

“The first day was the hardest,” says Sarah Kirmani, who returned to work when her daughter Alina, was a year old. “Alina was upset when I dropped her off and I was missing her at work; luckily my co-workers were very understanding,” says Kirmani. “It does get better though; my advice is to take it one day at a time.”

Your return to work is a big transition. Your baby is adjusting to a new caregiver and a new environment. You are suddenly juggling the demands of work and a household alongside a baby who has changed your life over the past year. As if that wasn’t enough to exhaust you, chances are your baby needs more attention at night, which means you’re short of sleep.

“It’s important for parents to recognize that there will be a period of adjustment,” says Liz Hatherell, a La Leche League leader and parent educator in Winnipeg. “And some days will be better than others. It can take several weeks to settle into a new routine.”

Kirmani began preparing for her return to work several weeks in advance by taking Alina for hour-long visits with her caregiver, and gradually increasing the time. “That helped both of us because we went through the exercise of saying goodbye, and had the experience of being apart from each other,” says Kirmani.

Encourage a bond “Parents should think of themselves as a matchmaker between their baby and his caregiver,” says Hatherell. “Treat this person as having similar status as a grandparent.” It may be possible to arrange a visit to your home by the caregiver to let your baby know the caregiver is a person you trust. If that’s not possible, talk to your baby about the caregiver, and post pictures on your fridge.

Get to know the daycare Arrange to visit the centre with your baby to meet the staff. Talk about what you’re seeing with your baby. If you seem excited and comfortable about the centre, chances are your baby will too.


Send reminders of home Babies connect to other people through their senses, says Hatherell, so a scarf with your perfume on it, a favourite blanket, pictures of the baby’s family or pet, or a favourite song on a little CD player can be comforting.

Establish a morning routine Kirmani says getting dressed before breakfast is a cue to Alina that it’s a daycare day, and she’s a little better prepared to let go of her mom.

Maximize your time together One of the hardest things for Kirmani was that Alina was tired after her day and needed to go to bed earlier. “I would play with her rather than doing the dishes,” says Kirmani, “or we’d go for a walk or just cuddle.”

Minimize meal prep Some frozen casseroles in the freezer and quick meal ingredients in the pantry will help free up your time during the first weeks back at work.

Give the baby time to transition from caregiver to parent Hatherell says it’s important that parents are sensitive to their baby’s needs at the end of the day. For some little ones, the transition is immediate; the baby jumps into your arms. Others need a bit of time to switch gears from caregiver to parent. If your baby avoids eye contact or seems distant, it may mean she needs a little adjustment time. “Parents can help by making eye contact with the baby, even if she’s not returning the favour, and expressing their delight in seeing her,” says Hatherell. Reconnect through touch If one parent gives the baby a bath after work, the other can prepare dinner. A warm bath is not only a chance to play — it may also refresh your baby enough to get through dinner quite happily. “Skin-to-skin contact with a parent is also a great way to reconnect,” says Hatherell.


Minimize night waking Babies who are getting used to daycare may need more attention at night, says Hatherell. “Many parents find it smoothes nighttime parenting when they practise some kind of shared sleep. Every child will be different. Some may not be able to get through the night without some kind of physical closeness, others will just need mom’s T-shirt beside them to breathe in her smells.”

Share the night shift Once you become a two-working-parent family, both of you may feel more rested if you alternate nights on tending to the baby when he wakes.

Continue breastfeeding If you’re still breastfeeding, now may not be a good time to wean her. Breastfeeding can be a wonderful way to reconnect at home after a long day apart. You might also consider pumping some breastmilk to leave for your baby the next day.

If your baby hasn’t drunk from a bottle or a cup, try introducing a cup with a built-in straw for breastmilk, which is easy for the baby to suck from. Most won’t take to a bottle readily if they haven’t had one before, says lactation consultant Teresa Pitman.

Some mothers find their breastfed babies drink less during the adjustment period. Pitman suggests offering lots of high-liquid foods: soups, juicy fruits and breastmilk or fruit juice ice pops.


Cut yourself some slack Returning to work can be stressful, but it can also be invigorating, if you enjoy your work. Talk with your partner about dividing up household duties and baby care so neither of you feels overextended.

Acknowledge your own feelings “It’s normal to miss your baby or feel upset,” says Hatherell.

For Kirmani, talking to her husband, and to friends who had been through the transition back to work, helped when she was struggling with her emotions. “I could also call the caregiver,” says Kirmani, “to make sure she was settling in.”

In the beginning, says Kirmani, Alina would be quite upset at pickup time. Now, two months later, Alina is excited to see her mom, but not in a rush to leave daycare. “Knowing my daughter is well-cared for and having fun makes me feel good about being at work.”

This article was originally published on Dec 13, 2010

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