How to prepare your baby for daycare

Before mat leave ends, get your baby—and yourself—ready for a tear-free transition to daycare.

Photo: iStockphoto

Like many parents, Kara Smith was nervous about sending her infant daughter, Elizabeth, to daycare after her one-year mat leave was up. By the time Elizabeth was eight-and-a-half months old, Smith began wondering how they’d both handle the shift. “It will be a big change from ‘just Mommy’ to one caregiver for every five babies,” says the Etobicoke, Ont., mother. Smith and Elizabeth had been home together full-time since day one, with occasional babysitting help from grandparents. “I worry about separation anxiety for both of us.”

Smith’s fears are not unfounded. “From six to 12 months — the age most babies are going into daycare — they are also typically at the peak of separation and stranger anxiety,” says Claire Watson, a Toronto psychotherapist and specialist in child and parent attachment. “If you’re anxious, the baby picks that up. If you’re open to the caregiver, the baby senses you like this person, and they will feel more secure. The signal you send to your baby is vital.”

While you might be battling feelings of guilt or self-doubt about going back to work, know that over 54 percent of Canadian children aged six months to five years are in some form of non-parental child-care situation, according to Statistics Canada. And there are a few simple steps you can take to get your whole family ready for the change.

Elaine Levy, vice-president of a social services agency that runs public daycares in downtown Toronto, advises parents to provide their child with opportunities to socialize and get used to group settings during their first year. Check out your local drop-in centre and let others take care of your baby. Before officially starting the daycare drop-off routine, take time to visit your daycare as a family and get to know the new environment. “This also provides an opportunity to communicate and share information with staff about your child,” says Levy.

Carol Wagg from London Children’s Connection, a non-profit that provides child-care programs in London, Ont., tells parents to do their research: Will the child-care centre allow a special object or teddy? Who will be the primary caregiver? Schedule a time to give them the low- down on your kid. “They need to know sleeping and eating habits, what comforts them. Is there a special song they love? Do they like to be rocked to sleep? What soothes them?”

If possible, transition slowly: Start by leaving your baby for an hour a day, then add by increments and gradually lengthen the day. “The baby doesn’t understand when you say you are coming back, they learn from experience,” says Wagg. She also advises putting on a brave face, but don’t overdo it with the positivity. “Babies know when you are faking it, so if you are overly exuberant or do a prolonged goodbye, this can be more distressful than reassuring. It’s very normal to be stressed, and you might cry after you have left. In fact, you will probably cry more than the baby.”

Most important, do not sneak out, even though it is tempting. “Babies need a proper goodbye — it builds trust. If mom or dad sneaks out, the child is more stressed and it takes a lot longer to calm down, because ‘Mommy disappeared,’” says Wagg. “Tell them, ‘I am going, then I will be back,’ then give them a kiss and leave quickly. Make sure the caregiver is there to support, comfort or distract your baby. They might cry, but it should stop in a few minutes.”

A version of this article appeared in our March 2013 issue with the headline “Daycare prep,” p. 78.

Read more:
What to do if your preschooler won’t stop crying at drop-off
How to find and pay for child care
When toddlers are really attached to caregivers

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