Settling into daycare well takes time, intention, and creativity. An unfamiliar environment, new caregivers, and a vastly more stimulating space can lead to stress in young children. Fortunately, children are resilient.
Most children eventually settle into daycare once they become accustomed to their new routines. In fact, most children settle into daycare and preschool before their parents. Parents can still do a lot to help support their young children as they transition into a daycare setting.
Get to know the staff. Children build trust with caregivers with time, consistency, and connection. As a parent, you must also build trust and get to know the providers who will be caring for your little one. If your daycare allows it, schedule time to observe different routines. Connect with providers and ask them questions about their values and the things that they enjoy doing with children. Attend informational events and workshops hosted by your daycare or by staff members.
Ramping up. Children need time to adjust to new environments, people, and routines. Whenever possible, work out a plan with the daycare staff to "ramp up" your child's time in care. See the sample plan below. By following a plan that slowly increases the time while decreasing proximity to you, you support your child's ability to cope with the natural (and reasonable) stress of separating from you.
Reassurance and confidence. Your confidence in the whole transition to daycare matters, perhaps even more than anything else. If you waiver, if you doubt or feel uneasy, your child will feel that way too. You are their barometer for the world, and they look to you in times of stress. When it is time to part, you must remain confident and reassure them that all is well and that you will both be okay and happy.
Transitional objects. Young children benefit from keeping a transitional object when separated from loved ones. A transitional object is something that the child holds that provides a sense of security, often because it reminds them of you, and of home. For many children, this is a loved stuffie, blanket, pillow, or piece of clothing. I often encourage parents to identify a new transitional object specifically for daycare. This can be in addition to an existing object. The new transitional object should symbolize returning to the child, as one of the greatest fears children have with school or daycare is abandonment. A set of keys to the house, an old driver's license or rewards card; something special that represents you and your home.
Be mindful of projecting. Many parents struggle when their child first enters daycare. They have adult worries and anxieties, and their own thoughts and feelings about the situation. Be careful about not projecting your fears and anxiety onto your child. Young children are incredibly perceptive and attuned to parental anxiety and stress. Try to process your own emotions related to the separation and your child being in daycare first. This can help reduce the chances of projecting your anxiety to your child.
Encourage and expect secure attachment. Children can develop secure attachments with many caring adults. Many parents struggle with feelings of guilt and jealousy, fear and inadequacy when their children begin to build close relationships with daycare staff. It is so normal for parents to feel this way. It's also really healthy for children to eventually develop secure attachments with caregivers. If you expect your child to occasionally prefer and feel safe with someone else before it happens, hopefully, it will feel less painful when it happens. Let yourself grieve if you need to. And know that your child can still be securely attached to you AND others at the same time.
Note** Many parents seek consultation about when to begin daycare. Presumably they are asking me if there is a recommended age children should start daycare. In truth, babies and children develop well both in and out of daycare. More important than baby's age is parental readiness and resources. Try to better understand your own feelings and ambivalence first. You'll figure out what's best for your family.