How parents manage their children's stress about starting daycare

Maternity leave has begun, but your thoughts are already preoccupied. Before you can say “maternity leave,” it’ll all be over and you’ll be staring down the prospect of leaving your child at daycare.

As a parent, it’s completely normal to worry. This is an adjustment that’ll test both you and your baby, putting you through a full range of emotions.

Be prepared

For your child, daycare will ultimately be a wonderful experience filled with excitement. New colours, smells and sounds await them. Bonds will be created with daycare workers and your child will learn to cope with other children as they all vie for a piece of their caretakers’ time and attention.

For you, understandably, this’ll take some getting used to. Your baby—the same one you’ve been feverishly protecting since birth—is now entering the “real world” (of sorts). You’ll need to learn to let go, trust that someone else can take care of him or her, and accept that that someone else may do things differently than you. (That's a lot of "letting go,” right?)

Once you’ve found the perfect daycare for your little angel, visited it with your child so he or she can observe the environment in your presence, asked all the questions nagging you, labeled all your child’s materials and filled out all the necessary info about your child’s habits… (deep breath)… the adventure can finally begin.

Take things slowly

Slow, gradual integration will allow your child to get used to his or her new surroundings more easily. Since younger children’s long-term memories aren’t all that well-developed, the best way to integrate them is to schedule daycare days close together (i.e. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), rather than far apart (i.e. Monday, Wednesday, Friday), for four hours daily. Best-case scenario, this process should take 4–6 weeks.

The dreaded first day

From the moment your child wakes up, his or her routine will be turned upside down. Even you’ll feel like you’re in more of a hurry than usual as you scramble to do a zillion things.

Just remember to stop for a second, eat something and, most importantly, talk to your child. Explain what’s going on and how the day is about to unfold, even if he or she is only a couple of months old. It’s amazing how the sound of your voice can sooth your child in a stressful situation—and, trust us, you’ll need it in that moment.

Tears and separation

At first, your child might cry (real talk: you might, too) and it's completely normal.

Separation can be a tough thing to deal with, depending on your personality. If you’re at work, your heart might not be in it because you’re thinking too much about your child. Instead, try to see this as an opportunity to enjoy some time to yourself without any strings attached. If you really need to calm your nerves, though, call the daycare to check in. (Don’t sweat it; lots of parents do it at the beginning.)

For the first few days, your child will be preoccupied exploring his or her curiosity about the new digs. Once that feeling wears off, that’s when things start getting difficult. Your child’s fear of abandonment may kick in with the realization that these new surroundings are here to stay and that he or she will start being around you less. Even if this situation is excruciating, take comfort in the fact that your child is getting acquainted to both positive and negative emotions.

Make sure the lines of communication about daycare are open between you and your child, even if he or she doesn’t fully understand everything that’s going on.

Talk about the fun things he or she can do there and even talk about what you’ll be doing during the day. Constantly reassure your child that you will be coming to pick him or her up using specific references to time (before lunch, after nap-time, etc.). Even talking to the daycare worker in front of your child will show him or her that you trust that person, which will affirm the bond being created between your child and the caretaker.

Finally, your child might also cry when he sees you again at the end of the day—again, totally healthy. Comfort your child by telling him or her that you understand and put these emotions into words ("You were sad to see mommy go, but I came back and I missed you, too!").

Back at home, talk about how things are going at daycare. Display your child’s drawings, crafts and other masterpieces, along with pictures of him or her together with the daycare worker. Most importantly, express how proud you are.

Before long, the daycare worker will become someone whose presence will be enough to comfort your child and your little one will leave you in the morning with a smile on his or her face, ready to confront another day of adventures with daycare friends.

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