Starting day care is a major transition in any child’s life. For some, it’s the first time they’ve ever been away from their parents for a significant amount of time and the first time they’ve ever interacted with such a large group of other children. For others, it may not be their first child care experience, but they might be adjusting to a new teacher, center or in-home day care. When you’re starting your kids at a new day care, one of the most important things you can do is prepare them for the major changes ahead.
We asked Katrina Macasaet, a child development expert and content specialist for Zero to Three; Traci Sanders, a family child care provider and author of “Right At Home: A Parent’s Guide to Choosing Quality Child Care”; and Arika Molitor, a Texas child care worker with day care experience, to share their best tips for helping your child’s transition to day care go as smoothly as possible for them, the teachers and for yourself.
1. Visit before your first day
The first drop-off will likely go more smoothly if your child already recognizes the space and their teachers.
“When you first meet teachers, they are strangers to you and they are strangers to your children, so you have to feel comfortable with them and with the environment,” says Macasaet.
She recommends visiting the day care with your child more than once before the big day, if possible.
“I think it’s also a good sign if the program is willing to have you come back and visit multiple times to see different times of the day and different activities that they do and those changes,” she says.
2. Talk about the new routine
Even though day care will ultimately be a positive experience for your child, it’s totally normal for them to feel fearful. That’s why talking about the new routine before it starts is so important.
“Change is scary for people of all ages,” says Molitor. “Explain to your child where they will be going and why, and talk about it over and over again in the days leading up to their first day.”
3. Make changes to your sleep schedule
If you know the day care’s napping schedule and you have enough time before your child starts, try to slowly shift their at-home nap schedule to the one they will follow at day care. If you can’t do this, it’s OK and the teachers will help them get to sleep. But if you can make even slight changes, teachers will be forever grateful, says Molitor.
4. Practice independence
Because day care providers are working with multiple children at once, it can be an asset for your child to know how to do some things independently.
“Any skill a child can do unassisted, the more it helps the provider to focus on other skills,” says Sanders. “For instance, if a child can put on his or her clothes or wash his or her own hands, that’s a huge help.”
5. Have a date night
Yes, really! If your child isn’t used to going a few hours without you, Sanders says some time with a babysitter will be good for both of you.
“Go out on a movie date with your spouse for a couple hours at a time to acclimate your child to the process and to show your child that you always return,” she says. “Separation anxiety can be a tough challenge for parents and children.”
6. Get them excited
If your child is old enough to understand, read stories and watch videos or shows about positive day care experiences, says Sanders.
“Build it up to be a fun place to visit, and talk about the provider by name,” she says. “‘Do you remember Ms. Suzy we met the other day? She was nice, wasn’t she? She had some great toys. What was your favorite?’”
7. Pack like a pro
If you have a baby, Molitor says to pack multiple changes of clothing (three to four should be good) in the event of diaper blowouts and spilled food. Bring all bottle supplies and breast milk or formula that caregivers will need for the day. Also, ask if your day care provides diapers so you know whether or not you need to pack them. For older kids, packing just one or two outfits with extra underwear should do the trick, in case they have bathroom accidents, spills or get dirty from activities.
8. Label everything
Day care teachers are tasked with keeping up with dozens of items for the different kids in their care. Labeling clothing items, blankets, stuffed animals and diapering and feeding items will make their lives much easier and ensure that you don’t lose anything.
9. Bring a comfort item
“Have older children — toddlers and up — bring something that reminds them of home and helps them go to sleep during nap time, like a blanket or stuffed animal,” recommends Molitor. Babies, of course, can’t usually have these comfort items in their cribs until after age 1 for sleep safety reasons.
10. Give yourself extra time
Be prepared for drop-off to take longer than usual on the first day, and even throughout the first week, says Molitor. If it’s possible to go into work a bit later the first few days or give yourself some extra time in the mornings, it may help the transition go more smoothly, since kids won’t feel the stress of being rushed.
11. Make a plan with your child
Tell your child where you’re going and exactly when you’ll be back, and make sure you follow through on it.
“Use consistent dialogue that’s preemptive and lets them know what the routine is and that you’ll always come back for them,” says Macasaet. “Even though young children may not have the concept of time yet, they do have a concept of routine. If you let them know, ‘I’ll be right here when you wake up from your nap,’ they associate it with a routine and then they know, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad. I eat my snack, I play with my friends, I go down for a nap, and then when I wake up, mom and dad are here to pick me up.’”
12. Resist the urge to linger
Once you say goodbye and leave the room at drop-off, don’t come back in. It’s natural to want to comfort your child if they’re upset, but if you keep leaving and re-entering the room, it may make it take even longer to soothe them.
“A good provider will step in to help the child feel comforted and find a way to engage them in what’s going on in class, and it’s important for them to learn to trust the provider in that scenario,” says Molitor.
13. Be patient
“There will be good days, and there will be tougher days,” says Macasaet. “There will be days when your child just doesn’t want you to leave, and that’s OK. You’re their primary caregiver. You’re their person.”
But, she adds, children are resilient, and they will make this adjustment when given time and understanding from the people around them.
“If they recognize that the environment is safe and that the people around that environment are there to support and care for them, then it will get easier,” she says.