Q: I'm going back to work and sending my 12-month-old to day care. I'm worried that she'll have trouble adjusting. How can I get her ready?
A: The most important first step in preparing your daughter for going to child care is to ensure that you've selected a place that's right for her. For example, if your child gets easily overwhelmed when there's a lot going on around her, it would probably be best for her to be in a center where the classes are small, or in a family child-care setting. In general, it's best for young children to be in settings where caregivers adapt schedules to allow kids to eat and sleep based on their own daily rhythms, are sensitive and responsive to the individual needs of each child, welcome parent involvement, and provide you with information about your child on a daily basis. When you feel comfortable about the care your child will be receiving, it's much easier to share that confidence and enthusiasm with your daughter.
Once you've selected the best care for your child, there are some things you can do to get her off to a good start:
Plan some brief and then incrementally longer separations so that she learns she can be safe and well cared for by loving adults other than you. This is especially important if your daughter hasn't spent much time with other caregivers during her first year.
Take her to the child-care setting several times before her first day to help her become familiar with it. The unknown is often what's most scary. Let her explore the classroom and outside play area and interact with the caregivers and children.
Read books with her about going to child care and dealing with separations. by Martin Waddell is a good choice for her age.
Play disappearing/reappearing games such as peekaboo and hide-and-seek to help her understand that while things and people may go away, they come back. Emphasize the message that "Mommy may go away, but Mommy always comes back."
Make an audiotape of yourself reading stories and singing songs for your child to listen to at child care (if that's allowed) when she misses you. Or give her a picture of you and other family members—even the family pet—to look at when she's sad. Ask the caregivers if your daughter can keep these photos in her cubby or somewhere else that's easily accessible.
Don't forget Teddy. If the child care center allows, let your daughter bring a lovey—a blanket, doll, or stuffed animal—that gives her comfort and is a connection to home.
On your child's first day, when it's time for you to leave her, don't linger or show worry. Children look to the trusted adults in their lives for cues on how to respond to new situations. When we look and act worried and upset, our children naturally think there's something to be worried and upset about and are likely to have a harder time separating. Studies actually show that when parents say a brief, upbeat good-bye, their children stop crying and adjust more quickly.
If you are really worried about how your child is faring without you, some child care centers have observation rooms with one-way mirrors where you can watch for a few moments before leaving for work. Or give the center a brief call, just to be reassured that your daughter is doing fine.
Most important: Don't be tempted to sneak out without saying good-bye, hoping that it will ease the transition. Your child experiences this as a breach of trust. Sneaking out also sends the message that you feel you're doing something wrong by leaving her. Instead, give her the clear message that she'll be fine, and that you look forward to seeing her when you come back.