All the Feels: Helping Young Children Cope with the Return to Child Care
Babies and toddlers may struggle with returning to child care settings. Here's how adults can help.
There’s so much for parents to think about as child care programs reopen—from worries about their child’s health to welcome relief at this return to “normal” life. Babies and toddlers, though, have gotten used to spending their days with the people they love most. They may struggle with returning to child care settings—because it feels like a very big change to their daily routine.
During this transition period, parents and early educators may see new behaviors like:
Crying and Distress
Babies may not remember their child care setting or caregiver after being away for months. Returning to these settings may feel—to a baby—more like the first time. Adults can help when they:
- Share information about what soothes their baby. Early educators can meet your baby’s needs best when they understand what words and strategies you use for soothing. You can also ask about leaving a t-shirt or other clothing item with your scent on it for your baby. Educators can keep this item close during feeding, to ease distress at drop-off, or anytime they are having difficulty soothing your child. Leaving a family photo or special object (stuffed animal or “blanky”) for your toddler serves the same purpose.
- Respond to the baby’s cues in a timely way. Noticing—and responding—to a baby’s cues help them feel safe and secure. This is especially important in the child care setting, so babies feel confident that their needs will be met by their caregivers as they are by their parents.
More Tantrums and Protests
Toddlers (two and up) are seeking independence in many ways—including saying “no” to adult rules. This is all very normal but when the rule is “wear a mask” or “play in your taped square,” toddlers may not have a choice. It’s normal and natural for them to protest these and other new COVID-related rules. You may even see toddlers cope with their confusion or distress by using protests and tantrums more frequently—about most anything. These behaviors are often a way that young children try to establish some sense of control in a world that that they don’t completely understand. Adults can help when they:
- Stay calm and kind, and help children communicate their feelings. Toddlers rely on their caregivers to help them regulate their emotions. When adults spiral right along with children, it dials up the tantrum. Instead, label children’s feelings using words (“you’re feeling mad”) or by using a feelings chart. Offer children an acceptable way to communicate their feelings (“would you like to stamp your feet or play a mad song on the drum?”). Stay close and offer physical comfort (hugs, rocking, back-rub).
- Offer a choice. Choices provide a sense of control. When a child is beginning to tantrum, point out that they have “two great choices—you can help me get snack ready or you can look at your favorite book.” The same strategy can be at child care.
Regression means that child returns (usually temporarily) to using behaviors associated with a younger child. A child who is using the toilet may begin having potty accidents. A child who has been sleeping through the night may begin to wake. A child who uses a fork may ask to be fed by their parent. Regression usually mean that a child is feeling particularly overwhelmed and unable to manage their stress. Parents, don’t worry: You are not hurting your child by returning them to child care! It’s just that this shift is a BIG (caps on) change. Adults can help when they:
Make time for lots of connection. Be generous with hugs, cuddles, rocking, singing, stories, and brushing hair. Don’t feel like you are “giving in” if you roll with their babyish behavior: Remember, you’re giving them what they need right now. If they want to be fed, then—for now—spoon-feed them. (While group care may limit how flexible early educators can be, work with your child’s educator to come up with a plan on how to respond.) Once children are feeling confident and secure again, they’ll return to big-kid behaviors.
Use predictable daily routines. Routines help children feel safe because they know what will happen next. Sometimes a daily chart—with a photo or picture of each of the day’s activities—can be helpful. Remind children of what’s going to happen using first-then statements: “First we’ll eat lunch and then we’ll have quiet time.” Children feel reassured when there is consistency between home and child care settings. When possible, consider sticking to your child care program’s schedule of mealtime and naptime.
Some aggressive behavior during the toddler years is 100% normal. Toddlers say with their bodies what they can’t yet say with language. Returning to group care after months away is a deep dive back into the world of sharing, turn-taking, managing lots of sensory input (sounds! colors! smells!), and living by someone else’s schedule. For some children, the stress is too much and they use aggressive behavior—hitting, biting, throwing, pushing, and more—to communicate their upset. Adults can help when they:
Set age-appropriate limits on behavior. A clear, consistent response to aggression (“Hitting is not okay. Hitting hurts.”) teaches children how their actions affect others. Focusing on the child who was hurt is important (to avoid reinforcing the behavior). Help the child who hit to re-enter the activity. Be sure to show children lots of positive attention when their behavior is appropriate.
Try to understand the meaning behind the behavior. Does a toddler tend to hit during music activities? (Maybe the sounds are too much.) Does a toddler push peers when they want to play with a toy? (Model how to ask for a turn.) Try making a change to help your child be more successful next time. You might let them choose to sit away from peers during music time or see if the program can offer multiples of a favorite toy to reduce the need for turn-taking. (For more on understanding challenging behavior, check out this article.)
If your child is having a really hard time, ask for help. If you are concerned about your child’s return to child care, consider talking with their health care provider or working with an infant mental health consultant to access needed support during this period.
As we all navigate the effects of COVID on our daily lives, even adults are feeling the stress of change and uncertainty. Babies and toddlers are no different. But when all the child’s most important adults—parents and early educators—work together, the return to child care can be a positive milestone for everyone. You can read more on returning to child care here.
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