Despite the stigma sometimes attached to it, daycare can be good for a child. Going to daycare allows toddlers and babies to become more independent, learn new things, and score that ever-important socialization skill at an earlier age. Even though it might be very beneficial for them — and is often a sheer necessity for working parents — it can still take some time to get your child used to daycare. And as you transition them to daycare, there can be a lot of frustration, anxiety, and tears — from both of you. However, with a little foresight, you can likely minimize the bumps in the road. “In a world where working is a necessity to keep our families comfortable, daycare is a place that many parents consider,” Christina Runnels, a licensed professional counselor-supervisor, tells Romper. “The decision to put your child in daycare can be a difficult one, but absolutely worthwhile if you navigate it correctly.”
How to help a baby get used to day care
Despite your best efforts to choose a day care you adore and psyche yourself up for the big day, there’s nothing that can quite prepare you for the first day care drop-off. But you should try to keep your composure as much as possible, Runnels advises. “As difficult as it might be, maintain as much calm as possible on your kiddo’s first day of daycare,” she says. “Children will look to their parents to interpret new situations, so parents should ensure they are comfortable with the daycare setting prior to introducing it to the child.” After all, if you’re visibly uneasy, your child will sense that and also feel unsure of the situation. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have your moment to cry about it, if you need to — just try to keep it together until after you’ve waved goodbye.
If you want day care to go successfully, you’ll also need to ensure that it fits in with your child’s schedule. “A big part of day care is adjusting to routines,” Theresa Bertuzzi, Chief Program Development Officer and co-founder of Tiny Hoppers, an award-winning early learning center and day care provider. “Babies that have a good routine at home are better suited to make the transition to day care.” Parents can help with this by making sure that your baby gets enough sleep at nighttime so that they’re ready for another day at day care.
It's also a good idea to do a dry run with your day care before the first day care drop-off. “Day care is a great environment to socialize your child; however, introducing your child to other children before day care may be beneficial to see how they interact and if there are any issues,” Bertuzzi adds. “Try to set up a time to introduce your baby to their day care staff before having to leave them alone. This familiarity will help them when it is time to say goodbye.”
How long does it take a baby to adjust to day care?
Some babies adapt easily to daycare, and others struggle with the transition. But if Baby is a little reticent to warm up to their new caregivers, don’t panic right away, Dr. Cindy Hovington, a child development expert. “Studies have shown that the adoption period can take up to six months for some kids, so don't worry if it seems to take your child a little longer,” Dr. Hovington explains. “This adaption period will happen every time a new educator comes into your child's life, so try to find a day care with a low turnover rate to avoid this happening too often with a child that is younger than 3 years-old.”
Above all, be sure to take the adaptation period slowly so that your child has time to adjust or even ask questions. Find out from your day care if they offer in-person meet and greets, or even FaceTime calls so that they become familiar with their daycare educator. One study found that babies whose mothers were present during the adaptation period prior to entering day care had substantially lower cortisol (stress) levels than infants who were insecurely attached. That’s why being present as much as possible during the transition can help Baby bond better with their new caregivers.
How to help a toddler adjust to day care
If your toddler will be entering day care for the first time, it’s important to seek out a care center with the environment you think they’ll need to thrive. “You should think about who your child is and how they function best; after all, there are many different types of day care programs, such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia and language immersion,” explains Runnels. “Match the type of day care program with your child’s personality and unique needs.” By doing so, you’ll help your child to adapt more easily to day care, decrease the chances of big tears at drop-off, and let your child truly enjoy the time they spend there.
Once you’ve picked the perfect place for your child, find out who will oversee caring for them. This way, your child can get to know them before they even start daycare. Consider asking for a photo of the day care provider and placing it on your fridge to spark conversations with your kids about their new caregivers, Hovington suggests. “You can incorporate their new educator's name into your daily routines,” she says. “’I wonder what Amy is having for breakfast?’ or ‘I love playing building blocks with you. I wonder if Amy can build a tall tower with her blocks?’” The more your child knows about day care and the people they’ll be interacting with, the safer they’ll feel — and their day care transition will be easier, too.
Lots of pretend play prior to starting day care can also allow your toddler to express their emotions and give them some reassurance. “You can play with stuffed animals and your child could be the day care educator,” says Hovington. “Pretend that one of the animals is worried and are hesitating to go play with the educator (your child). Ask your child ‘How can we make Bear feel more comfortable? Maybe we can play its favorite game?’” See what your child suggests and then, on their first day of day care, remind them of these suggestions on the way so that if they feel nervous, they can be reminded of what they can do to feel better. You might even want to let them hold onto a lovey when they walk into daycare so they’ll have something from home to snuggle with.
How long should it take to get your toddler used to day care?
No matter how much you prepare your child for day care, they might still cry on the first day — and that’s OK at first. “Children are little people with big personalities, and depending on how they are feeling that day dictates how they respond during drop-off as well as pick-up time,” Runnels explains. “Within a couple of weeks, your child should be more comfortable during the transition time, and it should go more smoothly.” That said, if your child is consistently upset when you take them to day care and they’re not adjusting, it could be a cause for concern.
“Settling into a new environment will look different for every child,” Hovington adds. “Some will say goodbye on the first day and run off to play with their new educator, while others will spend weeks pulling at your shirt trying to keep you from leaving.” Since you might not initially know if your child is struggling with the adjustment period, look to their other behaviors as an indicator of their overall wellness. For example, are they eating and sleeping well? Are they having more temper tantrums or acting out? These can all be cues that they’re not doing well with day care, and you might need to reassess the situation, without overreacting. While you’re trying to figure out if they’re reacting to the transition, or if there is something bigger going on, “try to connect more with them,” Hovington suggests. “More 1-on-1 time at night, more cuddles in bed and more moments in the car discussing what worry feels like or what to do when they miss you during the day.”
Day care can be daunting for a child of any age, but it’s definitely doable if you prepare ahead of time. And when you pick up your child at the end of the day, it will be a happy (and hopefully tear-free) reunion for both of you.
Ahnert, L., Gunnar, M., Lamb, M., Barthel, M. (2004) Transition to child care: associations with infant-mother attachment, infant negative emotion, and cortisol elevations, PubMed, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15144478/
Christina Runnels, MA, LPC-S, LCDC, PMH-C, a licensed professional counselor-supervisor