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Transitioning Into Care

When the process of deciding on the need for care, type of care, and place or provider of care is complete, it is time to begin the preparation for and transition into the chosen care. This can be a trying and emotional time for both parents and children.

For new parents leaving their infant, the majority of the adjustment will take place on the parent’s end, as the infant will most likely remain content so long as someone is there to hold, feed and change him or her as needed. The parents of a new infant can experience the transition to day care as a time of emotional turmoil and guilt feelings around “leaving” or even “abandoning” their child to return to work. Such feelings are completely normal, and parents should not feel any shame or embarrassment during the workday when they may become emotional thinking about their child. During the initial weeks, some parents find it helpful to call the care provider throughout the day to see how the child is doing. For other parents, this causes more stress and the feeling of saying goodbye over and over throughout the day.

Establishing a good relationship with the caregiver can also help to alleviate guilt feelings. Communication at drop-off and pick-up times is vital. Parents should share how the child did during the previous evening and when the child has last eaten and been changed. At the end of the day, the caregiver can (and should) do the same. This will help parents to feel involved in the daily activities even when they are unable to be present for them. This will also help to establish a consistent routine, which is important for minimizing the stress potential of the transition process for both the parent and the child. By performing consistent drop-offs and pick-ups, both the parent and the child get used to the routine and know when the separation will start and stop. For the child, establishing this routine will help to establish trust that the parent will be returning each day.

It is important to prepare a child old enough to understand separation for the transition to day care ahead of time by talking about the upcoming change to day care in positive terms. This is true whether the child is transitioning to a first-time day care situation or is instead moving to a new care provider. Describe the way the child's day will unfold to the child in advance of bringing them to care. Walk through what the new day will look like: where the child will be, what activities he or she will get to do, what people he or she will be with, etc. If possible, begin the transition gradually with a few hours per day during the first week and then moving into a full-time situation.

It should be recognized that there will be times when the primary childcare provider will be unable to provide care (due to the provider or the child falling ill, vacations/holidays, emergency maintenance/repairs at the center, etc.). For this reason, at the same time that parents are getting their child ready for the transition into care, they should also develop a backup plan for making sure that the child has a safe place to go when the primary day care environment is not available. In some cases, one parent may have flexibility with their work schedule to be able to take the day off and provide care for the child when this becomes necessary. Making a list of alternative care facilities or babysitters that can handle childcare on a drop-in or hourly basis can come in handy in emergencies as well. Alternatively, relatives or friends may be able to provide temporary care, or parents may be able to share care responsibilities, with each taking off a portion of the work day for this purpose. The more options the backup plan contains, the more comfortable parents may feel in knowing that their child and the whole family will not suffer unnecessarily in the event of planned or emergency disruptions in the primary care facility's operation.

With regard to the primary care facility, establishing a consistent drop-off and pickup routine is critical for the child's sense of security during care. Parents should make sure that they are not late for pick-up times. When late pickups are unavoidable, the parent must call ahead to warn the care provider and the child so that the child doesn't feel abandoned. If the child has a special object (blanket, toy, etc.) that provides comfort, it may be helpful for the child to bring it along to day care (if this is permitted by the caregiver). Parents should also try to avoid "sneaking out" while the child is not looking during the morning drop-off, as this action can also lead the older child to feel that they have been left behind, abandoned or otherwise tricked and suffer a loss of trust in the parents.

The transition process into day care can be difficult and may take time for both the parent and the child to adjust to. However, with good communication between parents and caregivers, and the development of an established routine, the family will make it through this period without lasting trauma. The separation process may continue to be difficult at times, but both the parent and child will know that it is temporary. In time, the separation period provided by day care may provide benefits to the child and the parents, and encourage both to treasure their time together that much more.