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10 Tips for Transition to Child Care (From a mom who got it all wrong)

I’m excited to host a guest post by blogger Jessica Smock, an educator, mom, and almost-finished PhD student. Jessica has only been blogging at School of Smock since the new year, and she’s already turned out a ton of thought-provoking and informative posts about education and parenting. Today, she writes about her son’s transition to child care. It’s a sort of confession, because as you’ll learn, it didn’t go so well. The upshot is that she turned her experience into a useful guide for parents approaching this transition. Enjoy her post, and please feel free to add your own experiences and advice in the comments below.

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10 Tips for Transition to Child Care (From a mom who got it all wrong)

By Jessica Smock

I thought I had done my all of my homework, as a diligent parent, researcher and educator.

As a new parent, it can be a tough, long process finding the right child care for your child. You have to think about what your needs are: a small, intimate, home-like environment or a fully-accredited, educationally focused child care center; location (at home, close to home or work); your budget; your schedule… Next, you have to do your research, using friends, family, or a local or national referral agency, to identify providers that meet your needs and have openings. And then you should visit facilities and talk with the providers, asking them questions about their curriculum, sick child policy, discipline philosophy, caregiver experience and training, feeding and nap schedules. Finally, you sometimes just have to use your parental instincts, going with your gut about whether a provider will match your family’s parenting style and your kid’s temperament.

I had done all this before my son started a fantastic preschool program.  So why was my son’s transition to day care a complete disaster?boydaycare photo

My son had started off when he was six months old with a few different babysitters that came to my home a few times a week while I wrote and worked on my dissertation. He did well with this and loved playing with his young, energetic babysitters, but it wasn’t meeting my needs. I couldn’t concentrate in our small house with the constant chaos and noise that surrounds a baby. So I started looking into child care centers in my new city. I thought I was more than capable of doing this. I was a teacher and curriculum coordinator for more than a decade, with a Master’s and nearly a doctorate in the education field. I had worked as a research fellow for a social research nonprofit in Cambridge, where my major responsibility was helping to write a research report of high-performing child care facilities in Massachusetts. I had interviewed dozens of providers across the state and country, as well as state education heads and early childhood researchers from Harvard and other local universities, and helped to create a framework for evaluating child care providers.

I didn’t think at all about what happened after I chose the program.

Yes, I literally did exactly the opposite of what I later learned that you should do when transitioning your child to day care. Although I had visited the center, spent time with the teachers and director and loved everything about it, I had thought my job was finished. So, on the day that he was scheduled to begin his “first day of school,” we dropped him off with his new teacher, and I left for home. I was so happy I was nearly bursting. I would be able to finish my dissertation draft in weeks. My son would have wonderful teachers, meet new friends, and participate in all sorts of new classes, everything from dance to music and gym.

I got a call 90 minutes later to come and get him. He was shrieking hysterically, hadn’t stopped the whole time, and was nearly vomiting. I tried bringing him back for a few more days, but he was completely inconsolable. Then I started going with him to school for short periods of time, as the director suggested, and then longer. Over the course of the next weeks, his entire personality changed. At home he refused to leave my sight, even when I went to the bathroom, crying all the time, not sleeping and eating. He was an absolute mess for a very long time. And we and his teachers nearly decided that this was not a good fit or that even he may not be ready for child care outside the home.

I’ve learned a few important lessons after these difficult months, one of the most emotionally stressful times that we experienced as parents:

1.  Visit the facility with your child.  Introduce him a few times to his teacher.  Show him the toys there and do at least a couple “trial runs.”

2.  Think about the timing and developmental stage of your child.  Kids go through predictable stages of development throughout infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool.  Although of course there are wide variations, there are also certain periods of developmental “calm” and others of “turmoil,” when new milestones are being reached.  Later, after speaking with my child’s pediatrician, I learned that 18 months old, the age of my son, can often be a tough age to start day care. These toddlers are going through a sort of mini-adolescent crisis of new communication skills, separation anxiety, and new understandings of the role of caretakers.

3.  Talk about school at home before the transition, no matter what the age of your child.  Read books about children who are starting preschool or begin day care. Some of my favorites are: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas, Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney.  Talk about how much fun school is, and even play “pretend school.”

4.  Discuss your day care’s routines for transitioning children with the child’s new teachers and director.  Child care centers may have very different philosophies about how to handle the first weeks.  Some may prefer that parents spend the first days with their child, others may ask that parents give a quick kiss and leave immediately, letting the teachers handle settling in for the day.

5.  Give your child experience with caretakers outside the family and outside your home well before thinking about day care. My son loved being with babysitters or his grandparents, but only at home. I thought that his enthusiasm for new people would translate to a day care setting, but he was overwhelmed by a new environment.

6.  Expect some changes in your baby or toddler. While he’s getting used to his new routine and schedule, he may be clingy, sad, or out of sorts. This is normal for many kids, according to research, because kids’ stress hormones actually elevate during this transition period but it has no lasting damage.

7.  Confront your own ambivalent feelings about your child’s starting day care. It’s normal to feel guilty and anxious, but it’s important not to communicate this to your child. Talk about how you’re feeling with your partner or a friend, and expect that you’ll even have an emotional reaction when your child starts to like day care and form attachments to his caregivers.

8.  Be very patient and start the process as early as possible before you need to start work or have other commitments. The transition process can take months before a kid feels comfortable and like his normal self in a day care setting.

9.  If possible, start day care or preschool before the cold and flu season of late fall or winter. Since he started preschool, my son has been completely healthy for about maybe three days.  He’s had several colds, conjunctivitis, a stomach virus, ear infection, and a sinus infection. If your child hasn’t been in a group day care situation before, he may have a tough few months while his immune system adjusts to being exposed to many new viruses.

10.  Rethink your situation if it becomes unworkable, if your child is still miserable after several weeks, or if you think your child’s temperament is a bad match for the setting. Don’t be afraid to have an honest discussion with your child’s teacher about their opinions about what might be a good fit for your child.

This process is not nearly so difficult for most kids, and it’s a good lesson that life is full of new people, new experiences, and transitions. For my son, this story does have a happy ending. Thanks to his amazing teachers and their infinite patience, my son LOVES preschool and has never been happier!

About the author:

Jessica Smock bio photoJessica Smock is a doctoral candidate and Glenn Fellow in Development and Educational Leadership at Boston University.  Her dissertation is about the resilience and coping strategies of high-achieving, urban students of color at elite boarding schools throughout New England.  After moving from Boston last year, she now lives in Buffalo, NY with her husband and toddler son.  You can follow her at her blog School of Smock and on Twitter @schoolofsmock.

33 Comments
  1. This is really great! I shared it with Parenting in Portland, a Facebook group of almost 500 moms. This topic comes up a lot, and these are very helpful tips, especially for children whose natural temperament may be more sensitive.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 14, 2013
    • Kylie, thanks so much for sharing this post! As a mom who just went through this transition this past fall, I think these tips are so important. And I second the point that some children are more sensitive to these kinds of changes than others. It sounds like Jessica’s son was very sensitive. I predicted that Cee would also have had a difficult time with this transition, but she surprised me and it has turned out remarkably well. I do think that the amount of preparation – visits, talking about the change, etc – went a long way towards helping to smooth the transition for her.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 14, 2013
  2. Karen #

    Great post Jessica! I am convinced that the best option is to start off as you mean to continue if at all possible, and do it when the child is too young to really care either way. Like 4 months. We did that with our second and it has been very smooth sailing. Our first, otoh, had a change at 4 months (no problem), but then another change at 10 months (problem!!).

    But of course every child is different and you never know how they are going to react. The devious little tricksters. 😉

    Like

    January 14, 2013
  3. Christina Joy #

    Reblogged this on What's Going on Upstairs and commented:
    Good stuff!!!

    Like

    January 14, 2013
  4. Tirma #

    In my case (so far, only two weeks in day care) thinks have worked out nicely. Maybe is because my little one is only seven months old. Before starting daycare she spent a month with my mum while I was working so she could get used to be in other environment different from home and with other people.

    Like

    January 14, 2013
  5. We made this transition when Cee was about 22 months old. I honestly think it would have been difficult to put her in childcare (for both of us) before 1 year. She was very attached to me, and my early attempts at leaving her with a babysitter when she was as young as 2 months (when you’d think she’d be too young to care) were disastrous. I was lucky enough to be able to stay home with her and make this transition much slower. I think what made a huge difference for our transition was visiting her childcare provider (an in-home program) multiple times before I left her there alone. I think we visited 4-5 times, 3 of those in the week before her first “real” day. These visits helped her become comfortable with the place and people, but they also helped ME feel comfortable with it. On that heart-wrenching morning when I actually said goodbye to her, I felt confident in the caregiver and in Cee’s ability to handle the change, which meant that I could convey that confidence to CEe, and she did beautifully.

    Thank you Jessica for the great post! It’s a really important topic, and I think you’re right that the transition part is often overlooked as we spend more time choosing just the right program.

    Like

    January 14, 2013
  6. Thanks for these thoughtful comments! I do think that the transition is easier for younger babies, especially under 6-8 months. And Alice is right that a lot of the ease of the transition has to do with your baby’s temperament. My son is fairly sensitive to new environments. Being in a huge building with so many other kids, so many new adults, and new activities just overwhelmed him. But no matter what your child’s personality, I think that it’s important to put some thought into how to make sure your little one adjusts as smoothly as possible.

    Like

    January 15, 2013
  7. maggie #

    We started daycare when my daughter was not quite three months old, and she handled the transition better than her parents. In our state, the teacher child ratios are very strict by age, so the younger kids have fewer other children in the room, and less chaos. When she moved up to the next level (Toddler 1) at 18 months, she was miserable every morning. We thought it was just a development stage, especially since her attitude improved dramatically when she moved into the next room (Toddler 2) at 29 months and then was perfect in Preschool at 35 months. However, a change in the drop-off policy had her start her days back in the Toddler 1 room for about 30 mintues at the beginning of the day. She reverted back to miserable mornings. A little trial and error showed that it was the room itself that she hated, not the teacher, not the school experience, not the other kids, but she wasn’t able to verbalize that. The daycare was willing to work with her, and changed their early dropoff to a room that didn’t set her off. Sometimes, it isn’t the obvious 🙂
    By the way, even with miserable mornings for ten straight months, she almost always got it under control and had a great day. The important thing that I learned was that the teachers are our partners in raising our child. If we are willing to work with them and listen to them, then it is far easier to come to a solution that is best for each particular child.

    Like

    January 16, 2013
  8. It is very generous of you for taking the time to discuss this, the article is very nicely written and I am happy to find so many useful information here in the post.

    Like

    May 3, 2013
  9. anu #

    Those are great tips and I know that slow transition works better. We sent our 22 month old to a daycare where our neighbor’s daughter went. The philosophies of individual daycares and teachers differ and they did not want us to spend time time with our son in his class while dropping him in the morning and say a quick bye and let them handle. Moreover, they did not want our son to play with his friend possibly beacause they they liked kids to each do their own thing and not interact so they are easier to manage. Being a sensitive kid, our son recoiled, became fearful, extremely clingly and depressed. He cried like he was crying for his life at drop offs so, we pulled him out. My husband stayed home for many days using his vacation time and tried to socialize him with other kids while I emailed several daycares to ask if they will allow us to spend time with him at the center for a smoother transition. Finally, one center agreed to allow one of us (parents) to visit with our son the toddler class for one hour each for three consecutive days so he gets familiarized with the teachers, class and other kids. Next two days, I stayed in class for one hour and then left him for the full day (I did observe from window for long time to make sure he was ok and that he was treated well). The teacher was kind to him and assured him that we will come back to pick him up. He was sad and at the verge of crying most of the time. But since he was familiar with the teacher and the environment, he improved quickly and with each pssing day. This transition ritual along with a caring teacher made a huge difference and today after nearly 12 days, he did not cry when going with the teacher to the class. Not sure why more daycares are not supportive of such a transition process. It worked beautifully for us! So, do make sure that the staff is understanding and your kid is familiarized with the new environment in your presence. If a daycare does not allow a transition process that you feel comfortable with then my advice would be to find another one.

    Like

    June 18, 2014
  10. Amber #

    Great advice… I hate to say it… But scientific research now suggests that parents should wait till there child is four years old, I’ve added a link below from a doctor with similar advice, i understand some of us mums have to work, I did with my first child and she was in daycare from 6 months i am now fortunate that I’m in a position that i don’t have to work… I hope this information helps mothers and fathers 🙂

    http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/best-age-for-kids-to-start-daycare

    Like

    August 6, 2014
  11. Erika #

    I agree with this! Just like Jessica, my daughter’s transition to childcare was also a complete disaster, it’s hard to leave her every time she cries. Just show support as much as you can and I can guarantee that your children will get used to being away from you, they just need time to adjust – it may take a few weeks or a even months.

    Erika
    http://goo.gl/1Iu2o7

    Like

    November 30, 2014
  12. Very good blog about child care process.

    Like

    March 23, 2015
  13. mine is one month old and I need to go back to work soon as possible since I have to pay the bills. I’m so worried about her and I feel so guilty, I really don’t no what to think and they have olready accepted her at cresh

    Like

    March 31, 2015
    • sylvia #

      she will catch up, i went back to work the day my boy made one month and he was very OK and never cried.

      Like

      August 27, 2015
  14. Excellent tips on the child care. I totally agree for that these all the points should be important to consider when going to find the right child care for your child. Choose the right child care is very vital for teaching great lessons to your child for improving his/her skill & confidence.

    Like

    April 2, 2015
  15. Sue #

    Great tips!! In your opinion, is there a huge different between a home based daycare versus a private school. Our LO is 18 months and he was at a home based daycare since 6 months old. He was doing great and we decided to transition him to a private school 1 week ago and he’s VERY clingy at night, cries a lot during drop off and seems to have a lot of anxiety in the morning. Wondering if the transition to a big school is too early for an 18 month old.

    Like

    April 7, 2015
    • I think any childcare change is hard, no matter what the circumstances! Give him some time to settle in, and in the meantime, lots of snuggles at home:)

      Like

      April 7, 2015
  16. Hope-M #

    First, Excuse my English as it’s not my first language. But as today, I’m struggling to find a solution for my son.
    He is 16 months old, I start taking him to babysitter (her house) since he was 2 months. but I feel he is not learning much, So I decided to take him to daycare. the first day was “THE WORST DAY IN MY LIFE”, he was vomiting carrying…very very scared…I was just crying with him..I decided to stay with him for couple of hrs each day…but it was just getting worst…I think he has now the feeling I CAN LEAVE HIM ANY TIME..so I took him back to babysitter…I feel he is not ready yet (May be “me” more than him), But I’m not excluding the idea of daycare…I think each kid is different (and each mom is different). some mom are really strong and some are not that brave to leave their little ones on such conditions with some strangers….really it break my hart.
    After some discussions with moms like me and reading from certain website for parents, I’ve couple of ideas which I think will be the best to make an easy transaction for my little one, myself and also the teacher :

    2- Take him to the same daycare for couple of hrs each day or as much as I can for couple of weeks till I see he is more comfortable.

    1- Look for a teacher from daycare who can come to my house and stay with my son for couple of hrs till he feel confortable with her.

    I’m sure he will keep crying if I’ll leave him, But IT WON’T BE THAT HARD LIKE FIRST DAY …JUST LEAVE HIM AND SAY: BYE BYE

    wish all the best to all moms and kids who are going through this critical situation.

    Like

    April 24, 2015
  17. Chrissy #

    Stumbled upon this because I’m having to go back to work before we end up in the streets. I’ve been home with my peanut since birth, she’s almost 11 months now and just the thought of sending her to childcare is killing me. This week will be her first week there. I have no clue how she’s going to be and I’m freaking out about it. I don’t start work for another week so my plan is to have her there just half days this week on MWF and keep her with me on TThur. We’ll see how this goes.

    Like

    May 4, 2015
  18. Bea #

    I loved the article except for the part that you left your child with a feeling of happiness and relief of how much you could achieve with all this free time. In my case, every time I think about my baby starting daycare I start crying automatically.
    I will try to follow all the steps you mention. Thanks!

    Like

    July 2, 2015
  19. Such a small world! I did a quick Google search and found your wonderful post. So much great advice here as I am preparing myself to go back to work full time. I am devastated about sending my 3 year old to daycare. She has never been in a setting like that so I am very worried. I will use every bit of your tips to our advantage. Thank you so much for sharing another helpful and informative post! 😄

    Like

    July 17, 2015
  20. I really like your idea to read books about the transition before hand. Hopefully the child will be more comfortable with the transition, if they are exposed to a similar situation. Also, since the stories have happy endings, hopefully that will help the child feel less scared.

    Like

    September 10, 2015
  21. Informative post with good and deep insights, I totally consents with you. appreciate your efforts which you made to write this article. Keep it up 🙂

    Like

    January 29, 2016
  22. Gonna get started on child care this morning. Thanks for the heads up! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    April 28, 2016
  23. Great article, we put a lot of emphasis on transitioning days in our childcare. We usually insist to have at least 4 days of transitioning time for any new kid who is about to start in our daycare. First day is 2 hours and parent stay with the child in the classroom. Second day is same 2 hours but parent stay for 15 min and then leave to wait in common area while the child is getting used to teachers and classmates. Last 2 days are half day visits without the parent or guardian. If the child is still not ready – we add another half day of transitioning and in 90% of cases its enough for a child to get used to be on his own in the daycare.

    Like

    June 8, 2016

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