Babies: Dealing with day-care separation

I am having such a hard time separating from my little one as I go off to work and leave him at day care. He is eight months old and he has started crying each time I get ready to leave. Sometimes he even begins crying as we pull into the parking lot. It rips my heart out and I end up crying the rest of the way to work. How can I deal with these feelings of sadness we both have and make day care a better experience?

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This can be one of the hardest experiences parents have. Most parents experience some reluctance about going to work and staying home with kids. Part of us wants to stay home with our babies and part of us wants and needs to work.

There are several things to consider when a baby or child cries when dropped off at childcare. Children will often cry for a few days or weeks when they are just beginning child care. Some children will cry for an hour after drop-off and periodically throughout the day. Some will just cry for a few minutes after their parent leaves. Other children will happily wave good-bye for the first week or two of child care and when it finally sinks in, will spend the next week crying at good-byes. Still other children will make an adjustment to child care and then several weeks, months or years later will begin to cry at good-byes. The reasons for children crying at good-byes are many, ranging from a child making a healthy adjustment to child care to an indication of problems with the child-care situation or some other outside stress.

Developmentally, young children have a hard time with separation because they don’t have a sense of how time works and they don’t yet know the nature of families. For instance, babies and toddlers can only think about the present moment. If you leave, they can’t imagine you coming back, because they aren’t fully capable of thinking about the future. They also don’t yet know that you are going to be "their people" for the rest of their lives, so they don’t automatically assume that you will always come back.

The reason that children don’t want you to leave is that you are the one they trust, the person who knows them and understands their unique style of communication. They don’t yet know that someone else will also be able to keep them safe and respond to their needs and cues. That is why adjusting to child care takes some time. Children need to learn (through experience) that you will come back and that the people who are caring for them are safe, responsive and nurturing.

Other reasons children cry when they are being dropped off at childcare may be that the childcare situation is not a good match for them. This may simply be that the program is too busy and stimulating and your child has a quieter temperament or that the style of the caregiver is not comfortable for your child. Sometimes, even good programs aren’t a good fit for particular children.

Another reason is that the program is not meeting children’s needs. There may be too many children, not enough teachers, too small or large a space, inappropriate or inadequate materials, unskilled, untrained or overstressed caregivers. The schedule of the day may not be tailored to the needs of young children. A program that is so structured that the individual needs of children for food, sleep, play, caregiving and interaction aren’t being met is not a healthy place for children to spend their time. Research shows that infants and toddlers do better in childcare when they have a "primary caregiver," someone who is primarily responsible for their caregiving and for communicating with their parent. (There may be two primary caregivers if the child is there during two work shifts.) Children need a child-care setting where caregivers are comfortable and happy. Although these are not at all the only reasons children cry at drop-off, they are important to consider when you are assessing your child’s experience in child care.

Finally, a child may start crying at drop-off after having made the initial adjustment to child care because of something that is going on in his family. Stress, illness, job change, new baby or other changes in family may be cause for a child to show stress at separation. Letting caregivers know about these changes can help them meet the needs of your children.

Here are some things to think about as you work to figure out the reasons for your child’s sadness and ways to help you and your child through it.

  • Carefully check-out any child-care situation before you enroll your child. It is important to talk to the staff, both the director and all of the caregivers who will be interacting with your child as you are getting to know a childcare program. Read the handbook. Find out the philosophy of the program. Ask about licensing and accreditation. Observe the program at different times of the day. Check references.
  • Help your child make the adjustment to child care gradually. Once you have decided on your child-care setting, spend some time with your child adjusting to the program. You and your child can visit together before you ever leave. As you spend time together in the child-care setting, your child will be able to explore from the safety of your presence and will begin to get comfortable before you have to leave. This also gives you and the caregiver a chance to get to know each other. The caregiver can observe your interactions with your child and you and the caregiver can begin building the strong partnership which will form the basis of quality, consistent care for your child.

    Once you start to leave your child in care, you may implement a gradual schedule, where you first leave for one hour and gradually increase the time, until you have reached the full care time. You will probably need to pay for a full-slot as you are doing this warmup, because the program won’t be able to enroll another child in your child’s place.

  • Work towards consistency in scheduling. Even though young babies can’t tell time, they begin to internalize their schedules. Once you have helped your child adjust to child care, work to keep his schedule as predictable as possible.
  • Leave familiar things with your child. Children love to have pictures of their families with them in childcare. Some programs post them low on the wall or make little books with them so that infants and toddlers can see them easily. Some parents leave an article of their clothing with their baby. The familiar texture and smell can help a young child feel more comfortable. Some programs make tapes of parents talking, singing or reading to play for children when their parents are gone.
  • Build a strong partnership with your child’s caregiver. Sharing the care of a child is one of the most significant things two people can do together. Working in concert with your child’s caregiver is crucial for the child’s success in childcare. This includes spending time daily checking-in between parent and caregiver at drop-off and pick-up time. This may include a home visit where the caregiver visits the family in their home, as well as parent conferences, where the parent and caregiver talk regularly about the child’s development and shared goals for the child’s growth. Parent meetings in which the whole group of parents meet with caregivers to talk about children, development and the program can also be an important part of building a strong bridge between you and your child’s caregivers.
  • Ways to trouble-shoot when your child is showing distress. Think about the possible reasons your child is crying when you leave him. Is he still adjusting? Are there other changes going on in his life or schedule? Do you feel confident about the quality of care he is receiving and about whether it is a match for his individual needs? Talk to his caregiver. Find out how long after you leave he cries. Ask the caregiver’s opinion about what she thinks is going on for your child. Spend some time with your child in child care. Observe. Talk to other parents. It is important (and not always easy) to find out if this is a temporary discomfort for your son, or if it is an indication of a need for a change. If you feel confident in your child-care situation, work to help him make the transition and give it another few weeks. Usually, with a responsive, consistent caregiver and good parent-caregiver communication, a baby can make the adjustment to childcare and learn to trust his new surroundings and caregiver.
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