Transitioning an infant or toddler into childcare or preschool can be difficult for both parents and children. Parents may experience the guilt of leaving their child with another caregiver and must develop new routines that include drop off and pick up. Children, especially those over 8- or 9-months-old, are likely to experience some separation anxiety and must adapt to a new environment and form new attachments.
However, parents can greatly diminish both their own stress and their child’s stress by creating a transition plan in conjunction with the childcare or preschool. We interviewed Evelyn Nichols, owner and director of Mighty Bambinis, a home-based childcare and preschool in San Francisco’s Sunnyside neighborhood (prior to Mighty Bambinis, Nichols was also a K-12 teacher and school administrator) to learn more about how parents can have a successful transition.
Both parents and children can experience extreme stress and guilt about transitioning.Transitioning Infants (up to 7 months old)
Nichols tells us that transitioning young infants is often easier than toddlers, primarily because infants are not as susceptible to separation anxiety. According to Kathy Zetes, former Child Development Specialist at Children’s Council San Francisco, infants have little fear of strangers and “are intrigued by studying faces and listening to voices. Anyone who smiles and talks to a 3- or 4-month-old will be rewarded with a returned smile and cooing.”
With young infants, it is helpful for new caregivers to observe parents with their infants to learn their routines, soothing techniques, and ways of being with the baby, since infants thrive on consistency. It is important for caregivers to cater to the baby’s rhythms, even if it requires compromising, rather than adjusting the baby’s routine to fit the childcare’s schedule. Overtime, children’s routines within a group setting often naturally merge together.
Nichols’ recommendations for parents transitioning infants:
Transitioning Older Infants / Toddlers (8 or 9 months and older)
By the time babies reach the second half of their first year, they start to discriminate between the faces and voices of people they are familiar with and those of strangers. Attachment to parents or an existing caregiver, such as a nanny, can make separation difficult and children may experience a fear of abandonment. Separation anxiety tends to peak at around age 18 months and is manifested in sadness, crying, tantrums, and withdrawing. Separation anxiety when starting care may last anywhere from a few days to one month, and it is important for parents to have appropriate expectations and a plan in place to manage it. If parents know that their children have a significant amount of separation anxiety, it’s best to send children to childcare full-time rather than part-time. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, young children thrive on predictability and routine. Full-time care allows them to know what to expect five days a week and to more quickly adapt to and to enjoy their new environment and caregivers. However, with older children, the focus of the transition plan is on preparing the child for the separation, and empathizing and providing support, but not “rescuing” a child experiencing separation anxiety.
Nichols’ recommendations for parents transitioning toddlers:
Nichols also emphasizes that throughout the transition period, parents and caregivers should communicate frequently to stay abreast of the child’s progress and parents should feel free to check-in during the day.
Separation anxiety can come and go, and peak at different times for children. If your child is starting care at one of these peak times, particularly if they start care part-time, a child may struggle with separation beyond what parents or caregivers feel is appropriate. Each program and family gauges how much is too much crying and stress, but if a child cries most of the day for more than two weeks, or their general well-being and mood are being significantly affected, it might be worth reevaluating whether now is an appropriate time to start care in a group setting. Most programs have a two week trial period at the start of care to allow for both parents and caregivers to feel out if the childcare arrangement is appropriate for their child at that time.
However, in the vast majority of cases, with a thoughtful transition plan and supportive caregivers, your child will shortly be on their way to enjoying school, building relationships with teachers, and making new friends.