You know that the first day of daycare is going to be hard, especially at drop-off. What many parents aren’t prepared for is continued difficulty. It can take some kids weeks or even months to feel comfortable with the transition. It's totally normal!
Some young children might go back and forth, expressing excitement for daycare only to switch to fear, sadness, or anger for a period of time. Between the ages of 9- and 18-months separation anxiety is at its peak and can become an issue overnight. It can feel overwhelming for parents to have an infant who transitions without fuss, and then suddenly have a toddler who screams and cries at the mere mention of daycare.
The key to smooth daycare drop-offs, at any age, is helping your child know what to expect. If they feel safe, calm, and in control, they may be much less likely to resist going to daycare.
Here are some ways to help ease the transition for them. And for you!
Take a Tour Together
Before you send your child to daycare take a tour of the facility and bring your kid along. They will hopefully get to meet a teacher or two and see the space.
For infants under the age of one, it may not be a huge dealbreaker to bring them along, but it can’t hurt. Let them hear their teacher’s voice, give them some time to see their face. Every bit of familiarity can help.
For toddlers, if they are allowed to play with toys during the visits, it’s great to let them explore a bit. They’ll have something familiar to latch onto when they go for their first full day.
Talk About What to Expect
Parents may think their child is too young to understand what’s ahead, but they’re not. Especially if your kid is over 12-months, telling them what to expect can be helpful.
Talking to your child about a transition can take many forms. Find the one that feels best suited to your kid’s developmental stage and interest. Make your descriptions short and specific when you talk about daycare. Don’t force it. Make it fun, light, and brief. Only continue the conversation if they initiate.
Talk about the positive. Bring up the aspects of daycare that are consistent. Try naming the people who will be there each day. Ask the teacher if there are kids or teachers your child is particularly fond of. Try and stay away from naming activities, in case that’s not on the schedule that day.
Read books about school. There are many books about daycare, school, and having parents leave for the day. Having a visual of another kid going through the daycare drop-off transition smoothly might help. If you can’t find a book you like, make a simple one for you and your child to read together.
Watch shows about it. If you’re okay with a little screen time, there are many educational programs like Sesame Street that have episodes about going to school. Seek these out and talk about the emotions behind it with your kid as you watch together.
Draw about it. If your child likes drawing, bring positive elements of daycare into your art time. Draw the play structure that’s just at daycare, not anywhere else. Talk about what it’s like to eat, nap, and play at daycare. Draw your child holding hands with their teacher or napping peacefully at daycare.
Repetition can be key. Make a point of bringing it up when they are already in a good mood, and when there are less distractions around, like in the car or at dinner.
If your kid is having a hard time wrapping their head around school, daycare, or being away from you for the whole day, that’s normal. They may just need time to understand it better.
Build in a Going-to-Daycare Routine
Set the stage for the drop-off transition with some positive associations. Find a few specific things that light your kid up and do them every day, either before drop-off or right after pick-up.
Form your routine around things that will always be available. It doesn’t have to be big, just specific and the same every time. Here are some ideas:
Give your dog a pet before leaving the house. Say “see you after school!”
Listen to the same songs in the car on the way.
Talk about what snack or toy they’d like to have in the car when you pick them up.
Wave to something from the car you they can see a few seconds before turning into the school.
Park in the same spot every day.
Count the cars you walk past while you walk in.
Name the color of the building or any letters on signs as you walk up.
Make up a secret handshake, hug, or catchphrase to do as you get out of the car or anytime during the transition. Do the same secret handshake when you greet them at pickup.
Let these be points of connection for you and your child. Share in the experience of this routine. The more they feel connected to you and see you return, the safer they will feel with the morning transition.
Work with the Teachers
Your daycare will likely have plenty of routines for your child to follow throughout the day. But if your child needs some structure for how they arrive at daycare, talk to the teachers.
If your child has a favorite song, the teachers may be able to have it playing when your child arrives.
If there’s a book that feels calming and safe for your child, maybe they can have it out to read first thing.
If drawing is a favorite activity, maybe you can plan to draw the same picture everyday with your child as the signal of transition. Once the drawing is complete, it’s time for mom or dad to leave.
The teachers have probably seen many examples of what works. They want a smooth transition just as much as you, so don’t be shy about asking for advice. They may be able to provide insights into how you and your child can have a smoother transition.
Make Sure They Can Open Their Lunch
It may seem simple, but the ability to open one’s own lunch box can be huge for a young kid. This is less important for infants or new walkers, but toddlers love control, so giving them as many moments of control in their day can help them feel safe.
Toddlers also love naming what's “mine”. This is normal and developmentally appropriate. They want to assert their independence. Play to this by emphasizing this is their lunch box and how great it is that they can open it themself.
Let Them Choose
Allowing them to decide on their school gear is also a good way to get them excited. Ask them, "do you want to bring your blue water bottle, or your yellow one today?" Most toddlers will have a definitive opinion!
If you can't give them a choice, you can also let them decorate their backpack or gear with stickers. Ask them to help write their name on labels that you'll put on their stuff. If they are involved in the age-appropriate choices of their day, they'll feel empowered and reminded of their independence every time they reach for that water bottle they chose.
Send Them Nourished and Full
Sending them to daycare hungry is a recipe for disaster. Make sure they have a nutritious breakfast. Add a few crackers or a bar for the car ride if mornings feel chaotic and rushed.
Pack food in their lunch that will give them good energy throughout their day. No cookies, sugar, or juice. No one feels good after a sugar crash, especially young kids.
Pro tip: Before you even start daycare, ask daycare for a schedule. Try to get your child on a similar eating schedule so that they’ll be less likely to be hangry at any point in the day.
Make Sure They are Comfortable
If your kid is uncomfortable in any way, they may not be able to tell you, instead they might throw a tantrum. Make sure you send your kid with clothing and gear that will keep them comfortable to play and explore.
Things to remember:
Send clothes that are sized correctly.
Send clothes that they like. Sometimes an extra load of laundry midweek is worth a happy kid.
Make sure their clothes fit well and are comfortable fabrics.
Only send clothes they have worn before. Anything new might be scratchy or uncomfortable without you knowing.
Get weather appropriate gear—rain pants, rain boots, warm hats, mittens, sun hat, UPF clothes, etc. Send these if there’s any chance they will use them that day.
Don’t send special occasion clothes. Anything that should be kept clean should be kept at home. You’ll know your kid had a good day at daycare when they come home covered in paint, mud, chalk, or other activities. This signals that they felt free to explore and play.
Pro tip: One way to frustrate your daycare teachers is to send clothes that require time to take on and off. Overalls, lots of buttons, or intricate clothes are every daycare teacher’s nightmare.