Before my son started daycare, I read every article I could lay my hands on about how to get him prepared for the big day. When the morning dawned there were plenty of tears, but much to my surprise they were all mine.
I spent so much time focused on ensuring my son was safe and well, I didn’t give much thought for my own separation anxiety. I’m certainly not alone. If you’ve got your own first day coming up, here are my top 10 tips for surviving your child’s first few weeks in childcare.
1. Pack tissues (It’s OK to cry)
It’s perfectly normal and healthy for your child to cry and cling to your leg on their first day, or even first few weeks, at daycare. So why don’t we cut ourselves the same slack?
While a parent wiping their snotty nose on a childcare worker’s shorts may be frowned upon, you certainly won’t be the first parent to shed a few tears as they usher little Johnny off for a spirited round of Ring a Ring o’ Roses. Personally, I thought I’d shed a tear or two in the privacy of my car but instead I found myself weeping in the middle of the playroom being comforted by my child’s carer. Luckily, each week it got easier.
2. Ease in slowly
If you can, allow yourself the luxury of not diving into the deep end. Find a centre that offers a solid orientation program and give yourself a few weeks to get comfortable before you have to be somewhere important on a daycare day.
Many centres offer the opportunity for you to have between one and three orientation visits before your child’s official start date. You can encourage your child to explore and join in activities, while you stay a fly on the wall. Take time to watch other children. Do they seem happy? How do they interact with the staff? It should go a long way to assuring yourself your child will be happy here.
As long as you stay in the centre with your child and your child isn’t there for meals, this service is normally free. Even once you’re ready to start, consider doing half days for the first few weeks.
3. Share a cuppa
Does the childcare centre run morning teas or family events? Check with the centre manager if there’s a grandparents’ day or parents’ morning tea coming up. This is a great chance to meet other mums and dads in the same situation as you.
Goodstart Early Learning Queensland state manager Lesley Jones says bonding with other parents who use the centre is a wonderful confidence boost. “I think it’s a great strategy to feel that other people have experienced what you have, and for you to know that it’s going to be OK.”
4. Teach the teacher
Lesley says many parents, particularly of younger children, secretly fear staff will never know all the things about their child that they do.
“It’s all those little things that only you know, like how they twirl their hair in a particular way and you know they’re tired,” Lesley says. “I think it’s really important parents to get to know the educator and give them that sort of information. That kind of information is worth its weight in gold, so take the time to share all those little things you know that will help your little one get through the day.”
5. Be honest
If there’s something that’s really worrying you, it’s time to ‘fess up. If your secret fear is that your child will go on a hunger strike for eight hours or that she’ll get picked on by the bigger kids – tell someone.
“Don’t feel silly, it’s absolutely critical the staff understand you are feeling anxious about something,” Lesley says. “Understanding the reasons why is really important, so the carers can go out of their way to monitor on how they go and report back.”
6. Make plans
You may spend those first few days with your mobile phone glued to your hand, afraid to stray more than 10 minutes ‘drive from your child, but most mums agree you should plan a few activities to keep your mind off the anxiety.
Dierdre Atkinson-Byrne says when one-year-old Elliot started daycare, she felt she had to work extra hard to justify her decision to put him in care. “I did loads of work on the business, so I didn’t feel as guilty that I’d sent him off.”
Mother-of-two Melissa Dimond says she remembers being entirely unproductive on the first few days her kids were in childcare. “I cried the whole time and just tried to keep busy,” she says.
Whether it’s a day in the office, a coffee with a friend, or grocery shopping, keeping yourself busy will help the time pass faster. Although I am sure this option would make Jenny Craig weep, I spent the day stuffing my face. A pervasive sense of nausea and a bare pantry seemed to be small prices to pay for such an efficient and comforting way to wile away the time.
7. Pick up the phone
Don’t be afraid to be the annoying parent. It is entirely acceptable, even encouraged, to call in after a few hours to see how your child is doing. Be prepared that the answer might be that your child has been crying on and off (see point 1), but you may be pleasantly surprised by how quickly they settled in.
Whatever the feedback, the truth is always going to be less awful than what your imagination can conjure while demolishing an entire pack of Tim Tams.
8. Linger at pick-up time
You might not be able to hang around for long when you’re dropping your tot off in the morning (most centres suggest a quick and decisive exit is best), but there’s no need to rush your pick-up.
“This is an opportunity to talk to the staff, see how the child is in the environment, have a look at the kind of things they’ve been doing and let them show you around,” Lesley advises. “It’s a great way for parents to decompress all those anxious feelings.”
9. Ask questions
Most childcare centres take great notes of what has happened during your child’s day. Some centres display this information on the wall, and others keep a daily diary you can read.
Spend a few minutes chatting to one of the carers, they will be able to tell how long your child slept for, what they ate, how they interacted with other children and fill you in on that giant exploding nappy situation. If you identified something you were particularly concerned about, like them not eating, this is a chance for them to reassure you that your normally fussy eater actually went back for seconds.
10. Prepare for a relapse
A month down the track everything may seem like smooth sailing, and then all of a sudden your little one refuses to step through the centre doors. It’s normal to worry about what has caused this sudden about-face.
Lesley says some children decide after a few weeks that it’s been fun, but they’ve had enough now. “That is pretty normal and children will go through this at different periods,” she says. “By this stage the educators have gotten to know your child, so let them know you’re concerned and they should be able to give you some insight into what the problem might be or how to manage it.”