Is starting daycare difficult? Is your child holding on to you and crying? How can you help your child adapt?
Is your child soon starting in an educational childcare service? This new experience will bring many changes to their daily life. The following are some strategies to help them adapt to their new environment.
Stages of adaptation to daycare
Children beginning to go to a daycare facility face many new developments. They move from a safe place, their home, to an unknown environment. They must also get used to being cared for by people other than their parents, in addition to learning to live with other children. All of these major changes require a period of adaptation. It should be noted that having a strong attachment bond with their parents helps the child properly integrate into their daycare facility.
Parents also experience a period of adjustment. They may need a few weeks to get used to being separated from their child for long periods at a time and to fully trust the educator.
The period of adaptation usually lasts from two to four weeks depending on the age and temperament of the child. Some toddlers, however, can need up to 2 months to adjust to their new environment and to feel safe with the educator. For example, the adaptation period may be more difficult for a baby who is starting daycare at 8 to 12 months of age. At this age, the child experiences separation anxiety when away from their parents. When their parents are out of sight, they fear abandonment and not seeing their parents again. They need even more time to get used to new situations and people.
Since every child is unique, the ways they respond to the daycare adjustment period may differ. However, there are four stages of how toddlers respond.
- Discovery of novelty
At first, the child is fascinated by this exciting new environment, full of toys and other toddlers. They may even be excited when arriving in the morning and not react too much when their parents leave.
- Reality shock
Develops after about a week, as the novelty fades. The child becomes aware that they will be coming back to daycare every day. Sometimes they react strongly by crying or refusing. During the day, they are less interested in other children, games, and activities. The reality shock lasts one to two weeks.
- Fear of abandonment
After the reality shock, the child wonders if their parents will come back. They may cry when watching their parents leave. They may feel insecure and sad. Some toddlers refuse to sleep or eat, and some older children may even regress (e.g., asking for a pacifier again). This stage can last one to three weeks.
The child develops an attachment bond with the educator. They finally trust the educator. They can now actively participate in games and interact with other children. The adaptation has come full circle.
One thing at a time!
During your child’s adjustment period, routine is important. Avoid weaning from the bottle, pacifier, or breastfeeding during this time. Breastfeeding could be continued in the morning and evening, for example. It is also not the right time to start potty training or to change the baby bed for a child’s bed.
Preparing your child before the first day
- Talk to your child about their daycare facility. Even if they are very young, explain that they can have fun with the other children while mom and dad are at work. Explain that an educator will be there to take care of them. It is also a good idea to read books about daycare to get them familiar with the place.
- Visit the daycare facility with your toddler before they start going there. They can then get used to the place with you. It is also an opportunity for your child to get to know the people who will be taking care of them. Once back home, tell them how the days will go at daycare.
- Take the time to drive by the daycare with your child whenever you can. Invite them to wave hello to their daycare facility, friends, and educators.
- Spend some time in the daycare facility with your child before they officially start. For example, you could go for a snack with the educator and the other children one week before your toddler begins at the daycare. This helps them get some experience of the daycare routine and become familiar with the other children.
- Go to the park with your toddler at the same time as the children in the daycare if the educators bring them to a park in your neighbourhood. Consequently, some faces will be more familiar when they enter their daycare facility.
- Explain the new routine that will be established for the days your child is at daycare. For example: We get dressed, eat lunch, brush our teeth, and then leave. Describe the journey to the daycare. Remind them of their educator’s name and some of the children’s names in their group, if you know them. Knowing a little bit about what is coming next helps your child gain more confidence.
- Talk to the educator about your child. Give them any information about their habits, games they are interested in, what they like to eat, sleeping patterns, etc. This will help the educator take better care of them. Of course, if your toddler has special needs, you must inform the daycare facility ahead of time so that accommodation can be implemented.
Making a smooth transition in the first weeks of daycare
- For the first two to three weeks, use a progressive entry into daycare. If possible, start by spending time with your child in their daycare facility. This could be a period of 30 minutes to 2 hours to help them get used to this new environment by your side. Each day, reduce the amount of time you spend with the child to increase the time they are without you at the daycare. This method allows your toddler and their educator to get to know each other.
- If possible, try to have your toddler with the same educator all day. If the educator works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., for example, try to adjust your schedule accordingly for the first few weeks. This may be easier to manage if your child is starting daycare while you are still on parental leave.
- Help them prepare for what will happen. For example, you could explain: “When you get to daycare, you will go to your group’s room. In the morning, you will have a snack together and play outside.” Your toddler may feel a little safer when they know what is going to happen.
Each daycare facility has its own protocols for progressive integration, visits, and phone calls. It is important to be informed about what to expect.
- Specify when you will come get them with words and reference points they understand so they know you will come back for them. For example, tell them: “I’ll pick you up after your afternoon snack.” Remind them that you will always be coming back to pick them up. If you won’t be picking them up, be sure to explain who will be coming to pick them up at the end of the day.
- Repeat the same goodbye routine with your child (e.g., two kisses, a big hug, and off you go). Such routines become reference points that facilitate adaptation because they are predictable for your toddler. Never leave without saying goodbye. Many children find separation easier when they feel in control of the situation. For example, the educator may offer your child to watch you leave from one of the windows of the daycare to wave goodbye.
- Bring a transitional object (e.g., security blanket, stuffed animal) that will reassure your toddler. Its familiar smell can help your child better manage separation from their parents. The transitional object or security blanket allows them to think of you and feel safe while waiting for your return. It’s also a good idea to bring a family photo or a small album containing family pictures that your toddler can look at when they miss you.
- Comfort and reassure your child. Even if they are very young, use words to describe the situation they are experiencing and name their emotions: “I know you are sad to say goodbye. You are looking forward to me coming back.” You can explain that even if you are working, you will think about them during the day and imagine them playing. Remind them that you have a picture of them to look at when you miss them.
- If your child has an older sister or brother in the same daycare facility, ask that they be able to see each other during their adaptation period. It is reassuring for a child to spend a little time with their brother or sister.
- If your toddler is crying when they see you at the end of their day, tell them that you understand and name their emotions once again. For example, say: “You were sad to see that I was not there, but now you can see, I’m here again.”
Prepare the day before
By adopting a calm attitude, you are helping your child adapt to their daycare facility. To avoid leaving for daycare in a hurry, prepare their clothes the day before. Also prepare their bag with spare clothes, their transitional object or security blanket, etc. You will then be in less of a hurry and can spend more time with your child in the morning before leaving for daycare.
Helping your child feel good at their daycare facility
- Talk about what they do at daycare every day. Even though they are young, talk to them about what you already know to show that you are interested in what they are doing in their daycare facility. For example, say: “You went to the park today” or “It was William’s birthday, and there was cake." If they are older, ask questions about their day, for example: “What was your favourite activity today?”
- Display their achievements and pictures of the daycare (e.g., drawings, crafts, photos of them with friends at daycare). This helps them get used to this new environment and reminds them of the fun times they have there.
- Show your toddler that you appreciate their educator. For example, say something good about the educator when you are at home. If your child sees that you trust their educator and you are not worried about leaving them at daycare, they will adjust more easily. If they agree, take a picture of the educator with your child to put on your fridge at home to talk about the educator while showing them the photo.
- Take some time with your child at home to play with them before preparing dinner. When you give them attention, your child feels loved and reassured. When they are a baby, playing peek-a-boo can also be useful to help them realize that even if they don’t see you anymore, you are still there.
Developing good communication with the educator
Good collaboration with the educator is essential to help your child adapt to their daycare facility. Here are some tips to establish a good connection and to team up with the educator.
- Try to have a short discussion with your child’s educator every day. In the morning, you can explain how your toddler is doing, whether they are feeling well, looking forward to an event, worried about something, etc. This will help the educator to be able to respond with discernment to your child’s behaviour, for example if the educator knows that they have had a hectic night and might be more irritable than usual. Similarly, when you come back, ask the educator about your child’s behaviour during the day. Many daycares use a daily communication booklet (logbook) to summarize the highlights of your child’s day. Read it for information and ask questions as needed.
- Call the educator during the day to ask how your child is doing in the first few weeks or on days when they do not seem to be feeling well. However, first ask if this would be possible and when would be the best time to call. It is important that you discuss this beforehand so that your request does not hinder the educator from taking care of the other children.
- Do not ever hesitate to speak with your child’s educator if you have any concerns. For example, if your toddler does not seem to fit in well at the daycare, if they are crying a lot or pushing others away. Together, you can find the best ways to help your toddler.
There are several types of daycare services in Quebec (CPE, subsidized and non-subsidized private daycare, home childcare service, and drop-in daycare centres). To lighten the text, we chose to use the terms “daycare” and “daycare facility” to represent the various childcare settings in Quebec.
Things to keep in mind
Entry into daycare brings many changes to a child’s life and requires an adjustment period.
Visiting the daycare facility and spending some time there with your toddler before their entrance helps them get used to their new environment.
Using progressive integration and leaving a transitional object at daycare are good ways to help your child adjust to their daycare facility.
Scientific review: Julie Raymond, MPsy, clinical psychologist, child development specialist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2020
Photos: iStock.com/lostinbids and GettyImages/Liderina
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
LA PLACE 0-5 ANS. The sole access point to recognized daycare spaces in Quebec. www.laplace0-5.com
MARTIN, Jocelyne, Céline POULIN, and Isabelle FALARDEAU. Le bébé en services éducatifs. Quebec, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2008, 498 pp.
MINISTÈRE DE LA FAMILLE DU QUÉBEC. Un parent bien informé, pour un choix éclairé.wwwhttps://www.mfa.gouv.qc.ca/en/Pages/index.aspx
OBSERVATOIRE DES TOUT-PETITS. Petite enfance : la qualité des services éducatifs au Québec. 2018, 60 pp. www.tout-petits.org
DAXHELET, François. À la garderie. Boomerang jeunesse, coll. Cajoline, 2010, 24 pp.
L’HEUREUX, Christine and Gisèle LÉGARÉ. Caillou va à la garderie. Éditions Québecor, 2019, 24 pp.
ROUSSEAU, Lina. Que fait Galette à la garderie? Dominique et compagnie, coll. Galette, 2009, 24 pp.
TCHOU, Françoise and Catherine GINGRAS. Une journée à la garderie. Pratiko, 2016, 95 pp.