Transitioning your baby to childcare is one of the more nerve-wracking events in the life of a new working mama. Thoughtful planning about this transition – and about all the logistics of how you’ll go back to work after maternity leave – can really help bring your mind to the present, though.
Here are some key points to keep in mind about the actual transition to having someone other than you care for your baby. Whether that’s a family member, nanny, or daycare.
Whether you’ve been home on maternity leave for a few weeks or a few months, transitioning your baby to childcare can be daunting and fraught with lots of emotions. The day I dropped off my first baby at daycare – a place I had researched carefully and truly loved – I left with eyes full of tears, head swimming with thoughts like: “I don’t even know these people! My baby! What on earth possessed me to walk out that door?!”
And also “Hallelujah! For the next few hours, the mysteries behind his cries are someone else’s to figure out! His spit up is someone else’s to clean! And they’re experts at this. I don’t even know what the heck I’m doing…” And of course: “is leaving him for 2 hours worth pumping, or should I just wait until I see him? Maybe he won’t want to drink any milk at daycare, and then he’ll be hungry?…or maybe he’ll drink so much at daycare and then I’ll be engorged when I see him?!…” Ah, what a morning.
While that swell of thoughts and emotions is, I suspect, inevitable, I do have some advice that can help your transition go more smoothly.
6 Tips for Transitioning Your Baby to Childcare More Smoothly (for You and for Baby)
- Use a transition week schedule to ease both of you into the experience. No matter what type of childcare arrangement you will be using, ask for an official “transition week” where the amount of time in childcare increases as the week goes on. I was lucky in that my daycare had a schedule they used for all new arrivals, no matter what age of the child. It looked something like this: Monday, 9-11, Tuesday, 9-12:30, Wednesday, 9-1, Thursday, 9-3:30, Friday, 9-5. And if you’re able to do the transition week the week before you start back to work, all the better. For both of my children, I did the transition before returning to the office, and I discovered it was much-needed time for me to shop for some non-maternity work clothes, take a yoga class (alone!), have lunch with a friend, and get a haircut.
- Don’t linger. Last big hug and kiss goodbye, and then go. I remember my daycare teachers telling me it was important not to linger at drop-off, even the first day and the first week. And I remember being really angry at that warning. (I’ll stay as long as I want, thank you very much!) But, I followed their advice, and I do now believe it’s better for the child not to have a really extended goodbye, and not to set up an expectation that there will be one, even from the beginning.
- Know that baby’s sleep “schedule”, including nighttime sleep, will probably be off for a bit. Now I use that term “schedule” loosely here, as some babies have one from the get-go. And for others, well, there is no such thing. But expect that whatever you previously had gotten used to is likely to change in the sleep department when childcare starts. Baby might get up more at night to cuddle. And it may take a few weeks to get naps figured out. Just remember how quickly everything changes with these little guys. At 3 months they still may take 4 naps a day. But by about the 1 year mark, they’re down to only one – which always seemed fascinating and crazy to me at the same time.
- Plan for extra cuddle time. Chances are, you’ll both be extremely happy to see one another at the end of each day apart – whether it was for a few hours or the whole day. So at least for a week, forget the laundry. Order in some food. Clean only the bottles you’ll need for daycare. And spend some serious time together after work in your favorite snuggle spot.
- Remind yourself that “alloparents” have been critical to child rearing for pretty much all of human history. I learned the term “alloparents” from Brigid Schulte’s Book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One Has the Time. Here’s a good introduction to the idea, from the book: [Context: Brigid is interviewing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist, and they’re discussing Kung women in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, 2,000 years ago] “The whole idea that mothers stayed at camp and the men went off to hunt? No way! These women were walking thousands of miles every year with their children. Or if it was not safe, they were leaving them back at camp.” She pauses to drive that point home: Sometimes mothers left their children back at camp. The children were with their fathers, older siblings, grandparents, relatives, and other trusted, nurturing adults- people Hrdy calls “alloparents” (“allo” means “other than” in Greek). “It’s natural for mothers to work. It’s natural for mothers to take care of their children,” she says. “What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children. What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.”
- Pause at transition time and take care of yourself. Take the time – whether it’s one minute or five – to be mindful of the transitions in your day, from baby to work, and work to baby. To help me shift gears with intention, for example, I try to pause as I’m changing into my commuting shoes at the end of the day. I take a minute to breathe in my workday, and breathe out my work to-do list. Then to breathe in the thought of the babes who await on the other side of my metro ride, and breathe out however I’m feeling about having been gone. Take note of how you’re feeling and just feel. Take care of yourself your first weeks back – and every week thereafter. And to help in this taking-care-of department, find other mamas who’ve been there, done that. And talk to them about their experiences.
So just breathe, mama, breathe. This transition will sort itself out. You will be fine. Baby will be fine. And each day will bring you a reunion to cherish.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.
This was a really timely post for me (read via the link in your Saturday Secrets email) as we had our first two days of daycare this past week for our 5 1/2 month old and it’s been brutal. Appreciate the specific advice!
Hang in there, Kourtney. These transitions do take a few weeks, but the new normal will indeed arrive. Promise.
I read this post before our first transition to nanny when I went back to work, and I’m reading it now again before our transition from nanny to daycare. It still applies, and these words of wisdom have helped both times. Thank you for some grounding words to help soothe during these times. Love your blog!
Thank you for your kind words, Liz! So glad you found the post helpful.
Reading this has helped my heavy heart feel a little lighter. Yesterday was the first time I left my daughter at daycare (She is my first child and due to Covid, it has mainly just been my daughter, husband and I as all my family are on the opposite side of the country). It was heart wrenching! As I left, I waited behind the front door of the centre and heard her screaming, she was inconsolable and struggled to catch her breath 🙁
I had thoughts floating through my head asking myself: what are you doing? Why are you putting her through this? I felt so guilty 🙁
I know in time she is going to love daycare. I just can’t wait for that day.
Tomorrow is the second time I will have to leave her. Any additional tips, words of encouragement, anything, would be sooooo appreciated.
Oh, mama. I am just now seeing your comments, and I hope the past few days have been smoother for both of you. The transition to childcare (and back to work) is a process, not an event, and it’s not defined by any one moment. Sometimes my boys cried when I left daycare in the morning, sometimes they cheered when I left, and sometimes they didn’t even notice. They went through so many phases around the separation topic, and now they’re perfectly well-adjusted 9 and 11 year olds who don’t remember a single thing about these separations and painful mornings:) There is no one like mama, I promise. I’m glad the post was helpful, and know that there’s a whole working parent community out there who has your back. You’ve got this, mama.
I start work today and I read this today…I am still looking for reliable nanny….nerve wracked…I just hope he stays well and healthy through this time period!
Good luck with the transition, Mehak. Remember that whatever childcare choice you make doesn’t have to be permanent. Yes to staying healthy; and when he gets the inevitable cold, here’s to taking good care of *yourself* while he builds his immune system!
Wow! This definitely brings tears to my eyes, beautifully written. I am getting ready to transition my second son to daycare and it does not get any easier with #2. Working Moms have so much guilt and insecurity. I appreciate the “it takes a village” perspective. We can all learn from one another to get through the most challenging roll of our lives; motherhood.
Best of luck with the transition, Erica. I, and the world of working mamas out there, are with you in spirit and have your back. You got this, mama.
I will start working on Monday and my mother in law will be keeping him temporarily. That is a blessing but he is appears to be attached to me. He screams so sometimes that it’s hard for me and he only calms down when I get him. What are some things I can do to help this? I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks!
Big hugs, Jacqueline. It is a good thing that he is attached to you, mama. You didn’t say how old he was, but in my experience, it’s normal for separation anxieties and screaming to come in waves (and I think it’s often harder on us, as parents). Here is a piece I wrote on exactly this topic: https://www.mindfulreturn.com/goodbye/.
Thank you for explaining that sometimes you need to set apart to be with your child at the end of a day apart. My sister is thinking about having her son go to daycare soon, but she has no idea how to actually have that go well. I will be sure to send this to her so the transition can go better.
Thank you for your comment, Sandra – and for sharing these resources with your sister!
Thanks for mentioning that you should keep your goodbye brief when dropping your child off. Now that my job requires me to work during the day, I need to minimize the separation anxiety that my son has when I am away. I’ll be sure to keep my goodbyes short when taking my son to a childcare center.
I will be transitioning my almost 8 month old to daycare setting from a sitter. My anxiety has increased as the days draw near, I feel they are particularly heightened due to the pandemic. I am unable to go into the classroom on her first drop off and will not be allowed into the building due to social distancing guidelines set by our state. The providers will have to wear masks and gloves and I fear this will upset my little one. We have been wearing masks around the house so she can get use to them but I still experience increased anxiety just thinking about it. This article has helped ease my mind but I am truly dreading the transition. Any additional resources you have would be greatly appreciated.
Oh, Tonisha. I feel for you. We are living in such crazy – and unprecedented times. I love your idea to wear the masks around the house for practice so that she can get used to it. In terms of not being allowed into the classroom, I have a few thoughts. First, I’d say that given a quick drop-off is better for everyone, not being able to go in may actually help in the sense of not being able to linger. Second, I can imagine it would be really hard not to be able to picture the room where my little one was going. Would the daycare be willing to take some photos of what the room looks like and send them to you in advance? Are they willing to take some photos throughout the day while your daughter is there and send them to you? (Lots of places have apps and websites they use for this type of thing.) And finally, I’d give yourself the space to feel all the emotions on that first day. Can you carve out even a short amount of time that day just for you, or to see a friend (even for a socially distanced walk or a Zoom coffee)? The more you can support yourself on that tough transition day – and throughout that week – the better. Big hugs, mama.
I am exactly in the same position as Tonisha.
Lots of anxiety and stress going through with just the transition thought. My son is scheduled to start his day care in 2 weeks.
Moreover my son (17 months) nurses to sleep/nap. I am worried what will he do since i wont be around. He gets really upset and starts crying.
Any insight on this will be much appreciated.
Hi Reshmi – I SO hear you on these fears, Reshmi. My sons also nursed to sleep and nap, and I was terrified of how he would do at daycare. For us, it was a transition, but one that turned out to be completely fine. What gave me the most comfort was in knowing that the daycare workers were professionals who had TONS of experience with exactly this type of thing, and they have strategies (e.g. patting his back in the crib as he fell asleep) that really helped. I do honestly believe that there is such a thing as “baby peer pressure,” too, where one kid will cooperate in ways never seen at home, because that’s what all the other kids are doing. Hope this is helpful, and best of luck with your transition – good luck, and be patient with yourself, mama. You will get through this.
This is helpful! Thank you! My son (20 month old) just started daycare since my mom had been helping us since day 1! Oh man, it is has been hard! We started with full day thinking it will make the transition easier as he will get used to the full routine at once. Now, I am not so sure about that decision, though. He cries at drop off but stops once he sees the other kids. He cries when we pick him up and he is super irritable and upset at night, cries a lot and does not want to get off from my hubby’s arms. Wakes up at night to check if we are still next to him. Poor little guy – how long does this transition period last?
Hi Zee – thanks so much for commenting and glad you found the post helpful. Big hugs to you during this transition – I hear you on how hard it is. In my experience, the length of a transition period varies by kid, but in the past 9 years since I’ve been a mom, I’ve tried to give major changes a good month / 4 weeks. I have also seen the daycare transition be harder on 1 year olds than babies, simply because they have more of an awareness of the world and separation anxiety than the little ones. Keep reminding yourself that change is hard, you’re not doing anything wrong, and new rituals and routines take time. Hang in there, mama – you’re doing a great job (or you wouldn’t care as much as you do). Promise.
This was a good read. My 5 month breastfeed baby is going to daycare and I’m freaking out, I worry what of she get sick and cry all day for me. The workers are wearing mask. Her first day, she cried most of the day and she wouldn’t eat. Does this traumatized her. I did not leave her there for a full day. She stayed a total of 4 hours, was that too long. When I picked her up she was sleep and she was holding the daycare worker tightly. It makes me question did I do the right thing in having her in daycare because no one can take care of her like I can.
Oh, mama. Big hugs in your direction. Your baby will indeed be okay. I am certain of it. Change and transition are hard, no matter when they happen. And adjustment takes time for everyone – mama and baby. Even with other people caring for your baby, there will indeed be no one like mama. AND I love having a village to interact with my children, as it exposes them to so many other ways of being in the world. Hope things have gotten better for you, and hang in there during this transition.
It’s helpful that you brought up how you can help create certain expectations for your child by refraining from spending too much time when saying goodbye to them. My wife and I are planning on attending college courses this month and need to find someone that can watch our daughter, but I worry that she will lose her temper if we change her schedule since we usually play board games with her every morning. Hopefully, we can help prepare her for when we find a child care service.
Change is hard for all of us, Derek! To the extent you can talk about the change in schedule before its happening, that can help. Then just remember that while she may protest at first, you’ll all get the hang of it over time. It’s important to be patient with ourselves when we adopt new routines.
Reading this on my 7 month old’s second day of daycare. Oh my gosh it has been hard. He has been refusing to eat while he’s there and I can hear his voice is raspy when we get home I’m assuming from crying so much 🙁 it makes me so sad. I know in my heart it will get better but I feel awful about it right now.
Big hugs, mama. Transitions are so hard, particularly at that age…but yes, you will both get through to the other side. You are not doing anything wrong by growing your baby’s village, and your pain is evidence of your strong attachment. One day at a time. The working mom community is here for you.
Our little boy will be 7 months on the 14th and today we found out that our nanny got a full time job – as we expected a senior in college to do at some point but I’m taking it really hard. I thought I was prepared for this day. I thought I would be less *sad* but I’m not. I’m super sad to have to transition him from in home care to daycare. Our nanny is giving us as much time as needed to find a daycare we like; we’re so blessed that her new boss is understanding of the situation. She’s the only care-giver our little one knows – outside family, and I’m a mess. Your post brought tears to my eyes because as much as I’m having a hard time dealing with it I know that he’ll be OK. Our little one will only be going part-time and that makes me feel better about the situation. Thank you for your post from a super emotional momma.
Sending hugs and support, Carmen. Change is always so hard, and it’s completely normal to grieve the loss both of someone so special to your family and the disruption to your routine. Daycare was truly amazing for us as a family (more here: https://www.mindfulreturn.com/daycare/), and it will provide an even bigger village of support for your little guy. Give yourself time to feel all the feelings, and lean on your working mama communities for support. We’re here for you.
Thanks for the beautifully written article which also reminds me to breath breath breath. My 4 month-old is starting daycare tomorrow and it really is the hardest thing not knowing if he will cope well. You’re so right, we working mums are building a bigger village of support and we’re working to provide our little one better future. Thank you x
Big hugs, Viv. How did that first day go for you? Congrats on getting through those first hours – they really are the hardest. Transitions are challenging, to be sure. And yes, they do always go a bit more smoothly when we, as parents, remember to breathe!
How was the transition?
Im so glad I came across this. My son started daycare at 7weeks old and I have been back to work for almost a full week and have had breakdowns every day since. The mom guilt is real, the insecurities are real, the separation anxiety is real, and the worrying never stops. After reading this i feel some weight lifted off my shoulders as my son has been having issues sleeping while at day care and then wanting to sleep as soon as he gets home and then up all night. Its been tough and doesnt help when Ive been doubting myself. thank yu for making sure i know im not alone and that this too shall pass.
Oh, Samantha – big hugs, mama. Those first few days are so hard. It took us a couple of weeks to get settled into a good sleeping / day and night rhythm after each of my sons transitioned to childcare, so be gentle and patient with yourself. You are absolutely not alone in any of this! (If you’d like to join a group of rockstar working mamas who can really get what you’re going through, join us for the July 5 session of the Mindful Return courses – https://www.mindfulreturn.com/e-course.)
Thank you for this information! Our little man was in daycare from 13 weeks old to 21 weeks old. We moved and I have been at home with him since. Now he is 13 months old and I’m planning to go back to work. He’s been home with me every day and is so attached. Not to mention he is breastfed. I’m having ha hard time thinking about him going to daycare again and me not being there and only having a few hours a day with him. This information is awesome and gives mw hope that all will be okay.
So glad this post was helpful for you, Amanda. Those changes – and separations – can be so hard, but YES, you are right to hope that all will be okay. Remember, the transition will be a process, and the best way through it is one day at a time, with lots of self-compassion. You’ve got this, mama.
Hello my 3.5 month old will be watched by a caregiver for most of my workday but then dropped off at a daycare for 2 hours. Do you think 2 days will be enough transition time? I don’t have a full week to be able to transition her.
Hi Jessica – we work with the time we have, right? You can do the transition you’re able to and I’m sure you will all figure it out over time. Be patient and gentle with yourself and your baby, mama. These transitions take weeks, even when you have a longer phase-in period. You got this.