Returning to work and leaving a child in childcare is an emotional time for everyone involved. After those special early months spent building that one-on-one bond with your baby, it can be traumatic for you both to deal with longer separations.
But there's a lot you can do to reduce the stress. Preparing your little one with happy stories about childcare and short visits to the centre or home where they'll be will help.
It's also important accept that there will be some tears and that's OK.
"Think of it as a transition," advises family psychologist, Beulah Warren. "Moving from being at home with Mum all day, to being handed over to a stranger is hard emotionally. Transitions are difficult for little people, as they are for us all."
Before you know it, those early difficult days will be behind you and your baby will be having the time of their life at childcare with their new carers and friends. It's just a matter of patience and some careful steps to help them settle in.
It's a huge adjustment … for everyone.
There's a lot you can do to get your toddler ready for childcare before their official starting date. First, talk to them about what's going to happen but keep your tone happy and positive.
"Even a 12-month-old will benefit from this," Beulah says. "They'll pick up on your tone of voice, so be confident and reassured about childcare."
Tell them about the exciting things they will do there, the toys, activities and equipment they'll be able to use, and the other children they'll play with.
Next, get to know the childcare environment and carers. Most centres encourage parents and children to visit several times before they start, even for just an hour at a time. Many also have a particular carer or two designated to each child, so spend time with your child's carers.
"Let your baby see you establish a relationship with this person, so they know this is someone Mummy trusts," Beulah says.
If your child hasn't spent much time around other people, you can spend the weeks before they start childcare getting them used to that too. Try taking them to playgroups where they can interact with other kids with you there too. Or make a point of getting together with family or friends with children to help your child get accustomed to the noise and bustle of having lots of people around.
So long, farewell…
When the big day arrives, get ready for some waterworks and your little one clinging to your leg like they're drowning at sea. It's all normal and usually passes in a short time.
A childcare ritual that starts before you even leave home will help them adapt more quickly – things are far less traumatic when they're predictable.
It might be a special breakfast on childcare mornings, or helping them pack their bag for the day. When you get there, make sure you physically hand your child to their carer; don't just leave them in the room, even if they seem happy.
Most important of all, make the goodbye firm, loving and decisive. Tell them what time you'll be back, then leave. Whatever you do, don't hesitate or show your own anxiety.
"Give them a kiss and tell them Mummy will be back at a certain time," Beulah says. Give them a time they will understand, like after their sleep, or after dinner.
"Then quietly leave, wave as you go and keep walking," Beulah says. "The child then knows this is a very definite thing."
WACTH: Toddler Freaks Out At Her Own Shadow. Continues after video …
When they're still not happy
All children are different when it comes to settling in with a new carer. It depends on their personalities, and the experiences they've had before childcare. Some may have spent time away from their parents, with grandparents or other family or babysitters. Others may have had none, and parents inclined to be clingy or anxious. All this affects how quickly and well they adapt to childcare.
Either way, give them a couple of weeks to settle in. Children in care more days a week often settle more quickly than those in just one day a week. Talk to your children's carers about how they are during the day. In the hands of well-trained carers, most children stop crying within minutes of you leaving, and remain happy and distracted all day.
And what about those who run to your arms crying hysterically each time you arrive to pick them up? It's usually a sign they're relieved and excited to see you, not an indication they've been miserable all day.
"It's normal, and is their way of saying ' Thank God you've come, I can let it all hang out now'," says Beulah.
Other children run the other way when their parent arrives to pick them up. This is normal too – it's just another version of the intense reaction they have when the day is over.
If after several weeks they're still terribly upset and you can't see any improvement, it may be worth trying another form of childcare.
"Maybe they're not ready for that context of childcare," Beulah says. "Younger children can do much better in a smaller context, like family daycare."
How to cope with the guilt
- Do your research to be sure you're happy with the quality of the child-carer.
- Call your child's carer any time through the day to reassure yourself they're having a good time.
- Get as much feedback as you can about their day, so you don't feel you've missed out. Most child-carers document a child's activities through the day, so ask to see this.
- Share your feelings with other mums in the same situation.
- At the end of a childcare day, devote at least 30 minutes of quality time with your child, just for the two of you to enjoy.