When the time comes, a calm morning routine, instead of rushing out the door at the last minute, will help your toddler adjust quicker

It’s not always possible to stay home with your little one until you both feel ready to separate during the day. But, it is possible to prepare your child for day care to make the transition from home to crèche smoother.

Johannesburg-based educational psychologist Carina van Vuuren says that every child can experience periods of anxiety around attending care at some stage. “It might be on the first day, or some time later. Think about the anxiety you feel when starting a new job. In the same way, it takes time for children to form bonds and feel comfortable with new adults,” she says.

Carina advises parents to talk gently to their children about the upcoming transition, “being mindful that the aim is to prepare your child for what is ahead without making her too anxious or overly excited”, she says.

When the time comes, a calm morning routine, instead of rushing out the door at the last minute, will help your toddler adjust quicker.

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Here are more practical ways to prepare your child for day care:

Visit the crèche together

This is an important part of familiarising your child with her new environment. “Visit the school with your child, introduce her to her teacher, and take a tour of the school, where she’ll be having her nappy changed, the play area and garden, and her special locker. Reassure her that she’ll be well cared for and will enjoy a fun-filled day,” says specialised educator Julia Gorham.

She notes that pointing out the artwork on the school board can get her excited about some of the activities she’ll be participating in. “Show her the daily activities displayed on the shelves and have a casual walk around the school with her, observing the other happy children at play.

Multiple visits are especially valuable, since little children often forget quickly,” she adds.

You may be working through your own anxieties, but it’s important to speak positively about this new chapter

Use positive language

You may be working through your own anxieties, but it’s important to speak positively about this new chapter. Talk to your child about what to expect and help her understand what role the teachers will be playing in her life.

“Discuss the possibilities of making new friends, learning, singing songs and the importance of attending day care,” she says. She also emphasises the importance of communication during the transition phase, so talk about what your child will be learning at school each week. “For example, baker’s day, show and tell, special events and daily art activities according to the weekly themes,” so you can reinforce these at home and your child can be prepared for what’s to come.

Read through it

Julia suggests visiting the library together or a local bookshop and reading books. “Snuggle with her in bed and read books about the adventures and fun times she can look forward to at her new school.” You can incorporate conversations around this new chapter of her life into her story-time routine.

This will also pave the way for her to talk to you openly about her day as she grows older. Books are not only a great way of sparking your little one’s imagination, but age-appropriate books help your child make sense of the world. Carina agrees that reading and creating stories and games together about starting day care will help to create a bridge between home and school.

Make up songs about day care and have fun

Little ones get excited about singing and dancing, so sing songs about going to school and saying goodbye. Reciting letters of the alphabet, days of the week and months of the year is also a great way to ease her into her new environment of nursery rhymes. Even though you’ll be doing most of the singing, she’ll enjoy clapping along and she’ll make the connection as soon as she starts day care.

Adjust her home routine

Request a copy of the class schedule from the day care and emulate the day’s activities at home. If breakfast is at 8am and nap time at 12pm, for example, do the same with her at home. Knowing what to expect allows your little one to feel more secure. If your baby usually breastfeeds during the day, you could start pumping and introducing a bottle.

Make the transition gradual

Enrolling your child for half-day initially will help her transition gradually into her new environment. And when she’s more comfortable, she can do a full day. You can also introduce a transitional object like a toy or her favourite teddy bear – something she associates with you and her home. This item plays an important role in helping her feel more settled.

“Most day care facilities will allow comforting items. Also, provide the day care with as much information about your child as possible, so they can help you make the transition as easy as possible,” advises Carina.

The big day

Save the tears for later

If you’re feeling emotional and tearful about drop-off, your child will pick up on it, which will only heighten her anxiety. Pay attention to your feelings and behaviours.

It might be hard, but try to maintain composure until your little one is out of sight before turning on the water works. “It’s important to model a sense of confidence and calm to your child, because children are perceptive and will sense how you feel about the transition,” cautions Carina.

However, it’s perfectly understandable if you need to take a private moment to acknowledge your own feelings about the change.

If you’re feeling emotional and tearful about drop-off, your child will pick up on it, which will only heighten her anxiety. Pay attention to your feelings and behaviours

Keep calm and say goodbye

It’s not unusual for some children to become upset when it comes to drop-off time. Carina suggests accepting any opportunity offered to go into the room and settle your child. “Engage with her in a fun activity, or start a conversation with another child. Once children are engaged in play, it’s often easier for them to part with you,” she says.

As soon as your child is settled, remember to hug and reassure her that you’ll be back. Babies and toddlers have no sense of real time, so give a specific time like “I’ll be back after naptime or snacktime”. Resist the urge to hang around after saying goodbye. “If your child is upset, leave her with a staff member. “Experienced staff will have myriad techniques for supporting your child through their anxiety,” says Carina.

When it’s too hard to let go

If your child is experiencing ongoing tears and anxiety at drop-off, Carina suggests taking a step back to consider whether it’s a general anxiety problem about attending day care or more about being separated from mom or dad.

“If separation from one parent is the problem, consider making short-term arrangements for the other parent or another family member to undertake the drop-off responsibility,” she says. She explains that a short period with an alternative drop-off person can work to break the anxiety cycle for some children.

Questions to ask when choosing a crèche

  • What is the child to teacher ratio?
  • What are the qualifications and experience of the staff and are they trained in first aid?
  • Is the school registered and does it comply with the Health Department and Social Services requirements?
  • What do the children’s daily programmes include?
  • What’s the policy on toys?
  • How does the school communicate with parents and assess progress?
  • What are the day care hours?
  • How secure are the premises?
  • What is the school “sick”policy?

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