I'm not sure who suffers the most on a child's first day at daycare. Is it the weeping child, or the anxious parent? In some cases, even the staff have problems- almost always because parents didn't know what preparation was needed when they left their child at care for the first time.
So here are some hints for a lower-stress separation. They apply as much to family daycare as to centre care, though I've written from the latter perspective. Leaving your child will still feel terrifying, especially for a first-time parent- but it needn't be a disaster.
Children go through a few stages where separation from mum is particularly difficult. They don't always happen at exactly the same age in every child, but to give you a rough guide, most babies will reach a stage where they notice when you leave the room and cry, and most toddlers will reach a stage where they cling to you in the presence of strangers. These are the most difficult times to commence care- if your child has just started experiencing separation anxiety, maybe you need to leave it a few months (while you get him used to being with people other than you for very short periods).
Children who have always had a lot of contact with relatives and friends (and have had good experiences with them) will often have less trouble than children who are always, always with you. I went back to work part-time when my son was five months old; from the day he was born he was handed around to my relatives and friends for cuddles in my presence, and he frequently stayed with his grandparents in the evenings while my partner and I went out. His transition to care was relatively anxiety-free.
Conversely, I worked in a toddler room with a child who had just turned 2 but who had always been with his mum 24 hours a day; two weeks after starting care he was still crying broken-heartedly from the moment he was dropped off to the moment he was picked up (and mum, who had gone back to work without preparing her baby adequately for the change, couldn't even come and get him).
Older children who haven't had a lot of contact with people other than their parents, who are only children, who are shy, introverted, gifted or who have other special needs may also experience some difficulties in separating (see the story of 'Gavin' in my column about gifted preschoolers).
How do we minimise the stress of that first day, if we aren't lucky enough to have the support of friends and relatives to 'immunise' our child against excess anxiety at separation?
The 2-year-old I referred to previously was dumped in the deep end. Mum's mistake was to assume that because she was friends with a member of the daycare staff, her baby would settle in quickly there. Not so, even though her friend was an outstanding carer. For a start, most daycare staff do shift work, and this toddler was left for a very long day which went across three different shifts of staff. That's too many strange new faces for a little child- and he had never been babysat by Mum's friend, so wasn't familiar even with her (don't confuse your own experiences with your child's experiences- they are very different perspectives!). You need to familiarise your child with the new faces and the new environment in your company before you start him in care without you.
Take your child to the care centre at least once for a visit before you start leaving him there. Go for at least an hour, arriving at the normal time when you'll be dropping him off. During that time, find out which staff members will normally be on duty then. Ask these staff members to interact with him for a while (you may need to be patient if it's a time when lots of kids are arriving at once). Tell them about the activities your child enjoys at home- yes, you probably filled all of that in on a form somewhere when you booked in, but they'll absorb the information better if you talk to them in your child's presence- and encourage your child to get involved in one of these preferred activities; books are good, the sandpit is good, but go with whatever your child really loves to do.
Try leaving the room for short periods in the middle of these activities- go to the bathroom, or go and talk to the centre director- telling your child you'll be back in a minute. 'Marie will read the next few pages to you and I'll see you in a minute. I just have to go to talk to someone and I'll come back to read you the next book'. Leave even if your child cries. Come back quite quickly, say to them 'See? I came back!' and go on with the activity. Repeat this a few times so your child starts to learn that when you go, and say you're returning, it's the truth.
Talk to your child about the centre while you're there. Point out toys and facilities and other children playing happily. Say positive things about the staff (be authentic!! If you're feeling worried about something you've seen, don't pretend- reconsider your options!). Even if your child is a baby, he'll pick up your positive tone and your confidence in this new environment.
If your child is old enough, you can ask him what he thinks of this 'school'. Warn him that you need to go back to work soon to pay for his food and toys and house, and ask him if he thinks this is an okay place to play while you work- because you're not allowed to take him to work with you, and anyway, there would be nothing for him to do there.
If you're not going to work but want him to go to preschool for social and school readiness reasons, tell him the truth about this too; tell him it's a practice for Big School, so he can get used to being in a class, listening to the teacher and playing with other kids. Prepare your child for a big change in his life by being honest and positive with him about it.
On the first day
Make sure you've read the information provided by the daycare centre. Channel your anxiety into making sure you have packed baby's bag with everything on the list, including the usual bottles, cuddlies, special comfort toys, books or dummies which you know will help your child settle. (I know some parents disapprove of dummies, but they saved my sanity with my baby- whatever keeps mum and baby able to function effectively is GOOD.)
On the drive to care, talk to an older child about where you're going, and tell them how long you'll be away and what time you'll be back. Talk to them about what will happen during the day- morning tea, play inside and outside, lunch, rest time, story time, mat time and so on. They may not understand the sequence at all, but at least some of these activities should sound attractive to your child.
When you arrive, approach one of the workers who your child has already met. Stay long enough to start an activity with your child in the company of the worker. Ask the worker to take photos of activities your child does during the day, and ask her to tell your child 'we're taking a picture to show mummy (or daddy) when she comes to pick you up'. Tell your child you're looking forward to seeing the pictures!
Once your child is actively involved, make eye contact with him and say something like 'I have to go to work (or 'to do my jobs') now. I love you, I'll see you as soon as I'm finished my work.' Motivate them for a further activity by saying something like 'Do you think you could do a special drawing for me with (worker's name) later on, and show it to me when I get back?' This gives them a perspective that it will be a little while before you return this time. Then give them a kiss and cuddle, disentangle yourself from the clutching arms and LEAVE.
Don't hesitate! Just GO! Childcare workers have years of experience in settling children, and they will ring you if there's a problem. YOU MUST MODEL CONFIDENCE IN THE ENVIRONMENT. Your child will pick up on any sadness or reluctance you show and reflect those emotions back to you. He is safe, and you have to show that to him using your body language.
If your child gets clingy before even getting involved in an activity, you need to shorten the parting, not lengthen it, and modelling confidence becomes CRUCIAL. Tell your child very clearly again that you will be back as soon as you can, give them that kiss and cuddle, make sure they have their comfort item if they usually need one (like a blanket or soft toy) and GO.
Offering bribes ('Daddy will take you to McDonalds when he gets back!' 'If you're good we'll go to the toyshop!') is pointless, as well as creating a dangerous precedent. Children this young can't delay or displace gratification like that. You are their primary carer, and fast food and toys just don't cut it by comparison. All they want is you; but you have to go, so GO. If you delay over and over, it will get harder, not easier.
Don't let yourself get so upset that you leave with something vital still in the car, either! If you must have a cry, do it in the car park, and while you're there check that you brought their bag in, and their hat, and their cuddly... bring them inside to the office if you did. Under NO circumstances should you return to your child's room- they may just have settled, and you'll start the whole grieving process for them all over again.
And PLEASE don't 'visit' during the day, even later on in the year when your child is more settled. That is totally unhelpful, and just gives the child another trauma when you leave again. When you arrive again at the centre, it must be to take the child with you as promised.
If you have to come to the centre during the day to pick up an older child to go to an appointment, resist the urge to 'drop in' on other siblings- it creates emotional mayhem. Even completely stable and settled children who've been coming to care for years will chuck a tantrum when a parent 'visits' unexpectedly during the day and then leaves without taking them. (NB: I don't mean 'visits' which are pre-arranged with staff where there is an activity agenda- if you are contributing to the educational programme, the teacher is able to present this as a 'special activity' and your child be prepared, and will get a whole heap of positive gain from being part of a 'special event'.)
The last hint is probably the most important. Turn up for pick-up as early as you possibly can, and make sure you've allowed enough time to talk to the carers about your child's day and let him show you anything exciting he's discovered or made. Even if they're a bit weepy and traumatised after that first day, you need to stay positive and spend time at the tail end of the day modelling confidence. Don't whip them away and express sympathy, as though daycare is a bad place to be, or you'll pay for it tomorrow.
The shorter their days are at daycare in that first week or so, the better they'll settle in the future. If you have to work short days for that first week, well, do it. Or start your child's care the week BEFORE you return to work.
And you have to build trust that you'll come back when you said you would. No cheating! You might be enjoying your new-found freedom, but there will be a price for stretching the friendship by turning up late- children remember these things (and so do staff). And please, please, DON'T let your child be the last to be picked up while he's still settling into care. It's hard for any child of any age to be the last one left.