By Raising Children Network
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Toddler playing with plastic cups
Beginning child care can be both an exciting and emotional time for families. Children and parents often experience some anxiety about going to child care for the first time, but there’s a lot you can do to make it easier for your child and yourself.

Factors affecting how children settle

Children have different experiences of settling into child care. The way they settle can be affected by:

  • temperament, which will affect the way they respond to any sort of change, including a new care setting
  • personal preferences, such as how they like to be fed, how they like to be comforted and soothed, and how they ask for and accept affection
  • age and stage of development – for example, babies (less than six months) are often happy to be left with carers because they haven’t yet developed separation and stranger anxiety
  • number of days in care – for example, a child who attends care one day a week will often take longer to settle than a child who attends five days a week. This is simply because children attending fewer days a week have less time to become familiar with and comfortable in their new setting.
It’s best to concentrate on the quality of care you choose for your child, and how well this care fits in with your family values and interests. Quality is about relationships, and a quality care centre is one with strong staff–child relationships and excellent communication with parents. You can read more about how the National Quality Framework promotes quality in early childhood education and care.

Separation and stranger anxiety

Separation anxiety (baby gets upset when you leave him) and stranger anxiety (baby gets upset around other people) are a normal part of development. Almost all babies and children go through them to some extent. They usually start at around six months and peak at 12 months, though older children can also experience separation anxiety.

Around six months, babies develop an understanding of object permanence. This means your baby understands that you exist, even when you’re not with her. Unfortunately she doesn’t understand that you’ll be back if you leave her, so she might initially get upset when you go. This generally passes once she learns, through experience, that you’ll come back.

This is all going on just as many parents are thinking about going back to work and leaving their child in care. It’s not your fault – it’s just how babies develop.

Try not to worry – children usually adjust as the new faces in their care setting become familiar. You can help your child overcome these anxieties by spending some time together in the new care setting, before you start leaving your child there without you. If you can, try leaving your child for just short periods, and build up to a whole day. This will help teach your child the concepts of leaving and returning.

Your feelings

Beginning child care is a major transition and can be both an exciting and emotional time for families – both children and parents. Although it’s difficult, it’s important for you to be positive with your child about the experience. Children have an amazing ability to pick up on when their parents are worried or anxious, so try not to share your worries or anxious feelings with your child.

This doesn’t mean you can’t show your feelings though – you might like to share them with your partner, a friend or a family member who can give you some support during this emotional time.

Preparing for a new care environment

Preparing children for their first day in care will help them settle more easily. Here are some ideas for the weeks leading up to your child’s first day:

  • Ask the care setting for a copy of its daily schedule and incorporate it into your child’s routine. Try to synchronise lunch, play and nap times so your child needs less time to adjust when care starts.
  • Read picture books with your child about starting care. Make up stories you can share with your child about the experience. It’s good to include all the feelings and experiences your child might go through (happiness, fun, friendship, sadness, anxiety, apprehension and tiredness).
  • Familiarise yourself and your child with the new care environment and carers by making short visits together to the setting. Your child will get used to the new smells, toys, sounds, faces and voices during this time. Gently encourage your child to play with the toys and do some activities while you’re there.
  • Have positive conversations with your child about the new environment, friends, carers and activities.

The night before

  • Try to ensure your child eats a healthy dinner and has a good night’s sleep.
  • Pack all the things your child needs, including bottles, formula, nappies, hat, spare clothes, food (unless provided by the centre), medicines and medical record. Packing special comfort items – such as cuddly toys, blankets or books, or a family picture – is also a good idea.
  • Ensure all items that will be taken to the centre (including bottles, comfort items and clothing) are labelled with your child’s name.
  • Let the staff know if your child doesn’t sleep well the night before starting care (or for the first few nights), because this can impact on your child’s day at the care setting.

The first few weeks

  • If possible, ease your child gradually into the new care program. Stay with your child for a while for the first few days. You can help your child through the transition by reading a book together, playing peekaboo or watching your child engage in activities or play with new friends. Gradually increase the time you spend away from your child (whether in another room or outside the care setting).
  • If your child’s still breastfeeding, you might want to consider visiting the centre during the day to give your child a feed. Many centres encourage breastfeeding mothers to visit, and it might help your child settle into care.
  • Introduce your child to one primary caregiver every time you visit the setting, so your child can start to form a new attachment. Having a key carer is especially important for babies – they’re social beings and crave close attachments in their care settings.
  • Always be there to hug, kiss and say goodbye to your child.
If your child’s generally happy to go to her care setting, shows you things she’s made there and talks excitedly about her day (if she’s talking), chances are she’s settled in well and is enjoying her new environment. Your next challenge might be getting her to come home!

Tips for saying goodbye

Despite your best preparations, your child might still find it difficult to separate from you. He might get upset and start crying. You can help by acknowledging your child’s feelings, giving him words to help express himself, and comforting him. You could also try the following tips:

  • Talk about an activity you and your child will do together when you get back home, such as playing in the garden or reading a story.
  • Establish a goodbye routine, such as three kisses and a bear hug, high-fives or some other special gesture meaningful to your child.
  • Let your child know that you or another familiar grown-up will be back to pick her up at a particular time, or after an event that your child understands, such as sleep or snack time.
  • Keep the goodbye brief. After your goodbye routine, gently but firmly say goodbye to your child. Staying around to comfort your upset child can sometimes prolong distress and even make it worse. 
  • Allow your child’s carer to gently lead him away to do something he enjoys, such as feeding the fish or watering the garden.

If you’re feeling distressed after seeing your child upset, call the centre about half an hour after you leave to see how your child is. Most children stop crying shortly after mum or dad goes.

If your child’s distracted when it’s time for you to leave, you might feel tempted to sneak out without her noticing. This can make children more upset. They realise you’ve gone and haven’t had a chance to say goodbye. It’s best to let your child know you’re going and say that you’ll be back later.

My child isn’t settling

Your child might settle happily in his new setting within a few days or few weeks. Some children keep getting upset after the first few weeks. Others might settle initially and then later get upset (often when the novelty of the new environment has worn off).

In all cases, stay calm and let your child express her feelings. Listen to what your child’s saying. Is she showing signs of separation anxiety? If so, it’s worth sticking with it for a little while, to give your child time to adjust. It’s also important to communicate with the centre’s staff – you can work together to develop settling strategies that you and the staff are comfortable with. The centre’s group leader should be able to suggest some ideas that have helped other children in the past. As difficult as it might be, try to stay positive about your child’s transition to care.

Sometimes, it might be that the care setting just isn’t right for your child. For example, he might seem afraid of the care setting or a carer, or be going backward in his development. You might want to consider finding a different centre, or a different type of child care.

If you’re unsure about why your child’s unsettled and you think the problem might be more than just the child care experience, you might want to seek professional help. Speaking with your maternal and child health nurse is a good place to start.

Questions to ask carers

To monitor how your child’s settling into her new care setting, you can ask carers questions about:

  • how your child’s progress will be recorded and how the carers will let you know about her progress
  • whether it’s OK for you to call during the day to check that your child has settled – this is really important for your peace of mind during the first few weeks, and most care settings will welcome these calls
  • how your child slept during the day and what she ate
  • how she seems to be feeling and whether she’s getting on with the other children
  • what activities your child likes (so you can continue these with her at home).

Settling a child with a disability

Children with special needs or disabilities attach to their parents just as other children do. But some can find it more difficult to express their feelings. The following ideas might help your child with a disability settle more easily:

  • Advise the care setting of your child’s disability or special needs on the waiting list form. If the diagnosis emerges later, let the service know when an offer of enrolment is made. This allows the service to prepare for your child with as much time as possible, including making specialist equipment available and training staff.
  • Take more time to make sure your child is familiar and comfortable with his new setting. Any information you can provide to staff about your child’s particular needs and abilities will help staff ease your child’s transition to care.
  • Establish a detailed communication book to share information between home and the care setting.
  • Discuss your expectations about your child’s behaviour with her carer.
  • Tell the carer about which activities your child can participate in if he has an intellectual or physical disability, and suggest alternative activities you do together at home.

Many care settings provide for children who need additional assistance with communication, language and literacy skills by using alternative communication methods, signs, symbols, large print, symbol text and materials that can be accessed through sight, touch, sound and smell. You might want to consider a different care setting if the centre you’ve chosen doesn’t provide this assistance.

  • Last updated or reviewed 06-12-2011