Daycare Distress

Alison SmithParenting

swing set

These last few weeks have been a big adjustment for our family, as I imagine it has for many others. We have had a major work change for one member, public school starting for another and our youngest has started his first foray into public, group childcare. Needless to say, we have seen more than a few effects from these big changes.

For our youngest, it has been difficult adjusting to being away from his home and family. It became apparent through his meltdowns at home and his clinging, begging and crying at drop-off, that he was struggling. Add to that, he outright told us that he did not like daycare! We made sure there was no actual problem with the choice of childcare venue, of course. But since he was drawing on every argument and method of convincing us that a small human could muster, and every day he became more adamant, we had to pay attention. Apparently, we had underestimated the effect of the changes on him and overestimated his laid-back adaptation to change! Therefore we had to rethink our strategy. We had jumped in too quickly and he started to draw the proverbial line in the sand. Our babies are no wallflowers, that’s for sure! Both of our kids have spirited personalities. Their opinions are strong, plus they feel (and show!) their emotions quite intensely. Our reality is that many ideas that work for some families do not work for us. Since being respectful of our children’s needs is foremost in our minds, it is us who must adjust to their needs while they are so young. As they grow, we teach them how to notice others’ needs too. In our family, it’s like a dance. We are still learning the moves.

We are we now?

What has worked for us (so far anyway–cross your fingers about drop off tomorrow!) is a graduated exposure to his new location. We had a great first day, initially, and thought we got lucky! However, as I described, it went downhill fast. Therefore, we went back to square one, cut back my work hours temporarily and are making it a slower shift to time away from home. We also filled him in on the plan, reminded him of why it is necessary right now and negotiated a bit with the structure until he was tolerant of a proposition.

What is different about gentle, responsive parenting?

Many people will suggest leaving your child crying at daycare. The caregivers then distract the child in the hope they will move quickly past the upset. These techniques do not sit well with me, so I sat with him instead! To this point in his life, his family has been his rock and his security. It makes no sense to shift to childcare abruptly and expect him to “just get used to it”. Entire articles and book chapters have been dedicated to the topic of why “just get used to it” is not the most healthy option. For us, we are finding a way through this time with a slower pace. He has been happier, more cooperative, and eager to see his friends. I prefer that he remember this time as pleasant and fun, rather than something he needed to resign himself to, alone.

Here is our revised plan

  1. New Day 1: Go with him to his new location. Stay and interact with him while there as long as he will tolerate being there, but keep it on the short side. Follow his cues. (He lasted about 90 minutes.)
  2. Day 2: Go with him and stay for a shorter time, while interacting less. (He was aware of this decrease in interaction “I’ll be over here doing some work,” but I was available if he needed to touch base.) Leave him while going to do “one thing” at home. I ensure there is something fun for him to do while gone. Pick him up early. (I stayed about an hour. Left for about an hour. Great morning.)
  3. Day 3: Stay even less. Leave him a little longer. Cross fingers. We’ll see how this one goes!
  4. And so on.

Some tips for easing the transition for your child, that may not all be covered by traditional parenting suggestions

  • Allow for a gradual transition to daycare/preschool/school, whenever possible.
  • Use the same routine for each drop off, down to certain phrases you always say. Ex. “You’re safe.” “You can handle this.” “I will see you right after lunch.” “I always come back.”
  • Try not to bawl in front of your child, of course, but you don’t need to pretend that you’re dancing on rainbows, either. I let my children know that I will miss them, too. When they see how I handle my emotions, they learn much better strategies than if they see me faking happiness.
  • Never sneak away.
  • Focus on the positives (such as playing with other kids or the cool slide they have), but also acknowledge any negatives with empathy and a hug.
  • Spend time prepping before the transition. There are lots of books available to help.
  • For each day of the transition period, keep prepping your child through discussion, as long as he or she needs the reassurance.
  • Debrief at every step. Check in. Chat about your time apart.
  • Allow your child to express sadness, anger or frustration about the change. Offer extra snuggles.
  • Watch your child’s cues to gauge how he or she is doing.
  • I believe it is possible to start daycare without distress.

Here’s to a great autumn for every family member. Let me know how it goes!

(Author’s note: as of the end of October, a successful transition has been made. Although he sometimes asks if his momma can stay and play with him then take him home right after, he says he enjoys his time and tells excited stories of his adventures there.)


Alison Smith is a parenting coach living on the east coast of Canada with her family. To get a free copy of her parenting guide, 20 Ways to Connect With Your Child, visit Alison at 

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Alison SmithDaycare Distress