How to Prepare Your Toddler for Daycare
If your tot is among the 62% of kiddos under 5 who’ll be in daycare (or a daycare-like setting, like preschool) this fall, it’s a good bet you’re feeling at least a teensy bit wound up about it. (Strangers will be in charge of my baby!) But take heart! You already did your research to pick the best childcare for your toddler and you asked all the right questions during your daycare tour. All that’s left is getting your toddler ready for the transition. While, sure, that seems like the most daunting aspect, it doesn’t have to be. After all, starting childcare is often harder on you than on your little one, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)! To help ease both your minds—and to make the shift to daycare smooth as can be—follow these expert tips.
Before Daycare Begins…
Doing the same thing day in and day out may be super-boring to grownups, but for toddlers, routines are a must! Toddlers thrive on predictability. It makes them feel smart, confident, and it can lower their stress levels. That means, preparing your tot for the brand new routine of daycare before it begins is the way to go. (PS: You’ll need the prep, too!)
Visit daycare together.
Do this a few times before your toddler officially starts daycare to give your tot a chance to meet their teachers, explore their new surroundings, and see other kids having fun, which can all build excitement for all the “big kid” activities that await. Perhaps most importantly, visiting daycare together can offset some of your toddler’s fears of the unknown—and it shows your tot that you like and trust the daycare staff—so they can too!
Copycat daycare activities at home.
Find out which activities are in heavy rotation at daycare, then introduce some of them at home. For example, if after visiting daycare you notice activity stations around the classroom, set up a couple of similar stations, like a block table and a coloring area in your playroom. If your child is used to coloring each morning at home, they’ll find it comforting to see that there are crayons and paper at daycare, too.
Tweak story- and playtime.
Add some so-you’re-starting-daycare types of books to your storytime rotation—and talk about daycare inside of storytime and out! Books like A Kissing Hand for Chester Raccoon, Bye-Bye Time, and Maisy Goes to Preschool are designed to ease a little one’s nerves when starting on a new adventure, like beginning daycare. Plus, it’s a good bet these reads will settle your nerves, too! For more book ideas, check out these 13 books that help banish first-day jitters. At the same time, role play about what to expect at daycare. Use dolls, stuffed animals, or yourselves in various role-play scenarios, like what it’s like to join circle time or share trains with a new friend.
Teach this calm-down practice.
Before daycare starts, introduce your toddler to Magic Breathing. (This is best used for toddlers over 2.) This powerful de-stressor is fantastic for settling jitters and helping kids feel more in control of their feelings. Sit in a comfy chair and ask your child to do the same. Say, “This helps me feel better when I’m nervous.” Next, uncross your legs, put your hands in your lap, drop your shoulders, relax the muscles in your face, and slowly inhale through your nose (silently count to five) while raising one hand. Exhale through your nose (for another five) and let your hand slowly drop. Have your child mimic you, then lead them through the motions. (For Magic Breathing help, check out SNOObie, which features two Magic Breathing tracks that use synchronized light and sound to teach families this calm-down technique.) Do this several times leading up to the first day of daycare and encourage your kiddo to tap this new calming technique whenever butterflies arise.
Test drive your new routine.
A week or so before daycare begins, act as if you’re already doing drop-off and pick-up. (This’ll help get everyone adjusted to your new morning and evening routines.) For example, wake up and have breakfast at the appropriate hour to make it to daycare on time. (Think about scheduling some fun early-morning out-of-the-house activities as motivation to make the new morning timeline work.) It’s also a good idea to allot time for things like picking out clothes, packing snacks and lunch, and restocking the diaper bag. (If your tot is old enough, let them pick out their clothes and snacks for the next day.)
Schedule a cushion.
If you’re heading to work after daycare drop-off—and you can—give your employer a head’s up that you’ll likely be arriving a wee bit later than normal the first week. This will help keep your I-don’t-want-to-be-late nerves in check, allowing you to fully focus on honing your new routine and comforting your kiddo.
Consider a gradual start.
This is not possible for everyone, but if you can swing it, consider easing into daycare with a part-time schedule. This could look like beginning with a couple of half days, starting daycare on a Thursday or Friday instead of a Monday, or you stay for an hour on day one and leaving after 20 minutes on day two, and so on.
On the First Day of Daycare…
Now that you’ve prepared for the lead-up for the big day, it’s time to figure out how to handle the first days of daycare. Following these tips will further help ease you both into daycare.
Be ready for tantrums.
Big transitions often go hand-in-hand with big feelings…and that’s okay. If your tot has a meltdown at breakfast or in the car ride to daycare, don’t panic, simply lean into Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fast-Food Rule and Toddler-ese. That means, instead of rushing to quell their cries with “it’s okay,” validate your toddler’s anxious feelings with short phrases and repetition—all while mirroring about one-third of their emotions with your tone and gestures. (“You’re mad! Mad! Mad!” You don’t want to go!”) This works great to help frustrated tots feel cared for and understood, which’ll quiet a meltdown. (Learn more about taming tantrums.)
Bring a comfort item.
A sweet reminder of home, like a lovey or a small photograph, will make the first days and weeks of daycare easier. Even the AAP notes that every child “needs” a comfort object in their early years for emotional support! Learn more about the power of a comfort item, like SNOObear.
Stifle your tears.
Cry in the car, in the bathroom, at your office—but try your hardest not to shed tears at drop-off. Think about it like this: How is your toddler supposed to feel good about going to daycare if you don’t seem to feel good about daycare? Plus, it’s super confusing for a child when your words “Daycare is going to be great!” don’t match your emotions.
Don’t sneak out!
This can put a serious ding in your toddler’s trust. Instead, let the teachers know you’re ready to leave, give a loving and confident goodbye, all while reassuring your bub that you’ll see them soon. Share with your child when you’ll see them, who will pick them up, and even promise a special activity when you reunite. Finally, make a swift exit. No lingering by the door allowed!
You May Also Be Interested In…
- Over a Dozen Easy Lunch Ideas for Daycare
- Your No-Sweat Guide to Leaving Your Baby With a Sitter
- How to Handle Public Toddler Meltdowns
- Educational Apps for Toddlers and Preschoolers
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.