How to set your child up for success at daycare

You did it! You survived the mindf*ck that is choosing the right child care service and now your enrollment start date is fast approaching. You’ve probably had a bit of time to mentally prepare yourself (and stock up on tissues for the inevitable tears), but how do you prepare your little one?

Whether it’s your child’s very first time in the care of someone else, or you’re transitioning into a new care setting, it’s a lot to deal with – for both of you. But don’t worry, we’ve got you!

We spoke to Haylee Dunlop, Operations Manager of the Bright Futures Early Learning Group, and also asked experienced mamas for their advice on helping your child transition into daycare.

Orientation visits

Starting daycare is a big adjustment for our little ones, especially if they’re used to spending all their time with you. It’s a new environment, with lots of new people, and creating trust and confidence takes time.

Haylee suggests starting with shorter days if you can, and sticking around after drop off so that they feel confident and comfortable to explore the environment with you at their side. 

“This helps reinforce that you are coming back to get them and helps preserve their first experience as a positive one”

She adds that it’s also a great opportunity for you to get to know your child’s educators, “Your child will see you interacting with the educators, which can help to build a positive mental image of the service.”

What mums said:

Start a week or two before you go back to work so you can do a few half days to begin with or you’re able to pick them up early if they struggle with the separation, or refuse to sleep or eat. – Kira

Get to know the educators, it makes you feel better leaving them there if you know the people you’re leaving them with. – Jen

Packing the bag

Your service should provide you with a list of items you will need to pack, and that list is likely more extensive than the pile of clean, unfolded washing hidden in your spare room (we all have one).

Haylee stresses (like, really stresses) the importance of having a big enough backpack, “It doesn’t matter if they can’t wear it as it will most likely sit in a locker all day. It just needs to fit everything and have extra space for event days and to take art home, etc.” and really, is there anything cuter than a toddler trying to wear an oversized backpack?

Make sure to also pack some familiar and comforting items, like a favourite toy, blanket, or dummy, “Don’t stress if they have it all day even if they don’t normally. This will decrease as they become more confident. If your child doesn’t have a transitional item, you can give them something special from home, maybe a trinket or toy they like and for younger children, even a worn and unwashed shirt of yours may comfort them.” Haylee also suggests creating a family flipbook for them to take so that they can look at photos of you while they’re there.

You may also want to pack some food and snacks you know they like, even if your service provides food, “In the beginning, children can be overwhelmed with all of the change. It may cause them to lose interest in the food provided.”

If your child is old enough, involving them in selecting their bag, lunch box, hat, and drink bottle may also help build excitement and confidence. We love these personalised back packs by Tinyme.

What mums said:

I sent my dirty PJ’s with him as comfort. – Gina

Imitate their normal bed/nap set up at daycare. So pack their dummies/comforter if they have one, and sleeping bag. We also take the same water bottle as home so she recognises which is hers so she can help herself to water at daycare. – Vanessa

I can’t stress this enough. Label everything! Chances are someone in your child’s room has the same items in the same size. – Anne

Go to Best n Less or Kmart and stock up on daycare clothes that are cheap and can get filthy or even lost. Mine rarely goes to daycare in his nice stuff because he comes home with food/paint/sand on his clothes. Especially whilst in the crawling stage. – Caitlin

Create a routine

Haylee assures that while it does take time for children to become confident during drop off time, more often that not they will settle quickly, “If the drop off wasn’t great and you feel worried after leaving the service call them and check in after 10 minutes to see if they settled, most times they’ll be happily playing by then”

Oh, so it’s just us still sitting here in our car crying then? Cool cool cool…

She also suggests going in a little early each day and choosing something to do with your child, for example, read a story or do a puzzle before transitioning them to an educator. “This will help set up a predictable and smooth routine for them.” And also gives you an excuse to sit and enjoy a coffee break before work!

What mums said:

Keeping the same morning routine helps them anticipate how their day will go. – Chelsea

I used to always get the teacher to give her a bottle as I was leaving, I think it made her calmer and also just gave her the comfort of a routine. – Liv

Create a positive experience

Talking about daycare and all of the fun things they will do and learn in a positive way in the lead up to their first day will help build excitement and help them understand what to expect.

“If possible, see if the early learning centre can send you photos of your child’s educators and the learning environment, or take some photos on your orientation visit if the service allows. You can then make them a photo flipbook or social story to look at together and familiarise them with their educators, where their bag goes, what the learning areas and toilets look like.” Haylee suggests, “Your early learning centre may also send daily photos through an app – use these to engage your child in positive discussion about the service”

Daily photo updates? Sign us up for that cuteness overload!

What mums said:

Ask teachers who they played with today and what activities they did so you can talk afterwards. – Dani

Prep your child, read books, talk about it, visits before the real thing, child helping getting bag ready. – Melissa

When leaving let the teacher know and get them to do something fun and wave bye. – Amy

Have realistic expectations

Be prepared for things to not go according to plan, because, kids. Your little one might be a bottomless pit when it comes to eating at home but in a new environment, with unfamiliar faces, all their good habits (and your hard work) can fly straight out the window, or straight onto the ground, more accurately.

Accidents are also bound to happen, illnesses are going to be passed around like a pass the parcel that no one wants to stop on them and some days are simply going to be better than others.

“Educators are some the most underpaid and undervalued workers in Australia. Imagine having four children under 2, or ten 3 year olds to care for at home, and then add providing stimulating learning experiences, documenting absolutely everything that happens in their day, and cleaning on top of that. It’s hard to stay across everything, so please remember that educators are humans too.”

What mums said:

Our main struggle was with not drinking milk from a bottle. If I had known that she would ‘forget’ how to take a bottle by 10 months after a few months of not having a bottle, I would have made sure earlier that one feed a day was via bottle. Also taking a bottle from someone other than mum! – Vanessa

Be prepared for very average naps on daycare days, especially in the beginning. Early bedtime for the win! – Laura

If their routine gets thrown out of whack at daycare (eg they don’t nap well etc) don’t stress. They won’t combust if things are slightly different at daycare. Just put them to bed earlier. I used to stress so much about her routine being out at daycare and her not eating, but they are resilient little things that can go to bed early if they didn’t nap well. – Erika

Settling into daycare will take time, and patience (got any of that stuff left?) but they will eventually adjust and they will come to love and trust their educators. In the meantime, just breathe mama, and don’t be hard on yourself if you struggle with this transition – or if you don’t! It’s ok to enjoy having some time for yourself back too.

Let us know in the comments which tips helped you, or if you have any others to add to the list!

Expert contributor: Haylee Dunlop

Haylee Dunlop is the Operations Manager of the Bright Futures Early Learning Group, based in Sydney. She is also a mum to her 10 month old daughter, Neve.

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