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How can I prevent my baby from feeling separation anxiety?

The question: I'm returning to work next month, how do I prepare my child for daycare?

The answer: The transition to daycare often causes symptoms including disrupted sleep, belly pain, and prolonged crying … and that's just the parents! In all seriousness, leaving your child with another caregiver is a huge step for both child and parent and preparing for this event in advance will increase the odds of a smooth transition.

How quickly children adapt to daycare depends on many factors including their age, temperament and how often they will be in care. Infants in the first year of life, especially those less than six months of age, will tend to have less separation anxiety than older toddlers. If possible, get your child accustomed to spending some time without you prior to your first day of work. This can be accomplished by leaving him with family, friends, or having someone babysit in your home.

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Consider the following before sending your child to daycare:

  • 1. Start daycare before you have to go back to work. This will allow you to focus on your child and adapting to the new daycare routine without having the added stress of trying to get to work on time. Plan an initial visit where you and your child can tour the facility and spend some time getting familiar with the environment. Ideally, this is followed by one or more visits where your child is left at the daycare for brief periods of time.
  • 2. Prepare as much as you can the night before. Depending on the age of your child you may be packing diapers, soothers, snacks, and changes of clothes. Getting this ready the night before will give you more time and decrease your stress the next morning. Pack a special toy or blanket to comfort your child while they are away from home.
  • 3. The morning drop-off routine is critical. Since you will already be familiar with the daycare, plan for the drop-off to take no more than five minutes. This will give you time to briefly meet the daycare provider, discuss the day’s activities, and confirm when you will be back for pick-up. Offer some positive words of encouragement such as “you are going to have so much fun today” and reassure your child that you will be back to pick him up later in the day. Follow this with a brief hug and a kiss, and then WALK AWAY. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially if your child is crying and clinging to your leg. Giving in or staying longer to try and get your child settled is almost always a mistake that simply prolongs the agony and encourages similar behaviour the next time. Be reassured that the vast majority of children are playing happily within a few minutes of being dropped off.
  • 4. Have a back-up plan. Inevitably your child will become ill or the daycare will be closed and you will need alternate child care arrangements. Common strategies include calling on a grandparent or making arrangements for one parent to take the day off work. Thinking this through in advance can be helpful as this will occur more often than you think.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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