It’s Not All Mary Poppins


A couple of years ago, children started with me at five or six months old. Now they start at a year. Although I firmly believe the year-long mat. leaves are much better for the family, for me it was easier with six-month-olds. (I cannot speak through direct experience to caring for four- or six-WEEK-old babies (except my own!) but my educated guess would that it would be still more straightforward. More hands-on, yes, but straightforward. These children don’t know where their bodies end and the rest of the world begins. They’re not likely to make strange…)

Six-month-olds, bless them, tend to coo when a new person holds them, and reward the smiling stranger with radiant smiles of their own. Year-old children tend to cling to momma’s thigh, view the smiling stranger with a frown of suspicion and wail when momma leaves. This makes my working environment a little stressful for the adjustment period, indeed. Fretful clinginess is the norm, to be juggled with the normal needs of three or four or five other tots. (The others are generally quite concerned and solicitious, but New Baby doesn’t generally appreciate their attention!) However, awkward and labour-intensive as it is for me, it is the parents who truly suffer.

The parents. Oh, the poor parents. Their tot suffers in their own way, it’s true, but it’s the parents who agonise. The parents, who remember the tear-filled wails at drop-off all day long. The parents, who worry throughout the day, staring at that picture of baby on their desk, hearing the cries echo in their ears through their working hours, who yearn to sooth and reassure – and can’t. Who know that, were it not for their decision (even when it really wasn’t much of a choice), baby would be safe in their arms, not wailing at a stranger’s house. Baby has his/her moments of anxiety at the door, then gets a lovely cuddle, feels better, maybe a has snack and a bottle, goes out to play in the park, swings on the swing, listens to a story, gets fed some more. Whenever the newness of the situation hits them anew? More snuggles, more cuddles, more lovin’.

Meantime, who’s loving mom and dad? Who’s telling them it’ll be okay? Who’s rubbing their backs and giving them their binkie? Who’s taking away the guilt, the guilt, the nasty “I-should-be-with-my-baby, how-can-I-abandon-him/her-like-this, what’s-more-important-than-my-baby” guilt?

One of the things that can ease the transition to daycare is a weaning-in process. It may surprise you to learn that I do not think a weaning-in process is necessary for most children. After over ten years in this business, it is my firm conviction that the weaning-in is only secondarily about acclimatizing the child to the daycare. Primarily it is to reassure the parents.

In my experience, it takes a six-month-old child three weeks of full-time attendance to make the adjustment to care. Year-old children may take a week or two longer. Children who come three or fewer days per week take longer still. At the end of those first few weeks, the tears at the door should be finished (parents who unconsciously encourage tears can be the subject of another post) and the child should be having happy days at daycare. It takes this long whether there was a gentle two-week weaning-in process, or whether it was done cold turkey, after a single initial baby-caregiver meeting. It really doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. To the child.

It can make a huge difference to the parents. Parents want to see the child with the other children, they want to watch the provider interact with their child, they want to see their child gain familiarity with the new environment. Bottom line: mom and dad want to get a sense that their child is gaining comfort in the new place. They want a sense that their child doesn’t feel abandoned to strangers.

Weaning-in, then, is mostly for mom and dad’s benefit. And you know what? This is not a bad reason. This is not a second-rate, inferior reason. This does not make it something insignificant and dispensible, needy or selfish. If you want it, you should do it. (Conversely, if you don’t want/need, or simply can’t manage it, you can feel reassured that you will not be guaranteeing ever more layers of trauma to your tot by starting cold turkey.)

If you opt for weaning-in, there are a few things you need to know. Having a parent around can make the daycare provider’s job more difficult. The extra adult changes the dynamic. It can make some children more self-conscious and clingy to the daycare lady, some may be more prone to act out and show off to the new audience, other will be less attentive to the daycare lady – why listen to boring old her when there’s this NEW person in town???

Thus, no matter how experienced your caregiver, you may be making her a little self-conscious, and you are certainly adding a layer of complexity to her day. So, if she asks you to follow certain guidelines when you are with her, please do.

(Do not, as one mother did to me, directly contradict the caregiver’s instructions. “Come get your hats on, guys.” “Oh, they don’t need hats: it’s not that cold out there!” Well, thank you for your input…)

Also, you need to recognize that group care is different than individual care. Not better, not worse, just different. The daycare lady may respond to the children differently than you. There are different patterns of interactions, different dynamics that need to be monitored and maintained when there are five or six children in a room, as opposed to just one.

Remember, too, your baby’s caregiver has multiple children to care for; she may not be able to chat with you. (I once had a parent complain because she felt “ignored and snubbed” her during her visit. She didn’t think I had ignored her child, mark you, but that I had ignored herself – the mother. So, if it will make you feel “unwelcome” when the caregiver breaks off in the middle of a sentence to attend to the children, or fails to make eye contact with you because she’s busy scanning the sandbox, I think perhaps weaning-in isn’t the right strategy for you. Mm-kay?)

Finally, and most importantly, recognize that weaning-in does not guarantee no tears at drop-off when full-time care begins. When the child is spending full days with this new person, no matter how gradual the transition, they will feel the adjustment, and there may well be tears. What weaning-in does do is begin the transition, and, most importantly, it can give mom and dad the assurance they’re looking for.

You may not get a blankie and a snuggle, mom and dad, but it is going to be all right!

© 2006, Mary P

April 22, 2006 - Posted by | daycare, Developmental stuff, parenting, parents


  1. I did a variation of this with Zen Baby’s caregiver. I was lucky in that, given she is one of my Kindergaren Mommies, I had had the opportunity to observe her for a couple of years before I asked her to take on Zen Baby.

    After we agreed that she would be looking after Zen Baby, but months before actual care began, we would go to playdates at her home, and she would pay extra attention to Zen Baby at Books for Babies or Playgroup. Because of how intensely shy Zen Baby is, we went very slowly and began long before I was even thinking of going back to work. I needed to know that Zen Baby was happy and secure before I could even consider making myself unavailable in a classroom.

    By the time we were ready to begin care, Zen Baby–my pathologically shy child–would hug me and head to the snack table when I dropped her off. She has only cried once (17 shades of hell for me, but she was fine 3 minutes later–I confess I listened at the door.) Most of her tears come when she has to leave her friends. And that leaves me with a huge smile and a spring in my step.

    Comment by MsSisyphus | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  2. It takes this long whether there was a gentle two-week weaning-in process, or whether it was done cold turkey, after a single initial baby-caregiver meeting.

    Conversely, if you don’t want/need, or simply can’t manage it, you can feel reassured that you will not be guaranteeing ever more layers of trauma to your tot by starting cold turkey.

    Oh, I’m SO GLAD you said that! When I left my little girl, we did it pretty much “cold turkey”. She’d met the DCL twice before she started. I thought the DCL was wonderful, and now, so does my little girl! It took about two weeks (ten days at daycare).

    I thought she did just fine, but I had friends and family telling me that I’d been cruel, telling me a truly loving mom would have spent the time. Now you’re telling me what my gut was telling me then: she was going to have to make the adjustment, which might involve some tears no matter how we did it – but that she’d be just fine.

    Which is sure what I thought had happened!!

    Comment by Suzanne | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  3. YOu know, I didn’t even know this was an option, since my kids ended up being home with their dad and simply attending a “day out” program once they were a little older. As the caregiver, it seems like it would totally add a stress element to your day – I think you’re gracious and patient to even offer it. I can’t imagine a parent feeling “snubbed”! Hello, you’re not there for tea time!

    Comment by Kristen | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  4. I remember taking Christian to pre-school and I unwittingly contributed to his trauma– he would cry and cling to me and I would try to be reassuring and chipper! But really, my very presence was the problem! So, I learned quickly to extract him from my leg, kiss him, and RUN! Because they assured me that in 30 seconds, he was fine. I did hide around the corner a couple of times too, and they were right! He just needed me to be gone, because with me around? He felt safe falling apart. With me gone? he quickly got interested in his new surroundings.

    He was older than one though. Does that seem to make a difference?

    Comment by Jenorama | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  5. A couple of things I appreciated about pumpkinpie’s daycare that made both the transition and everyday leaving easier:
    -They have parent and child come for two half days that they don’t pay for to start. And they suggested that if I wanted to start her gently that half days every day for a week were the way to go. And so I did.
    -They have a hallway where the coats are hung and then a half-door on the entry to the room. So I can help pumpkinpie get her stuff stowed, give and get hugs and kisses, tell her we’ll get her before dinner, and then send her into the clasroom on her own. I stop at the gate. It makes for a nice, clear divider, and it helps make it clear that my place is not coming in with her, daycare is the place for her and the teachers and the other kids.

    Comment by kittenpie | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  6. I did some weaning-in with Bah-bie (formerly In-fant) just yesterday. And, yes, it made ME feel better. If only I could find an adult-sized binky for when I drop her off on Monday.

    Comment by MIM | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  7. I’m glad to read this post. I, too, was wondering if it becomes more or less difficult the older the child gets. I have been fretting about this for next year when D goes to preschool 2-3 x per week, and I’m glad his school offers the weaning-in program for needy parents like myself.

    But seriously, some moms feel “ignored” during this process. Well, DUH. I would hope the DCL would be watching the KIDS, not me! I’d say: Um, hi. Exactly how would you like me to explain to you when your child falls out of the swing that it was because I was busy entertaining another child’s parent?? Oy. Too bad the *parents* won’t benefit from your training, Mary.

    Comment by stefanierj | April 22, 2006 | Reply

  8. 6 week old babies are probably esier for the caregiver, but nothing made me feel as bad as leaving Mstr a all day at that age:-(

    LMB didn’t start till she was a year old, and it was just so much easier knowing that she could eat food, move around & make herself heard when she needed something.

    I didn’t manage weaning in with any of them – too disorganised & rushed. It’s nice to hear i didn’t do any terrible psychological damage to them:-)

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | April 23, 2006 | Reply

  9. So much depends on the kid! My son (who`s still having adjustment problems at his new school, at age 11) took forever to get accustomed to new care environments. My other kids were fine, no matter what I did.

    But you really nailed it about how hard it is for the parents!

    Comment by L. | April 23, 2006 | Reply

  10. Mary as usual… yep yep I agree

    I was glad our girl started in care at about 10 months. At 12 mos it was like a the light of separation anxiety turned on .. but nothing like it would have been if we started daycare right then. The 12 mos thing is sort of a catch 22. For whatever reason we are supposed to do a zillion things to these guys at this age. Well wean them of course and let the eat shellfish and Mom should go back to work! etc etc. Another reason I am looking into a longer mat leave next time with more part time work instead.

    Also you ask — who is letting Mommy know it will be alright. Well any caregiver worth their salt I think. When Cookie had a bit of a time with her first daycare I was scratchin’ my head. What is wrong with this place?… if they have a system that ain’t quite working it is up to them to try to work SOMETHING through with the parent. The care centre, of whatever description, knows where its going, I hope. Parents, especially new ones, need this spelled out sometimes. I remember how great our N. was when we started. How breezy and reassuring through things that would normally have me flip my lid. How she called me with sleep reports those first few days and told me not to worry. I think you would do this too. I think that is what your saying, uhm you guys are professionals!

    Finally, yep us parents showing up are a huge pain in the butt. Our first daycare with N. was like 100 meters from my desk. I thought this was so great when I booked on. Oh child will be so close. I’ll be able to drop in. Yeah I did it for like a week until both N. and I agreed… it is not great. While handy in a pinch and sometimes I’d grab a latte for her and me at coffee.. my ‘overattendence’ was a nuisance. To her, to the girl, even to me; take the leaving and double it daily? Not a good idea.

    In fact the reallly great thing about the daycare being so close to work is that everyone in my department got the charmed by my daughter of a regular basis!

    Comment by mo-wo | April 24, 2006 | Reply

  11. MsS: Little Nigel got the most gentle weaning-in of any child in my care. His mother made a point of bringing him every day when she dropped off the older one. (Yes, the older brother continued to come to daycare, full-time, for the duration of her mat. leave. I confess I find this disturbing. But she did pick him up early – two o’clock, many days.)

    Anyway… So Nigel got to see me a couple of times a day. At first I judiciously ignored him, then talked to him in his mother’s arms, then held him, then mom would set him down on the floor. Still, when it came time to come and stay, he hollered for mummy! Oh, well… Three weeks later, he wasn’t hollering. Now he hollers when she comes to pick him up.

    Suzanne: Hello, and welcome! In fact, more of my parents do it cold turkey than wean-in. Because I see it done both ways, I have discovered that the weaning-in process makes no discernable difference in how, or the speed of, the child’s adjustment. So, no, you weren’t “cruel” – how supportive people can be! Your baby is telling you otherwise, and she’s the one whose opinion matters here.

    Kristen: Sometimes, I certainly feel like I’m being unduly gracious, but really, it’s just something that most daycares offer. There are some that don’t, citing too much distress for the child, and they have a point: there are parents whose presence increases the child’s distress, parents who manage the good-bye so poorly you just wish they’d get the heck out, already!

    Most of us do allow it if the parents wish it. I confess, though, that if I sense the parent in question will be one of the “my baby doesn’t love me unless he cries when I leave variety”, I discourage it.

    Jen: The age doesn’t have so much to do with it (apart from the “stranger anxiety” stage, which kicks in somewhere between 9 – 15 months, usually, when it happens at all) as does the character of the child in question, and the parents’ response.

    Your strategy of “kiss-and-run” is absolutely the best, because 99% of children do just what you observed with your son: once the parent is gone, they get on with their day.

    Kittenpie: What you describe is a pretty standard weaning-in. I didn’t describe how I manage it, but it often involves half-days, so the child isn’t exhausted by the end of the day; also, they can have their nap in their own bed. I love the idea of the half-door, a physical reminder of “parent space” and “kids’ space”.

    mim: Adult-sized binkies are generally cigarettes, food, and booze. Oh, and sex. You don’t smoke. You don’t overeat. Being sloshed by ten a.m. isn’t a good idea. So I guess a quickie is your only option. Think Hus-band will go for it?

    Stefanierj: As I said to Jen, the difficulty has more to do with the character of the child and the parent-child dynamic than it does the age of the child. Some kids LOVE messing around with other kids; some are unnerved by large groups of noisy children. Some parents do the breezy “kiss-and-run” drop-off, others turn it into a long and escalating comfort war.

    Training parents. Yes, indeed. While there are very few children I can’t work with, parents are MUCH harder to train! They’re so set in their ways, I tell you…

    MrsA: I didn’t think of the mother’s perspective on the weeks-old baby, but you’re absolutely right: it would have to be very difficult! And, no, you didn’t traumatize them by the cold-turkey start to daycare. (Not that I think you lay awake nights worrying about that one any more!)

    L: Here you are confirming what I’ve said a couple of times above: it’s the character of the child that really matters. (That, and how the parents behave, but with three kids, two of whom do fine, and one who has difficulty, you can be confident that this is his issue, poor guy.) Of course, your children have two or three layers of adjustments they’re having to make. I’m not surprised it could take a while!

    mo-wo: I have a hand-out that I give the parents about managing transitions. I give them some direction, and I also say, “feel free to call me. Wait till the third stop light or bus stop, and then call”. I know that the child will almost certainly have stopped wailing in that amount of time, and it’s hugely reassuring for the parent.

    I’ve made various accommodations along the way to ensure smoother transitions. I will say, though, that difficulties that last longer than three weeks of full-time care are very often – not always, but usually – unconsciously caused by the parents. And then we’re back to the difficulty of training parents!

    Comment by Mary P. | April 24, 2006 | Reply

  12. My daughter did the day care transition cold turkey as a 3 month old baby. I met with the care giver once for the formal meeting/hiring and then I came over a few days before Grace started there to bring the baby essentials I had agreed to provide (pack n play, diapers, and a bag with change of clothes, etc). Now, Grace is 2 and LOVES her day care provider so much! We have only had a handful of teary days; mainly when she is just about to come down with strange and random illness called “Toddler-itis”. Its me who had the hard time but every morning, I force myself to stay at day care less than 5 minutes so that the transition is not hard on Grace or day care.

    Comment by So-Called Supermom | April 28, 2006 | Reply

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