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Settling into childcare

Posted in: toddler

While the good news is that most children settle into child care without too much concern, there are some instances where little ones simply can't cope. Here are a few pointers on what to do about separation anxiety.

For most parents, introducing a little one to formal day care is a daunting and emotional time. In fact, it's probably fair to say that we embark on this new adventure with the expectation of some tearful goodbyes. So how can we ease the anxiety associated with this important transition and what should we do if the tears just don't subside? 

Plan Ahead
Angie Bailison, a parenting consultant and specialist in school preparation programs, says parents and children benefit from lots of research, communication and the chance to gradually familiarise their child with alternate carers and the care setting.

'It is not at all easy leaving your child with another person so I normally suggest that parents try leaving their baby with trusted family or friends for a few hours from a very young age,' she says. 'Giving your child time to adjust to other carers well in advance of them starting care is a great way to alleviate separation anxiety.'

Macquarie University Institute of Early Childhood Lecturer Dr Frances Gibson agrees that while separation anxiety is a normal stage of development, there is a turning point when little ones are more sensitive to the absence of their parents.

'The age of two to six months is seen as a period of "attachment-in-the-making, where infants signal particular people and recognise their parents, but from six months onwards they begin to display clear separation anxiety when their parent leaves them,' she explains.

'Separation anxiety really starts as the infant becomes more mobile. Children need to explore and play to learn and develop, but they also need to know how to signal their primary caregiver and be confident that the person will come and help them. Separation anxiety is a healthy, protective thing. It's saying, "Hey, you're important to me, you're my safe base, and you're the person I can count on. That's why it's so important for children who are going into care to be given the opportunity to develop confidence and trust in alternate carers from an early age.'

Research your Options
Researching the various types of care available within your community and speaking with staff about their care culture, policies and procedures is another way in which parents can pre-empt any concerns and identify the most suitable setting for their child.  

Bailison believes the research process is critical to finding the perfect solution. 'Understanding your child's individual needs and identifying a care setting that responds to those needs is the first essential step,' she explains. 'Different types of care suit different children. Some children are happy to be around large groups of people and are very adaptable to different people caring for them. Therefore, centre based care, with more than one staff member and more than five children, is a great option for them. Children who are more overwhelmed by large crowds and tend to stay closer to their familiar caregivers are sometimes best to start off in a care setting such as family day care, which is a smaller home-based environment.'

Make a Gradual Transition
Once a care setting has been selected, Bailison recommends a gentle transition that starts with a few visits to the centre each week with mum or dad, followed by increasing periods of separation. 'Arrange with the centre for you to have some settling time with your child so they can get to know the carers and the environment while you are there to support them. If possible, you should visit the centre together more than once a week because a full week between visits is a long time for your child to remember the people and setting. Once they appear more confident in their surroundings, it is great to start by leaving your child for three to four hours before slowly building to a full day,' she says.

Dr Gibson agrees that transition with parental supervision is essential: 'Experts suggest that parents should stay at the centre for a period of time over a few weeks and slowly withdraw themselves rather than leaving abruptly.'

To date there has only been a small amount of research on what is abrupt and what is lenient. According to Dr Gibson, abrupt would be something under an hour for a toddler who is unfamiliar with the carer and environment. However, each child may have a different threshold for what is experienced as an abrupt parent departure.

Keep up the Communication
Communication between parent, child and staff is also critical in helping children and parents adjust to this new arrangement. Bailison says positive conversation with your child about their new carers and the centre prior to each visit will prepare them for the day and convey your confidence in the care environment.

She says, 'Like adults, children need to be reassured. They need to hear that they will enjoy being with their new friends and carers. It's a good idea for parents to explain the daily routine and to let them know when you'll be back to pick them up. Sometimes parents sneak out or linger with their child too long and this usually upsets the child as they are getting mixed messages.'  

Bailison also emphasises the importance of parents maintaining open communication with staff. 'It is vital for parents to have trust that the carer will be honest if their child is not happy and to what degree. Talk to the carer about their favourite games and toys, and offer suggestions about distractions which may help your child to forget about being without you.'

Dr Gibson observes that children themselves may use a variety of self comforting behaviours when they feel lonely, tired or anxious and one of these might be the use of "transitional objects. 'Children will often find their sense of autonomy, independence and feeling of security through favoured objects. You have to call them objects as they are not always toys and blankets, sometimes they are bits of cotton or rubber. These transitional objects are seen to represent something safe, something secure, their family, some part of their base. Children will often be comforted by taking these objects with them to preschool or day care so by all means encourage them to do so.'

What if the Tears don't Subside?
While the good news is that most children settle into care without too much concern, there are some instances where little ones simply can't cope with separation anxiety. Parents will naturally be especially attentive to their child's behaviour during this time and actively communicate their concerns with centre staff.

Some warning signals to look out for include:

Persistent crying throughout the day while in care and not being able to be comforted or distracted by the carer
Afraid of going to care or afraid of a carer
Extreme changes in their mood or behaviour every time they go to or are collected from care
Not eating or drinking for long periods of time
Regression in their development, nightmares during the night, and wetting or soiling pants when they have been toilet trained for a long time.

Bailison says that if your child has been attending care more than one day a week for at least a month and is not settling, it is a good time to schedule a meeting with the carers to review the issues and options.

'Sometimes the issue may simply be a clash of personality between your child and the main carer, and you may find your child is fine with an alternate carer,' she explains. 'It is an essential first step to discuss these options with the service but if your child is still unhappy then you must trust your instinct and perhaps try a different type of care.'

Most importantly though, parents should take comfort in knowing that they are doing a tremendous job caring for their little one and that separation anxiety is perfectly normal. The reality is that some children just need the right environment and a little more time to develop trust and confidence in someone other than their beloved parents.

Choosing a Child-care Centre
When choosing child care, it is important to look at how child care professionals interact with children and whether the atmosphere is warm, friendly and welcoming. The National Childcare Accreditation Council (NCAC) assists families by setting quality standards for child care services receiving Child Care Benefit funding. These standards aim to promote children's play, learning and development through positive experiences and interactions.  

Starting child care can often be an emotional experience for both the child and the family. When visiting a child care service, families can ask about how the service is meeting the requirements of Child Care Quality Assurance. By spending time in the service with their child, families can begin to understand what they can expect from it. This also enables the child to explore their new environment, establish the beginnings of a relationship with their primary carers, and allows them to meet potential new friends, all with the security of family members being present. Families often feel reassured when they observe their children beginning to develop a positive relationship with child care professionals in the child care setting.

In a quality environment, child care professionals and families share information. Families tell child care professionals about their child's interests, needs, likes and dislikes. In turn, child care professionals maintain regular, open communication with families, who are informed about anything relating to their children on an ongoing basis. This may be about the child's day or activities; any upsets that occur; how the child is relating to other children, or the child's development and achievements. This ensures that families remain connected with every part of their child's life.

It is also important that families are able to speak freely with child care professionals about issues such as the services policies on behaviour guidance, diversity and equity, excursions, immunisation, and child protection.

NCAC can give families advice on what to look for in a quality child care environment and can also provide the contact details of registered child care services through an easy website search facility or by contacting us by telephone. Some questions to consider when looking for child care are:

  • Is the service accredited by NCAC? Ask to see the Certificate of Accreditation, the Quality Profile Certificate and ask about what plans are in place for further improvements
  • Are children spoken to in a warm and friendly manner?
  • How are children supervised?
  • What orientation process is available to my family?
  • What will happen on my childs first day? 
  • How will I be made aware of changes to the staff caring for my child?
  • What activities will my child be doing?
  • Do the toys, equipment and activities available offer my child choice and meet their interests and abilities?
  • How does the service cater to the individual needs of my child?
  • Are there opportunities for my child to participate in activities where they can explore real-life tasks such as packing away, self-help skills, mealtimes and cooking activities?
  • What accident and emergency procedures are in place to ensure my child is safe? 

Resources A Sydney-based consultancy company providing parents with professional support, knowl
edge and advice to make parenting easier and more enjoyable. For more information about Child Care Quality Assurance, advice on how to choose quality care and the contact details of registered child care services through an easy website search facility, phone 1300 136 554, or email and ask for a Family Information Kit. A home-based child care service providing learning and development in a small and safe environment for babies and children up to 12 years.


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This article was kindly supplied by My Child magazine.

To read more great features, be sure to pick up a copy at all good newsagents. And visit their My Style weblog to find out what's hot for bubs, kids and parents. It's the place to go for furniture, fashion, art, ideas and more. If it’s stylish, you'll find it at My Style!


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