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Daycare Dilemma

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Dear Dr. Laura,

I have a 2-year old daughter who started daycare for the first time 4 weeks ago. I had to go back to work after a year of maternity leave but I negotiated a temporary part time schedule till I found a daycare. From 1 year to 2 years old, my Mom was taking care of her Mon-Tues-Wed and she was with me the rest of the time.

My Mom thought she needed to be around other kids, I felt she needed more of a routine. I had pressure at work to work more days. Staying home with her all day was getting exhausting for me as well. I visited several daycares and found one I really loved.

This is week 4 and while I feel she is doing her best to adapt to it, she still cries a lot. She cries on and off all day. She is engaged in the activities but when they transition, she cries. Sometimes she tells me she wants to go, then when I drop her off she screams to stay with me. When I pick her up, I observe her behavior and she is usually happy.

I read on your web site that the research shows that the ideal age to start daycare is 4 years old..that they have elevated levels of cortisol being in daycare all day...

If this is really true, then should I pull her out?




The research I was referring to shows that children who are younger than 36 months old often find being at daycare all day to be stressful. We know this because their cortisol levels get elevated, compared to kids who are at home during the day. Here's a link to a meta-analysis of daycare studies that came to this conclusion:

However, quality of care makes a difference, and presumably you loved this daycare center because the people there were warm and nurturing. That connection with her caregivers would definitely reduce the stress for a child. There is evidence that kids who have better relationships with teachers don't have the worrisome cortisol changes that many kids in full time daycare show. (Badanes et al 2012*).

Also, your daughter did not start daycare until she was two. There is encouraging research that when children are cared for at home for the first nine to 18 months AND have a high quality care situation, they do much better in daycare. 

And, really, every child is different. Some do just fine regardless. There is research showing that genetic differences have an impact on which kids are more stressed in daycare (Tucker-Drob et al 2013*).  So in fact many kids do fine, while other kids are more stressed.

All of which is to say that if your daughter were thriving, I wouldn't worry about the research. The problem I see here is that after a month, your daughter is still crying a lot. It makes sense that she still cries at the moment of separation. But if she is bonded to one of the staffers, she should be able to go to them and be comforted, so that she stops crying fairly quickly. If she is crying a lot throughout the day, it suggests to me that she is not feeling safe and bonded there. Maybe she feels like she does not have one special person looking out for her? All little ones need that. Maybe you can speak to the staff about appointing one staffer who can bond with her?

If you and your mom can swing it, there is an alternative. She could go to daycare in the morning, and then your mother could pick her up after lunch and bring her home for nap. Then, when she wakes up at 3pm, they could have some cozy down time. Your daughter would get time with other kids, but also the connection with a loved one, and also time to unwind after her stimulating morning.

I hope you can work out a solution that works for your daughter, and for you. Good luck!

*Badanes LS, Dmitrieva J, and Watamura SE. 2012. Understanding Cortisol Reactivity across the Day at Child Care: The Potential Buffering Role of Secure Attachments to Caregivers. Early Child Res Q. 27(1):156-165.

*Tucker-Drob EM and Harden KP. 2013. Gene-by-preschool interaction on the development of early externalizing problems. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 54(1):77-85. 

Thank you Dr. Markham,

I have decided to pull her out of this daycare since we cannot pick her up at noon and I don't want to leave her there for nap time.

What you wrote makes a lot of sense. She did bond with someone there, but she was in administration and therefore not always available.

During nap time, her 2 educators would go on break and 2 new people would come in, making it very hard for them to comfort her or for her to be comforted by them.

I believe she didn't feel completely safe there and that is why she is now exhibiting some anxious behaviors, even outside of the daycare, as a result of this experience.

While before she had no problem being dropped of at my parents for the day, now she is crying at drop off and intermittently throughout the day for me. She is always pulling her sleeves, sucking on them...

I hope she can regain her confidence and we will have a better experience the next time we try a daycare.




Good for you for intervening. It does sound like your daughter did not feel safe. You might try some games that get her laughing, to help her work out the anxiety from this experience. So peek a boo, hide n seek, playing byebye but not actually going away (acting like you are too scared to leave her -- in a silly way, not a pathetic way) will all help her laugh and work through the anxiety that she has experienced about feeling alone. And, in fact, any laughing you can get her to do will be helpful. Good luck!

Dr. Laura

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