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Going back to work - Helping toddler adjust

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Hi Dr. Laura,

My daughter is 15 ½ months old. She has 2 older siblings (12 and 8), and she loves being around them and their friends. Any time we are out at a ball game, etc she walks over to kids; so I would say she is a fairly social child.

She is very much a mommy's baby. I am the main caretaker, but she has stayed home with her daddy or grandma for a few hours in the past. I have never really been away from her for more than a few hours, and that is not a daily ordeal. She has only napped without me, her dad, or grandma holding her a few times in her entire life.

I still nurse her pretty much on demand and we cosleep. She is very happy and extremely active, and like I said, she likes to be held when sleeping and is somewhat demanding because she gets into everything :¬-)

I have the opportunity to work part-time beginning this fall (she will be 18 months old). Here is my major dilemma:

1. How traumatic will it be on her to go do a day care type setting since she is so much a mommy's girl? She has a wonderful personality now (although very needy at times) and I hate to change that from daycare. I'm worried of the stress it may cause (however, she will go for around 4 to 4 ½ hrs a day).

2. The daycares that we have looked at consist of

a. Program 1: a program that runs from 8:30 until 11:30 with stay and play until 3:30. The class has 5 one year olds in the room. We love this ratio, but are concerned because 3 of the 5 other children will only be 12 months old (and she'll be 18 months). We worry if she will be too much older to interact with them and will be more on her own. We also worry because most of the kids will be leaving at 11:30 and she will have to stay for picnic. It breaks my heart to think of her seeing all these other children leave and I am still not there until 1:00ish.

b. Program 1: a program that runs from 8:00 until 3:00 or 5:30 (you choose). She would be in the first group that ends at 3:00. This facility has 15 one year olds, 2 teachers, and 1 helper. We like that she would have more kids her age, but worry she would be overwhelmed by 3 adults and 14 other kids (not to mention more germs). We like that she would probably be one of the first to leave each day (I would pick her up around 1:00-although this is nap time), so she wouldn't see other kids leaving with their mommy (or at least we think this is how it would work). She would go to either of these centers 3 days a week, and her grandmother would watch her the other two.

Another alternative is for her to go to the center with 15 kids all 5 days (I've had some people say that this may be better than switching with her grandma because it is the same routine each day). I personally think that her being with a grandma that she knows 2 times a week would be better. Your opinion on this would also be much appreciated!

We are really worried on so many levels, especially because she is so attached to me. I don't know how she would do at nap time, much less the rest of the day. She doesn't nurse too much during the day anymore. Several times she has gone from morning to mid afternoon without nursing (but she really is used to nursing before naptime).

I do not have to take this part-time job this year, but it is a one chance opportunity that would still allow me to be with her more than if I worked full time. I wonder if I should just stay with her another year, let her go to the 3 day program until 11:30 and see how she does. If she does well, try to go back full-time the next year. If she hates it, take her out and be home with her.

However, that would mean when I go fulltime the next year, she would definitely be in daycare 8 to 9 hours a day when she was 2. Another concern, with the economy, could I find a full time position (I am a teacher, and we are suffering lay offs at this time).

So, it is all rather complicated. I'm not sure what my exact question is because I have so many thoughts. I also know this is a decision that I ultimately have to make, but I would really just appreciate some guidance from your experience. We want to do what's best for our precious little baby. I would especially like your input on the affect on her by me leaving her at daycare. Also, if she does go to the day care, which facility would seem like a better fit, and if it would be easier on her to go all 5 days. Sorry for all of my rambling. Thank you so much in advance for any help!


What a tough decision! Let's consider what we know.

1. She is a social child who enjoys other children, which means she will like a social situation. She gets into everything, which means she is crying out for a more interesting environment which is set up for her to get into everything!

2. She is very attached to you and has hardly ever been away from you, except when left for brief periods with Dad or grandparents. So school could be a big adjustment for her. You should know that little ones do not get used to being away from us, exactly. They get used to being with a substitute, a person with whom they feel safe. So that is the most important factor in making such a transition work. You need to find a teacher who is willing to bond with her.

3. You cosleep, which is great when you go back to work, because it helps you and your child keep your deep connection.

4. Your daughter has been held and nursed to go to sleep and you can't imagine her learning to nap another way without it being traumatic. Every mom in your position feels this way and worries about this. But miraculously, I hear from every mom, and experienced this myself, that without us, they do manage to sleep. They are not traumatized by learning to sleep like all the other kids do, on their little mats or whatever. Of course, you do want to be assured that if she cries while learning to fall asleep there, the staff will come and sit with her and snuggle her. You don't want her left to cry. But I doubt they would do that anyway, because it disturbs the other children. So I know you are worried about this, but it is actually going to resolve easily, I predict.

5. You have the opportunity to work part time beginning this fall. The bad news? She will still be only 18 months. The good news? It's part time. AND it isn't until September, so she will be more mature than she is now. If you don't take this job, there is no guarantee of a job next year when she is 2.5 yrs old, and if you do get one it is likely to be a fulltime job. This is a tough call, but personally, I would take the part time job. Part time school is SO much better than fulltime, even for a 2.5 year old. If this job would continue indefinitely and you can afford to work part time, it sets you up very positively for the future. And I don't think it is so bad for her to begin school now as long as the hours are limited to no more than five per day and no more than a few days a week. in other words, not over 15 hours of school.

6. Your choices on hours:

a. Program 1: 8:30 -1pm but many of the kids will leave before she does. The class has 5 one year olds in the room. We love this ratio, but are concerned because 3 of the 5 other children will only be 12 months old (and she'll be 18 months). We worry if she will be too much older to interact with them and will be more on her own.

b. Program 2: 8:00 - 1:00, 15 one year olds, 2 teachers, and 1 helper. We like that she would have more kids her age, but worry she would be overwhelmed by 3 adults and 14 other kids.

Either way, she will be there without you for five hours. To me, that is the max for a day for a child this age. And if you have the flexibility to begin Program 2 at 8:30, that is even better.

Now, which program? I agree that seeing all the other kids get picked up and you not being there is like a daily wound. I also think that an 18 month old is fascinated by other kids her age. Is it terrible for her to be with younger kids? Not at all. But that pickup time thing does seem like an issue, particularly because many of the kids will be gone for the last two hours of class.

Here's how I would make the decision. I would look at the teachers to see if they are wonderful at bonding with the kids and making the kids feel at home. I think the teacher is by far the most important factor. Either class will work if the teacher is fabulous.

That said, if both programs have fabulous teachers, I would go with the bigger group just to avoid the other kids all leaving before her. I would not worry about more germs. Even five kids can transmit whatever is going around. And I am not sure that she will really be overwhelmed, since you describe her as social.

Is it possible for you to go with her to visit, and sit in the big class, and watch? She is likely to stay on your lap, but you can get a pretty good sense of whether it works for her. And while you're there you could also check out the little class. She is likely to feel immediately more comfortable there, which doesn't mean she wouldn't quickly begin to feel comfortable in the big class. But it will give you more of a feel for how the teachers relate to the kids, and that is the most important thing for you to know.

7. Your choices on days:

a. either of these centers 3 days a week, grandmother the other two.

b. the center with 15 kids all 5 days better than switching with her grandma because it is the same routine each day. I personally think that her being with a grandma that she knows 2 times a week would be better.

I am in TOTAL agreement with you about being with Grandma two days a week and in the center three days. Since it is confusing to kids to switch back and forth, you might consider lumping the days together instead of alternating. Meaning:

  • Weekend-home with you
  • Mon, Tues- with Grandma (a more gentle easing into the week)
  • Wed, Thurs, Fri- School. Something more interesting. And if it is too overstimulating, then she can crash with you on the weekend and do some crying in your arms!

No matter what you decide, I have another suggestion for you. Ask the center if you can begin visiting in the month before you go back to work. If they won't let you, then just bite the bullet and pay for an extra week on the front end so you can help your daughter transition in, just a couple of hours a day, with you there and then with you leaving her for short periods of time.

That's both to get her used to the situation (can you imagine being plunked down in a strange place with a bunch of kids and adults she's never seen, and left there?) and to get her to bond with the teacher. Toddlers don't "get used to" doing without you. They begin to feel safe with someone else. The only way to help your little one over her upset when you leave is for her to develop a great relationship with her teacher.

Of course, stay with your daughter when you go. Make short visits. Facilitate her bonding with the other kids, but especially with the teacher. The minute she gets engaged in something, try to take a back seat, nearby so she feels safe, but not engaged.

Take pictures of her having fun at the center, especially pictures of her with the teacher and the other kids, or any particularly fun things she likes to do there. Print the photos out, glue them onto sheets of paper, and staple it into a book that you read a lot. You can make up captions and glue them on if you want, like "We LOVE ________" (the teacher)" and "Fun in the sandbox with Max" (presuming she likes Max and he will be there in the fall.) You can also get the pages laminated at a copy shop. Reading this book regularly will make school a positive part of your daughter's life, that she looks forward to.

After she feels comfortable with this new situation, and has developed more of a relationship with the teachers, practice leaving her for a short time. You'll want to have a conversation with her favorite teacher to be sure that person will be available to help your daughter get used to the separations for a while. Be sure this person is available to hold and comfort your girl. Crying is ok, but if she trusts the teacher, it should not go on for more than 15 minutes. Start by saying goodbye, leaving, and then returning as soon as she stops crying. (The other teacher can send you a text.)

Don't be surprised if she cries again when you return. That's a good thing, she's sharing with you all that fear she felt that you might never come back. You want her to get that out of her system. Don't feel guilty, just tell her what a brave girl she is and breathe your way through it.

If you start with short absences, she will learn more quickly that you always return, and can gradually get used to the separations as you gradually extend your absences. But don't give in to the temptation to return while she is still crying, or she'll think crying can bring you back, and it will be hard for her to give up that strategy!

For more on how to help her make the transition, please see this article:

Don't let the staff guilt-trip you into feeling like an over-anxious mother. Just tell them she's never really been away from you and you believe a gradual transition will be less traumatic.

I hope this is helpful. It is a tough decision. But I want to add that little ones who get the kind of parenting you describe (cosleeping, very attached) are more resilient than other kids. I think your wonderful little girl will be just fine.

Dr. Laura

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