Thursday, September 07, 2006

Columnist: MaryP

"Weaning Into Daycare"
By Mary P
a version of this column originally appeared at 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 parental 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 solicitous 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 afresh? 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 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 column) 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 thing. This is not a second-rate, inferior reason. This does not make it something insignificant and dispensable, 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 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? 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.

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 her. 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!

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About MaryP: Mother of three, stepmother to five, teacher, prenatal instructor, group home counsellor and more, MaryP has made babies and children her life's work for over twenty years. Add to all that experience a strong sense of irony, an irreverent sense of humour, and Olympic-calibre unsqueamishness, and you have a woman who is well-suited to her work and able to reassure the most uncertain of parents.

Weblog: It's Not All Mary Poppins

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