When it came to making child care arrangements for our soon-to-arrive firstborn, my husband and I spent the third trimester dutifully following the advice of every tip sheet we could put our fingers on. We interviewed, we inspected, and we finally agreed —a month before our daughter was even born—on a center that would offer exactly the mix of warmth and professionalism we were looking for when my maternity leave ended and I headed back to work.
Yet despite our confidence, sending our little one to daycare for the first time was an anxiety-filled, tear-soaked, mascara-streaked affair. Even if you trust your caregiver like your mother (and even if your caregiver is your mother), leaving your baby in someone else’s arms can be daunting, especially at first.
“You had this baby inside you for nine months,” says Beth Erickson, PhD, a Minneapolis-area family therapist. “For three months, you got to play with her and hold her and be with her whenever you wanted. Now you feel like you’re stuck at the office, and you miss your baby.”
Of the roughly 4.2 million American women who gave birth in 2010, about 62 percent were in the labor force, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. In other words: A lot of us are going back to work. And as in any major transition, those initial weeks tend to be the most challenging. But with some practical—and emotional —preparation, you’ll get through them a bit more smoothly.
Show ’em how it’s done
Presumably, you’ve chosen a daycare center for its excellent references or a nanny based on her years of experience. You’re confident your caretaker knows how to work with children. But she doesn’t know how to work with your child—yet. You can help.
As you’re finishing up the obligatory roster of emergency contacts and sketching out your baby’s daily routine, think about making another list of the mothering tips and tricks you’ve been collecting since your little one came home. Does a particular lullaby have her sleeping in a snap? Does she prefer one pacifier over another? You know your baby best, so share your secrets.
For my baby, it was the sound of running water that quieted even the most intense crying jag. Once I thought to mention it to her grateful daycare center, everyone had a calmer day. “Good providers want to work with you to help your baby feel safe and happy while you’re away at work,” suggests Paula Baca, vice president of the California Association for Family Child Care. “It really helps when you tell us what works at home.”
Take it easy
Maybe you were always expecting to go back to work. Maybe you’re absolutely ready to go back to work. Nevertheless, coming off of maternity leave is a big adjustment. “The mother has barely made the transition to becoming a parent, and now she has to go back to a job,” Erickson explains. “She can expect to feel tremendously torn and tired at first.”
Catching up with co-workers before heading back to the office can help ease you into work life, notes Erickson. So can starting up the daycare routine a week or so before your maternity leave is over. Dropping baby off for the first time and clocking in after a month or more away is a lot of change to pack into one morning.
Most importantly, consider how your return to the workforce will change routines and dynamics at home. Have you been handling most of the household chores? Taking on all the baths, diaper changes and feedings? It might be time for you and your partner to reassess. “One of the things for new mothers to keep in mind is that they can’t do it all,” Erickson notes. “Talk about how you are going to handle responsibilities as a team so the mother doesn’t end up trying to be superwoman.”
Set a positive tone, but prepare for tears
If your baby is only a few months old when you go back to work, the transition to day-care will probably be harder on you than it is on her, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Very young infants tend to adapt well to new caregivers, provided routines are consistent and the environment is comforting.
Starting around the 7-month mark, however, babies begin to develop some stranger anxiety, and drop-off can be more upsetting for them. Without making too much fuss about your leaving, create a little goodbye ritual, and reassure your child you’ll be back to get her. Above all, Baca advises parents to avoid the “distract-and-disappear” approach. “Having parents tell their child, ‘Goodbye, I love you, I’ll be back later,’ is better than having parents sneak out the door,” she said. “It helps the child learn to trust that you really will be back just like you said you would.”
Despite everything you do to soothe your child—and yourself—know that there’s no escaping the occasional tearful goodbye, says Risha Bracken, director of a large child care center in Stockton, California. “It’s always hard for parents, especially first-time parents, to leave their child with someone else while they work,” she says. But on those mornings when you find yourself reluctantly pulling yourself away from your crying little one, remember, “Most children are just fine within five minutes.”