• Starting daycare doesn't need to be traumatic for everyone involved. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The kids will be fine, but will you?
Alyssa Braithwaite

7 Jun 2016 - 11:59 AM  UPDATED 8 Jun 2016 - 9:51 AM

My boy smells like another woman’s perfume.

Someone else has been kissing and hugging him, making him laugh, and cooking his favourite meals, and it’s tearing me up inside.

I’m even jealous that I’m not the one changing his nappy.

I should, at this point, make it clear that the boy I’m referring to is my 10 month old son. And after spending every day and night together since he was born, we are now separated for almost 10 hours a day as I go to work and he goes to daycare.

That’s almost 50 hours a week where I have to surrender control over his wellbeing to a small group of people I have only just met.

I had dreaded having to send him off into the world on his own from the moment he was born.

Apparently I did not take well to daycare myself as a child. According to my mum, when she left me at daycare for the first time, I went catatonic. I didn’t move, make eye contact or speak to anyone for the three hours that I spent there. And I didn’t go back.

But that just wasn’t a choice for me with my child, and as the big day loomed on the calendar I was losing sleep over it with all my concerns.

Would he think I had abandoned him? What if he just cried when they put him down for a nap? How would he cope with all the new illnesses he’d come into contact with? What if he didn’t like the carers? And occasionally, perversely, what if he liked the carers too much and preferred being with them?

But, as many, many parents have discovered before me, he survived. And I have come to accept that my son already has a life independent of me – and that that’s a good thing.

Here are some tips for loosening the apron strings without losing your marbles:  

Ease into it

If your child is used to spending every day at home with you, leaping straight into full time daycare is going to come as a very rude shock. So take the time ease them into it with a few orientation sessions. The first time my son and I went to daycare, I stayed with him and we spent a couple of hours getting to know the staff and other children and getting used to the new environment. A few days later he went back and I left him there for a few hours, including eating morning tea and having a nap. He had the same carers both times, so when he turned up for his first full day on his own, there were some familiar faces there to greet him.  

Six days off is more than enough time for a little one to forget about daycare, and the horror is then renewed every week.

But leaving too long between daycare sessions can also be an issue. Mother-of-three Katelyn Catanzariti says she only sent her eldest daughter to daycare one day a week. "Six days off is more than enough time for a little one to forget about daycare, and the horror is then renewed every week. As soon as she started going twice a week it became a whole lot easier," Catanzariti says. "But I think it was much harder on her than it was for our son, who started with two days."

Get organised

Two words: label everything. Write your child's name or initials on all their belongings, from bottles containing breast milk or formula to their clothes, sheets, socks, shoes and bag. Things get chaotic at daycare as kids shed pieces of clothing and bottles get mixed up at feeding time and everything looks the same. It will make things much easier for you and the carers if they can quickly tell what items belong to who. You can go out and get special labels made up, but the simplest and cheapest way is to get use a permanent marker.

Getting organised extends to preparing the night before. Lay out everything your child is going to need the following day, so that if they're having one of those mornings where they turn their nose up at breakfast, or they just don't want to play ball when it comes to getting ready, it's one less thing to worry about.    

Be prepared for a tough first day

It was with a clenched heart and quivering lip that I dropped him off for his first full day at daycare. I walked out to the car and burst into tears. He didn't cry because the he had no idea that mummy wasn't coming back until the sun was going down. But the carers are used to anxious parents, and so they called me at lunchtime to tell me how he was doing, and that afternoon I received my daily email from them, full of photos and details about his day.   

To make things easier for the child, some parents send their little ones along with something special from home - a photo or a toy or a book - that they can keep hold of when they're feeling sad. To make your child feel more secure and help them nod off at nap time, make sure the sheets or sleeping bag smell like home. Expect them to be pretty exhausted when you come to pick them up that day, and for the first week or two. There's a lot of new stuff to take in for a little person.

Don’t linger

Saying goodbye each morning isn’t easy, but it’s a whole lot harder for both of you if you drag it out. For the first couple of weeks my son cried every morning when I dropped him off. This was usually accompanied by him clawing at my clothes as he tried to cling to me. It was heartbreaking. But as the days and weeks went by he gradually started to loosen his grip. And when I lingered outside the door I realised that he stopped crying almost as soon as I was out of sight. I remember the first day I walked out the door without his cries ringing in my ears - I could have punched the air in celebration!

Catanzariti agrees that you need to put on a brave face for their sake, and trust they won't cry for long. "Make sure you give them and nice squeezy cuddle, say goodbye and walk out the door smiling. If they see you stressed, it makes them more stressed," she says. "These people are professional carers- this is not their first rodeo! They know how to distract and comfort your kid- honestly, emotional parents are the last thing that is going to help a baby settle in."

But it's also important to make sure you always say a proper goodbye to your child. Don't assume that it they're playing happily you can sneak out because they'll turn around looking for you and you'll be gone and that's much worse.

Get on good terms with your boss

You’re going to need your boss’s understanding when your child gets sick – again, and again, and again. Make sure your employer is aware of your situation and that, particularly for the first few weeks, you might need a little extra flexibility in your schedule. If you haven't got family nearby who can help out when your little one is too sick for daycare, start saving up your sick days, because you're going to need them.

My son has a permanently runny nose, seemingly like every other child there, and then passes on illnesses to the rest of the family.

Everyone will tell you that when your child starts daycare they will spend the first year sick, and that's been pretty true for us so far. My son has a permanently runny nose, seemingly like every other child there, and then passes on illnesses to the rest of the family. It's delightful. I'd love to have a healthy boy again, but I just have to tell myself he's building up his immune system.

New mum Diana Garcia says she has always been a bit of a germophobe and couldn't believe how quickly her son fell ill at daycare. "The first week was met with a cold, double ear infection and pinkeye to top it all off - he was only there for two days!"

Enjoy all the new things - including your renewed sense of freedom

My son spends his day playing with a diverse set of friends, trying different food from all over the world, doing art and craft, and helping to feed the chickens and tend to the vegetable patch - none of which he would be able to do very easily if he was just at home with me. I love to hear about all the different experiences he's having and hope they help to make him a well-rounded little boy who is interested and curious and not afraid of new things.

While he's thriving on the new, I'm enjoying a bit of the old - my old sense of freedom before having a child. It feels amazing to go to the toilet and not have to worry about what I'm going to do with him. Or make a cup of tea and drink it while it's still hot. Or gaze off into space and think about nothing, and not have someone demand my attention. Or wear nice clothes that aren't covered in food, spit, vomit and snot smears, and don't provide easy access for breastfeeding. I think you get the idea. 

Make friends

Not your child - no doubt he or she will make friends - but you. “One thing that has enhanced our daycare experience has been making the effort with other parents. Unlike school, everyone flies in and out at different times so you often don't get to know other parents,” says Sydney mother Caroline Berdon.

“When our child has gravitated to another and sparked up a special friendship, we've sometimes taken one of their drawings and written a note on the back to the parents of the child to see if they want to make a play date and put it in the other child's bag.

“My two older girls' best mates now are ones they were in daycare with as babies years ago.. but unlike in the school years, it took effort from us as parents to enable it to grow to the next level.”

Many daycare centres offer get togethers for parents so you can meet each other and socialise. And if you're not good at remembering names, you can cheat by calling everyone Lin's dad or Remy's mum.

Make the most of your time together

Now that I only have a couple of hours with James each day, I try to make every moment count. No matter how tired I am or how busy things can get during that end of the day rush to get home and get him fed, bathed and in bed, I try to make time to just have fun with him. At the end of my working day, there's nothing I want more than to see his face, play with him, and give him all the extra cuddles we've missed all day.  

Child care alternatives
Alternative child care on the rise
More than 55,000 Australian kids have been turned away from day care. With wait lists and fees soaring, some families are seeking out alternative child care arrangements.
Stay-at-home grandparenting: swapping retirement for rock-a-bye baby
The role grandparents play within a family unit has changed, with them becoming the most popular type of informal childcare in the country. It's work that goes unpaid but grandparents are reaping the benefits of quality time with their grandkids.