“When are you going back to work?” well-meaning friends and family want to know. Half of them assume you are going to be devastated to be away from your baby- the other half laugh that they bet you can’t wait to start the daycare transition. The truth? Could be anywhere in there if you’re like most mamas I know. Leaving my first born felt like leaving my arm behind. But I also liked carrying a purse instead of a diaper bag, and all the adult conversation that my job entailed. Mixed feelings- up and downs- hallmark feelings of a mama at the end of maternity leave.

Whether you are going back to work after your first baby or your third, the transition from maternity leave to daycare can be really hard — on you and your baby.

The goodbyes can be heart-wrenching no matter what and you might wonder if you and your baby will survive this tough time. You are not alone mama!

You and your baby will survive- and thrive. Here’s how…

What to do before:

Decide what kind of transition is best for you and your child. Some children and parents do better with a gradual daycare transition. Over the course of a few weeks, slowly increase the amount of time spent with a caregiver, or at a daycare, until full days are reached. Other children and parents find that after an initial get-to-know-you phase, it’s better to start the new routine right away.

Get some books to read about separation. Even a young baby may be able to understand some of the message. There are lots of good ones out there. My personal favourite is Owl Babies by Martin Waddell – the mama owl always comes back! I also love Oh My Baby, Little One written by Kathi Appelt.

Play lots of object permanence games. Hide-and-Seek, Peek-A-Boo, hiding and finding favourite toys. This helps teach your child that you are always there even if he can’t see you and that you will always come back.

Give your child a transitional object. A baby might have a stuffy or blanket to remind her of home and an older child could have a locket with a picture of her parent(s) in it. You can also give your child something of yours that will also have your scent, like a scarf.

Make a picture book of “Who Loves Baby.” The caregiver can look at it with your child during the day if/when the emotional pangs of missing you start to set in.

Try on your work clothes before the first day back! Even if you have lost much of your pregnancy weight, your clothes might still fit differently. If you are breastfeeding expect engorgement at first and wear clothes that accommodate your breast changes.

Fill your freezer. Make sure there are plenty of easy meal options for the first few weeks of the transition so that you can focus on spending time with your baby or child when you get home from work and daycare. Host a going-back-to-work party and get your friends to bring you a dish for your freezer. Even after the initial adjustment many parents like to do some cooking on the weekend to make the week easier.

Develop and use a connection ritual. You can use this to send your baby/child off feeling embraced by you and to “collect” them when you see them again. My grandmother used to tell me, “I love you dearly, dearly, dearly” every time we said hello, goodbye, goodnight or good morning. My eldest son and I had a ritual of 5 kinds of kisses that we always gave each other – “Cat Kiss,” “Smooch,” “Fish Kiss,” “Butterfly Kiss,” and “Dog Kiss.” Your child will feel more connected to you and confident and you will create a ritual that he will remember forever.

Support your child by finding a “go to” support person at the daycare. Your child may have more than one caregiver; see if one person can be her main source of comfort and connection. It is very important that your baby has someone to bond with. (This is a big reason why I like home daycares– but a good day care centre should also be able to provide some continuity for your child.) Take a picture of this person and your child together and put it on your fridge. Treat her like a member of the family.

What moms wish they knew:

You don’t necessarily have to prepare your baby for a new reality when they are still at home. Before your mat leave is over, it’s not necessary to wean your baby or teach them to fall asleep without you. Babies are amazingly competent and usually have no problem with 2 routines. At home your baby might require half an hour of nursing or rocking to fall asleep, while your caregiver will likely be able to get him to fall asleep with 2 minutes of back patting in the Pack-n-Play. Many moms would swear that their daycare workers have a magic fairy dust that helps their babies settle to sleep with superhuman speed. And many daycares are very flexible with stroller sleeping (or whatever else your babe needs to get some ZZZs). If you want to continue a breastfeeding relationship outside of daycare hours, you, your breasts and your baby will be able to adjust to this new schedule. No need to wean.

During the daycare transition:

Get extra sleep and get some exercise if you can.

If you’re depleted it will make the transition harder for everyone.

Expect your baby to be clingier. This is normal and good. They are showing you how to meet their needs and their needs are for increased connection with you when you are together. This won’t last forever so try to enjoy all the extra snuggle time.

Plan to devote the first part of the evening to your baby. Spend the first 30 minutes reading, playing, breastfeeding. Be prepared for baby to want you as soon as he/she sees you. One mama told me that she sneaks into the house so she can change before her baby sees her so she is ready to play and reconnect as soon as she sees her baby. Make sure to get them laughing and do some physical play. Laughter and time together helps you and your baby process the day and your separation from each other.

Allow yourself to grieve. Recognize your emotions as they come up – acknowledge them and let them move through you. The only way out of a feeling is through it.

Don’t be surprised if you feel like a completely different person. Our priorities often shift when we become parents. Maybe you’re not as driven as you were before. Maybe your interests have changed. This is a new chapter of your life!

Expect more night wake-ups during the transition phase. Baby may nurse a lot at night to make up for lost daytime feeds, or just for extra cuddles because he/she misses you. Try to top them up as much as possible during daytime hours when you’re together. If it appeals to you, consider the family bed. Some parents find that night togetherness helps them feel better about being apart during the day.

Don’t forget to make time for YOU. It can be easy to spend half the day devoted to work and the other half devoted to family. Try to carve out some time to do something just for you. Walk to work occasionally. Take yourself out for a fancy coffee. Take a bath in the evening.

Be a slacker- give yourself a break. During this transition time your house may be a mess, you may feel like you’re dropping all the balls. Go into survival mode for a while. It will get easier (we promise). When possible, ask for help or outsource, It is impossible to do it all.

What moms wish they knew:

It’s normal to have mixed feelings. You might miss your baby so much it feels like your heart is breaking. But you also might be happy to be back in adult company again doing meaningful work. It can be fulfilling to trade a diaper bag for a purse and eat lunch with other grown-ups. Acknowledge that you are a human with complex and sometimes contradictory desires.

Saying goodbye:

Explain to your child what will be happening. It is important to say “Mama/dada always comes back.” This is important to do before daycare starts and to continue it all through the transition. Even a young child will be able to understand some of what you are saying, especially if you have read separation stories and played object permanence games.

Focus on connection- even when you say goodbye. Draw your child’s attention to when you will be together again. Often we say things like “Oh it will be so fun to… play with your friends, play with the toys they have, play outside” etc. This is understandable- we want our child to feel good about the separation from us so we focus on all the fun she will have. But as you separate from your child- let her know when you’ll be together again and what will happen when you are reunited. “When I pick you up at 5 I will have a snack for you and we will have a big snuggle and walk home together.”

Greet your child’s caregiver warmly and with enthusiasm. Your child has to feel your confidence in the person you have entrusted with his care.

Do not sneak out! Always say goodbye to your baby/child. If you sneak out, it’s easier for you not to hear them cry but it’s harder for your baby. It teaches her that you could disappear at any time and creates tons of anxiety.

Use your special connection ritual to say goodbye. Don’t forget to remind your child explicitly that you always come back.

Make your goodbye cheerful, quick and confident. Your baby has to know that you believe she can handle this!

When you are together again- take a few minutes to “collect” your child emotionally and re-connect- even after a short separation. A special greeting or “hello” ritual helps your child know he’s back in the warmth of your affection and makes the rest of your day easier.

One mama I spoke to recently had these words of wisdom about the transition back to work:

“It’s a huge lesson in letting go of control and allowing other influences to shape your child. It can feel like the first step in accepting that though your child is OF you he is NOT you… Managing your own stress and anxiety and not projecting that onto your child is often the hardest part. I cried in my car after every drop off. Thoughts like “He’s too little… He can’t handle this…” haunted me. 6 weeks later he was thriving. We– mostly me– had survived.”

You WILL adjust and so will your baby.

  1. Josh B says:

    Hi Sarah, we will be changing daycare providers for our (then 3 yo) little girl early next year.
    We just want to try and get a plan together for the transition to try and make it easier on her.
    What tips can you give us to help her through this change of new setting, new caregivers and having to make new friends?

  2. I like that you mentioned the importance of telling your child that you will come back for them so that they can understand their current situation. Now that my sister has to return to work next week, she needs to find a daycare service that can help keep her daughter relaxed since she tends to become emotional whenever her mother is not in the same room as her. Hopefully, she can find a daycare service that will take care of her child while she is away.

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