“I am 31-years-old and have a 14-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old daughter. I am a single mom. My infant is a “high need” baby. I am worried about going back to work. I obviously have no other options as I am the only bread winner and living on a tight budget. My maternity leave will end when baby is 11-months-old. She is so attached to me that I can’t leave her with anyone for longer than half an hour. Even my mother, who loves her dearly, dreads having to watch her without me. I have tried pumping and giving her a bottle so that I could take my older daughter to a movie, but the baby refuses anything but my breast. She won’t go to sleep without me and no other human substitute will do. I know that I have 5 months to go before I have to put her in daycare, (daycare is my only option for childcare as I can get it subsidized) but I want to make the transition as easy as possible for her. I’m afraid she’ll be miserable without me. Do you have any advice to make this easier for her?”
This is a situation that many single women (and men too) are now having to face – going back to work and leaving your child with another caregiver. This situation also occurs in homes where both parents are working outside the home. For the purpose of this particular discussion, I am not going to present the pros and cons of returning to work versus staying home with the baby. I am going to assume the parents must return to work for financial reasons.
So the main question is, how does a mom prepare herself and her high-need baby for the day when she has to return to work (I won’t discuss dad’s here)? Here are five main ideas to help make this transition easier for everyone. These also apply to non-high need babies:
- Well, the number one most important note is to get your baby used to the caregiver early! Fortunately for this particular mom, she has another 5 months or so. Many parents only have six weeks of maternity leave. Start getting your infant used to the other caregiver early, weeks or months before you go back to work. Have the caregiver watch your infant for a few hours twice a week. Try to get the caregiver to spend a lot of time holding, talking to, feeding, and singing to the baby. This repetitive contact will allow your baby to develop a relationship with the person.
- The younger you start this process, the easier it is. Most newborns don’t really care who is feeding and holding them, just so long as someone is (with some exceptions of course). It is therefore fairly easy to get your newborn accustomed to another caregiver. This is not true for many infants older than three months of age. By this age, they often do care who is holding them, and it better be someone they are used to! This becomes even truer by 6 months of age when stranger anxiety sets in.
- Try some introductory sessions together – this is more practical for an in-home daycare situation with only one caregiver. Stay with the baby and caregiver for a number of introductory sessions. Let your baby see you having fun and being close and friendly with the caregiver. This may not be practical for a daycare center. They may not allow you to accompany your infant to a daycare center and stay. If they do, than concentrate on one or two of the caregivers who plan to be there long-term.
- Try not to start daycare during the late fall and winter – young infants are really susceptible to catching colds during this time. While older children can tolerate colds and coughs with little problem, young infants can get a lot sicker from common colds. There is one particular cold virus in the winter called RSV that is very contagious and can cause breathing difficulty and wheezing for several weeks. If at all possible, delay going back to work until the late winter and spring.
- Try to choose a smaller in-home daycare if affordable – research has shown that infants get sick less often in this type of daycare than they do at larger daycare centers. The more kids and caregivers, the more germs will be passed around. It will also be much easier for your high-need baby to accept a single caregiver in a smaller setting.
- Try going “cold turkey” – some infants, especially non-high need ones, don’t require the above preparations. They may be happy being watched by anybody. They may fuss a little, and go through a few days of being clingy. But some will get used to the new situation quickly.
- A note on high-need babies – I have given you some strategies to try to help get a high-need baby ready for daycare. Now for the bad news – this plan may not work on high-need babies. You may go through all of this preparation and when it finally comes time for you to go back to work, your baby won’t accept it. He may cry and scream no matter what you or the caregiver do. Some will only cry for several days, then get used to it. Others, however, will cry and scream for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week as long as they are in daycare. I have seen this happen to a couple of mom’s who really did need to work. Their babies spent months crying every day. They never did get used to it. If your baby doesn’t accept the situation, you need to decide what to do. If using an in-home daycare, you may need to offer the caregiver more money to care for your child (no one knows better than you how much extra work a high-need baby is).