How to Prepare an Infant for Daycare

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Infants in most daycare programs take up 2 spots, mostly because they need a lot of care, one-on-one time, cuddles, reassurance, feedings, changing, sleep time, etc and because they cannot get around on their own. It’s a lot of work! And infant supplies also are pricy, take up a lot of room, and it takes a very skilled provider to care for infants due to numerous factors.

Dropping off your infant at daycare their first day isn’t as simple as just that, though it might seem so. There are rules and restrictions that daycare providers must follow for safe sleep practice that is mandated by licensing and that prevents SIDS and accidental death.

Infant care has the biggest amount of work on the parent’s end before their first day. The main things revolving around sleep, feedings, self-soothing, and understanding group care. Parents enrolling their child in a daycare program that has other children must understand that caring for a group of 6-8 children is much different than just caring for 1 child. There are multiple diapers that need changing, feedings/eating time, individual time with each child and ensuring everyone gets pockets of 1-on-1 time with the provider, as well as outside time, safe sleep/naptime, and keeping the areas clean (especially once self-feeding begins… clean-up can take awhile.)

So, topic #1: Sleep. If you’re a parent, you know that you cannot just lay a child down whenever and they’ll just go to sleep. They need to be tired, it needs to be part of their rhythm, and they need to have eaten somewhat recently (within an hour or so) to be comfortable, fed, changed, and tired.
From birth, begin working with your child on establishing a nap schedule/routine that is based on your child’s natural rhythms of play and sleep time. Ensure that when awake that they can play, see you, have some holding/touch time, eat/nurse, and maybe even have some outside time to get fresh air (20 minutes or so is good!).
Then, when it’s time for sleep, have them in a darkened room with a sound machine on, some air movement (like a fan), and then place them down on their back in their crib/bassinet/pack-n-play (NOT a swing, bouncy seat, carseat, bed, couch, etc.!) with a pacifier if they need one. You can swaddle infants up to 3-4 months as long as they are NOT yet rolling over. Allow your baby some time to settle (5 mins or so) before you go back in and pat their tummy, rub their head gently, or whatever works for your child. Speak soothingly in a soft voice. The goal is to try and let them self-soothe before you just swoop in. This allows them the chance to learn that they can comfort themselves with a reasonable expectation that help is available if needed.
In the mornings (or even overnight!) if your child wakes up frequently, give them a few minutes to settle on their own (like 2-5 minutes) before you assist. This, again, teaches self-soothing skills while still allowing ample response time and for the baby’s needs to be met.
Please do not nurse/feed your child to sleep. If they fall asleep while nursing/giving a bottle, be sure to burp them well (thus waking them up) and then place them down to sleep in their safe sleep area. Feel free to feed your child, burp, and then put to sleep. But try not to let them fall asleep while eating and then STAY asleep while eating. This is where issues arise.
A daycare provider cannot nurse a child to sleep, put them down in a swing or bouncy seat or car seat, or hold them during naptime. Providers have anywhere from 4-10 children in their care at one time and giving your child this much attention means that they would have to neglect the others to give your child this much 1-on-1. Daycare providers use naptime to: clean, prep lunch, do paperwork, do lesson planning or meal planning, spend time with their own older children that do not nap, do dishes, check emails, etc. and so holding a baby just isn’t an option. If you’re looking for that level of service, you may want to choose a nanny. But be prepared for sticker shock!

Topic #2: Feedings. It goes without saying, but I do not nurse babies in my care. They cannot have me as their personal nipple and they will NEED to be able to drink from a bottle. Whether that bottle has breastmilk or formula is of no matter, but if your child cannot take a bottle, how are they going to get their daily sustenance? It’s vital that parents work with their baby on learning to drink from a bottle. Regardless of if you want to breastfeed long-term or not, in a daycare setting, I MUST give a baby a bottle. Parents can’t come and nurse easily each time baby is hungry and it just isn’t reasonable. Start working with your child early (like 6 weeks, or earlier) on taking a bottle for feedings. If you breastfeed and can’t pump enough for what your baby needs, pump as much breastmilk as you can, nurse on-demand, and supplement with formula. It’s a necessity to have a good transition to daycare that your baby can do this.
Additionally, babies should not be on a rigid feeding schedule or restricted to X amount of ounces a day or a feeding. Guidelines exist to serve as as that- guidelines. They are not hard-and-fast rules that apply to every baby. Daycare providers learn about the children in their care and their cues as to know what’s a hunger cry, a diaper change cry, or an “I’m uncomfortable” cry, etc. I cannot and will not withhold food/milk/etc. from a child just because their parent wants me to. It’s against my code of ethics and I will feed a baby that is hungry. (Please keep in mind that babies don’t overeat- they will refuse once they are full.)
Please provide for your daycare provider: enough breastmilk for 1-2 days and a frozen amount enough for 1 whole day (plus some extra in case of spillage) OR enough formula for 1-2 weeks. Running out of baby milk is a most unpleasant thing and if it happens, you may be called to pick up your child. No one wants the heartache or earache of hearing a baby crying out of hunger and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Topic #3: Self-Soothing. This can mean a lot of different things to different people, but let me elaborate on what it means to me and my program. This does NOT mean “cry it out” or “neglect a baby” or anything like that. It’s moreso like “give the baby an opportunity to calm themselves before I step in and assist”. This can be for anything from sleeping (and waking up) to feedings (upset when done) if another child touches them and they aren’t used to that (talk them through it or distract them) or if they are frustrated when trying to gain mobility (encourage, give them time to explore, and give them a reason to want to get movin). Self-soothing isn’t just for babies, either, but since this article is strictly referring to infants, I’ll touch on that.
Parents need to begin this process long before they start daycare. Whatever children experience at home is their “reality” and what they come to expect everywhere they go. This can be good and bad, but it’s essential that parents make conscious decisions that have a lot of thought go into them with even the simplest of things.
I believe that it’s important to do things with the end in mind. Where the end in this case is a well-adjusted baby to the demands of a family or of a group daycare program (versus an only child setup or nanny situation where the child gets 100% attention 100% of the time). Patience is essential to develop into young children and self-soothing is part of that. For instance, at daycare, when I’m heating up breastmilk, I use an oversized coffee cup filled halfway with water and microwave it for 2 minutes, then place the bottle in it for 2-3 minutes to warm it up. If the baby is upset and hungry, I say to them (as I’m taking the milk out of the fridge) “Do you want some milk? I’m heating you up some.” Then they see me doing that and come to understand- “Ok, she is bringing me food” and then if I am consistent and follow through on my word each time, she learns to trust my word as her “reality” to the point where if I say that I’m making her milk, that she can rest easy knowing food is coming and relax a bit. This is a form of “patience stretching” which is great for young children (0-5) to learn.
Self-soothing can also happen for a baby that is waking up from sleep in the morning. Parents can check the time and give their child 5 minutes or so before going in and checking on them or giving a bottle to let the child “work it out” on their own a bit. If you’re the forgetful type, can set a timer on your phone or etc. for 5 minutes and then respond. (for overnights, I recommend doing 5 minutes, then 10, then 15 if your child has been fed and is clean)
For older infants, self-soothing is good if another child touches them or maybe pats them too hard (if they are young toddlers) and for the baby to not get scared or freak out if someone other than an adult is touching them. In this instance, I explain to the baby, “Oh, he was trying to say hi to you. He is just learning how to be gentle.” and then usually the baby calms down. This is also teaching empathy and intention and explaining that it isn’t what it appears to be. Then the baby can learn to understand “Oh, he’s patting rough again…” and then next time it happens, this is their inner dialogue. Yes, babies can understand things like this! You’d be amazed at what they can understand and do!

Topic #4: Understanding group care. A daycare provider (whether in a center or a home) is not a cheaper version of a personal nanny. They are not your employee, your worker, or under your control. They either work for a center who has policies or are self-employed and created a business model that works for them. For both versions, parents see the program offerings, terms, pricing, etc. and can decide to enroll or not. Doing a bait-and-switch for your needs is not only dishonest but also a bit aggravating for the daycare you choose. Please be forthright with your expectations, needs, hours, and dietary preferences/restrictions. We care for 4-10 children on any given day and must make plans, menus, activities, and a daily schedule that is suited for the entire group.
For home daycare providers, we have more flexibility than centers do since we are the CEO and the operator, so if a provider offers mixed age group care, infants can sleep in a separate area and the older kids can still play. Or if the provider wants to go 100% vegetarian, they can do so pretty easily, etc.
But just because we can make changes to suit our needs doesn’t mean that we need or want to bend to the will or whims of every family. Some things that might be easily able to accommodate (a peanut allergy or asthma) are doable and others might be hard or downright impossible to do for group care (gluten-free and dairy-free) unless the parents provide meals.
A provider doesn’t create her menu and “disregard” a parent’s preferences, it’s just that we have 8-20 parents in the program and to please 100% of them 100% of the time just isn’t realistic (or attainable, really!). But most providers are willing or able to allow parents to provide balanced meals and snacks if the child has a dietary restriction/allergy beyond what they provide for food. We want to keep our clients happy but bending over backwards or buying expensive food substitutions isn’t part of that. And we certainly don’t get paid well enough for that level of customization!
In group care, there are 4-10 other children to take care of. That means 4-10 diapers needing changing every 2-3 hours, depending on how many babies as many as 4 that need bottles warmed and fed while holding every 2-3 hours, playtime for the children, group activities; breakfast, lunch, and PM snack (prep, cook, serve, eat… can easily be 1.5 hours), outside time (getting everyone dressed for chilly weather or swimsuits on for sprinkler play), arts and crafts, Circle Time, sensory bin activities, Pre-K time (depending on ages)…. all in the scope of 10 hours.
It’s a lot to do and a lot of balancing acts. I make sure to divide my time evenly among all the children, so not 1 child gets all my attention during the day. My own 2 children will get attention too, but not as much as when it’s just family time. It’s vital that even my own children understand that they cannot be the center of attention during business hours because I have other children to tend to. It would be selfish on my part to only give my own children attention and not the others.

Parents who understand and respect these points will do GREAT with placing their child in daycare. Those who don’t… well… you might want to hire a personal nanny or be a stay-at-home parent to get the level of care you or your child want/need. We all make different choices for our families and there’s no judgment regarding this topic, only openness and honesty for expectations and what it’s like.

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