Q: After being mostly a stay-at-home mom since my daughter was born 15 months ago, I'm returning to the workforce full time. She has been going to day care two days a week and is now going full time. My husband is a teacher, so we've been able to make this transition fairly easy, sending her for short days during the summer, with lots of play in the morning and evenings. But now that summer's over, our schedules, particularly getting out in the morning, will get much tighter, and she'll have to go to day care hours earlier. Her father and I are likely to have less time and be more stressed. How do we make this transition less stressful for her and maintain our bond now that the hours of nursing and snuggling in the morning must end?
A: A transition like this can be stressful, but there are easy ways to make it smoother for you and your child. Before I suggest any ideas, we have to go over a bit of child development.
Fifteen-month-olds are at a tiring but delicious age. Typical 15-month-olds are full of emerging energy. This means that they will enjoy their new movements (crawling, walking, running) and gross motor skills. But because your daughter is so young, she needs to be near you to feel safe. Fifteen-month-olds are in what developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls the "sameness" stage of attachment. If you like to garden, your daughter will want to garden. If Dad likes to cook, she will try to help in the kitchen. I like to call 15-month-olds "high will, low skill." Their ability to do things with care is compromised by their immaturity, but my gosh, children this age will try. Your child also has emerging language and is easily frustrated by her inability to express all of her needs. It is common to see a tantrum about something seemingly insignificant, followed by cuddling and closeness.
Because your daughter needs so much closeness to you to feel safe, the best way to connect to her is through the senses (which is why you will miss the nursing and snuggling in the mornings). But here's the good news: Your daughter does not, I repeat, does not need hours and hours of nursing and cuddling to feel connected and close to you. Humans are built to get our doses of connection and then venture out, and because your daughter has already been in day care twice a week, she will more easily adapt to this new schedule. Will there be tears? Yes. Will you worry? Probably. But let's try some easy connection ideas.
The first thing you can do is connect to her while she is at day care, and we do that through the senses:
1. By far, smell is our most powerful sense, so the simplest way to connect to your daughter is through the nose. Send her to day care with a little lovey or stuffed animal that you have slept with. The more it smells like you, the better, and while your daughter naps, simply having this lovey nearby will relax her.
2. Rub her feet or back every night with a gentle scent, such as fractionated coconut oil and one drop of lavender. As she associates this smell with cuddling and being loved by Mom, you can put a drop of lavender on the back of her shirt or on her jacket sleeve every morning. The association of the smell will help her to relax and feel close to you.
3. You can ask the day care to hang family pictures on the wall. This is a fairly common practice and will allow your daughter to see you and your husband all day. She might point at it and cry, but this is okay. Why? Because we want our children to feel sad about what hurts them; it helps them to adapt in a healthy way. Also, seeing your face will help her to adjust to going back into your arms at the end of a long day. Or even have a photo made into a keychain or other small item. She can hold it when she gets sad and cuddle with it at naptime.
4. Finally, many day cares have cameras filming all day now so that parents can check in on their children. I don't suggest doing it too much, but if you set up a schedule (do it at lunch, for example), seeing your daughter playing and napping and happy will put your heart at ease.
In terms of connecting to your daughter at home with this new schedule, keep one word in mind: routine. Remember, your daughter is going to feel fried at the end of each day, so keep your evening routine fairly tech-free (it is highly stimulating to already overstimulated young brains) and know that dinner may be a mess (she may be too tired to focus and eat well). Focus on bath time and bedtime as your connection points, and smile and keep eye contact. Every child is different, but a walk around the block at night with her in a stroller may be soothing to everyone in the house. Keep the bedtime and wake-up routine as consistent as possible, and don't take the tantrums after pickup personally. Your daughter is having a meltdown with the person she feels safest with: you. So keep a steady and calm presence.
Just because you don't have hours to nurse and cuddle her in the morning doesn't mean it won't happen at all. Accept that it will be shortened and that it still matters to both of you. Truly relish the time, sing to her, love her up. Tell her that you are putting all of your love into her for the whole day. Be silly and say things like "Do you see all the love in your elbow? In your little toe?" If you do this every morning, she will feel a connection and relax. Yes, she still may cry when you drop her off, but it won't be nearly as severe with your special routine.
Finally, include the day-care staff as part of your attachment village. Go out of your way to get to know the people caring for your daughter. Hug them and smile and chat with them in front of her. This tells her, "Hey, Mom likes and trusts these people!"