The art of the daycare drop-off

Early mornings, sleep-deprived parents, a time crunch and, of course, emotional youngsters, desperate for their parents’ attention. 

It’s the perfect storm for catastrophe. And yet, that’s when one of the toughest parts of the day looms — the dreaded daycare drop-off. 

Day after day, we peel away our sobbing offspring and we’re left with a lasting image of our children in distress — perhaps frozen in our minds for the next eight to 10 hours. 

With heavy hearts, we scurry out the door to begin the workday (maybe shedding a few tears in the car). 

There has to be a better way. Right?

To find answers, we talked with Anna Wilson, director at Edina’s Especially for Children daycare in Edinborough Park, which has been caring for kids since 1987. 

We also spoke with Catherine Bergler, owner of a beloved in-home daycare in Woodbury. 

Their advice, plus additional parent-led research, helped us create Your Essential Guide for Earning Your Masters in the Art of the Daycare Drop-off

Read on for calmer, better mornings ahead.

Establish a routine.

Kids thrive on consistency and structure, so creating a regular routine or ritual for daycare drop-offs can really help. If possible, talk to your child ahead of time about what she would prefer as part of your drop-off routine.

When you need to leave, a consistent goodbye ritual can help to comfort your child. Whether it’s one big bear hug, a quick high-five or butterfly kisses — create a special goodbye and use it every day.

A mother says goodbye to her son at Especially for Children daycare in Edina. Child-care experts recommend establishing a consistent farewell ritual — such a single hug or even a quick high-five — during daycare drop-offs to ensure a smooth transition. Photo by Laura Ramsborg

Keep it brief.

No matter what your drop-off routine involves, experts agree that good-byes should be calm and brief. Daycare providers understand that separation is difficult, and they’re ready to support you and your child through transition times with their expertise and reassurance. 

“Teaching staff know how to handle difficult drop-offs and can redirect your child’s attention,” Wilson said. “Prolonging the separation by lingering in the doorway or attempting to peek at your child through a window will only make it harder.” 

Both Wilson and Bergler welcome parents to call later in the morning to see how a child has adjusted, rather than trying to hover a short distance away. 

If a child has had a difficult drop-off, Bergler will often send a photo to parents of their child happily playing later. 

Model confidence.

Leaving your child is never easy — especially when it will be several hours before you see her again. However, it’s important to remain calm and keep your emotions under control during daycare drop-off.

If your child sees your concern or tears, he’ll likely feel scared and uncertain about you leaving. Wilson emphasizes how important it is to help your child feel relaxed, positive and secure in the knowledge that you’re comfortable with the daycare environment. 

Your strength and confidence can become your child’s strength and confidence. If you’re struggling with your emotions, try having your partner handle daycare drop-off, if possible. 

Pack reinforcements.

Many children can be comforted by a familiar object from home to ease the pain of transition. 

“I encourage parents to allow the child to bring a stuffed animal to drop-off for the first week or two, so they have something from home to comfort them,” Bergler said. “After those first weeks, the stuffed animal is quickly forgotten and they are excited to come in, have fun and learn.” 

For babies, a blanket that smells like home can be soothing. For preschoolers, sending a family picture to daycare can also help. At Especially for Children, kids’ family pictures are prominently displayed in the classrooms.

A father poses with his son at Especially for Children in Edina before heading out for the day. Parents who openly demonstrate that they’re comfortable with their child’s teachers will typically pass their confidence onto their kids. Photo by Laura Ramsborg

Tell it like it is.

It’s important to be honest with your child about where you’re going in the morning, what will happen when you get there and how long you’ll be gone. It’s best not to surprise a child — or glaze over reality — when it comes to daycare. 

Bergler recalled one situation in which a family’s 2-year-old would be inconsolable during drop-off for over a week.

She couldn’t figure out what was going on, until she found out his parents were telling him they were going to Grandma’s house just to get him to cooperate and get in the car. When they arrived at daycare, he was shocked to not be at Grandma’s and instantly melted down. 

No matter how difficult it is, it’s best to be straight-forward with your child about daycare drop-off.

Talk it up.

Be as positive and upbeat as possible when talking about daycare with your child. Find out which activities your child will be doing each day, and talk about how much fun he’ll have at daycare. Especially for Children publishes weekly parent newsletters with themed learning units, so it’s possible for parents to talk with their children ahead of time about what they’ll be doing. 

Special events like field trips and pajama day, or special daycare parties, can help build a child’s interest in the days ahead, along with discussions of friends and teachers that a child is interested in seeing.

Start slow.

If you’re starting at a new daycare, or transitioning back into the daycare routine after a long break, try to ease your child into it. First, plan a brief visit to the daycare together, then progress to leaving your child for an hour, moving on to a half-day and then adding in full days. Also, you might consider beginning a daycare transition on a Thursday rather than a Monday, so your child needs to make it through two days, rather than a full first week. 

Finally, talk with your daycare provider — the ultimate drop-off ambassadors — about how to best work together through the transition, too!

Laura Ramsborg lives in Bloomington and is a mother of two daughters, including a 3-year-old who squeezes her tight in a headlock-style hug during daycare drop-off. After trying out some of these recommendations, her drop-off mornings have started to go more smoothly.