Is It Okay to Start Daycare?

askateacherAfter failing to set up a nanny share I’m about to send my 6 month-old to daycare. She seems like a pretty cheerful / social person but I am still worried that she’s too young to go from near-100% of an adult’s attention to sharing 2 adults between 8 infants. Is there any research that can comfort me? Or cause me to redouble my efforts at finding a nanny or nanny share (and help legitimate the additional expense thereof)? —Anna

Anna, you’re not alone in worrying about the transition to school for the first time. In fact, at most ages the transition can be harder on parents than on children. (Just wait til you’re sending her off to college!) But you’re also far from alone in considering out-of-home care for your infant. More and more families have only one parent, or two parents who both work, and don’t have extended family nearby who can take care of children. And since the US has one of the worst paid family leave policies in the world, more and more children are going into preschool and daycare at younger and younger ages.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When I consult with families about finding the right school or daycare, I always make it a question of fit—what’s the best fit for the whole family? Part of that has to do with the care the child receives, of course: Are the caregivers warm and attentive? Is the environment safe and appropriate? But that’s only part of the picture. For a school to be a good fit, it has to meet all of the family’s needs. Does it fit into your budget? Do the hours jive with your schedule? Is it in a convenient location? Do they have the right amount of flexilibity for you?

Those questions are, in most cases, just as important as the quality-of-care questions. Not that you should sacrifice, say, a safe environment because it’s convenient to your commute. But rather that, no matter how good the caregivers are, your child’s quality of life will suffer if the school doesn’t fit well into the family’s life. Of course, you’ll never find the “perfect” fit—it doesn’t exist. But there’s nothing wrong with putting practical life concerns into your decision about care for your child, because your practical life is PART of your child’s life.

But I still haven’t really answered your question about will your baby be okay with two strange teachers and seven strange kids. And while I don’t have research to point you to, I can assure you from personal experience that the answer is yes. First, just from a mechanics point of view, two qualified teachers can absolutely care for eight infants. NAEYC, the group that sets the standards for quality early childhood education, recommends a ratio of one adult to three or four infants (though disallows group sizes of more than 8 infants). And in terms of the attention and stimulation a child receives, it’s true that a teacher may be caring for four children while a parent or nanny may only be caring for one or two—but a parent or nanny is often trying to get other things done (cooking, shopping, cleaning, working), while a teacher’s full attention is focused on the children.

Moreover, don’t forget the many benefits of group care for child development. At a daycare or preschool, children are socialized around a variety of people, presented with a variety of sensory inputs and environments, led through a variety of activities—all of which help children develop, think, and self-regulate. A parent or nanny can provide a child with all those things, of course, but they have to go out of their way to do it; at a preschool, they’re all built right into the environment. Furthermore, at quality institutions the caregivers are well trained and educated, and bring a wealth of resources to bear on your child’s learning and development.

Preschools have their drawbacks too, of course—they costs a lot of money, the other kids are full of germs, you don’t get to spend all day with your baby any more. But when you add the developmental and practical benefits up, most families find daycare or preschool to be the right choice sooner or later—and frequently these days it’s sooner.

As I mentioned, the transition to school is often harder on the parent than on the child. Ask any preschool teacher who cries most on the first day, and they’ll tell you it’s about 50/50. I’ll write a column in the next week or two about easing that transition. But you can rest a little easier knowing that, no matter what choice you end up making your child is going to be okay.

* * *

For more thoughts on choosing the right preschool, read what I wrote back in May.

And if you’d like to ask a question, get in touch!


One thought on “Is It Okay to Start Daycare?

  1. amelia August 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm Reply

    Quick note: the US has, in fact, NO paid family leave policy. Our policy, enacted in 1994, is the Family Medical Leave Act, which says that you can’t be fired for taking leave for “family” or medical reasons. There is no provision for pay, although many employers offer it privately. That is WACK.

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