Prepare for a successful transition back to work after baby

planning your return to work

When should I go back to work?

There are many opinions out there about when and if parents should go back to work after having a child. The only right thing is what is right for your family but we can share our experiences. Based on our extensive work with infants, toddlers, and families, I believe if you can find and afford high quality care and plan to return to work while your child is an infant it is best for your child to enter care between 4 and 6 months on a consistent basis. Between four and six months children become social and are seeking interaction from peers and adults. High quality group care can provide social interactions, sensory experiences, music experiences, support for families, and a sense of community.

If you plan to wait until toddlerhood we find that the 9-14 month age is the most difficult for a child to transition to a new school. An intentional school will help your child transition and they will adjust but this is a more challenging time for children developmentally. If you plan to return to work when your child is a toddler consider waiting until around 18 months of age. Expect that children between 8 and 24 months will need more time and care to transition into a new routine at school.

A Smooth Transition for Your Child

Setting your child up for success means making sure they have everything they need to be ready for school. Clothes, food, comfort items, and family photos can be readied for the first day. Intentionally write down any pointers for your child’s teacher to ensure a smooth transition. The school may have practices to support this transition like a getting to know you sheet, visit time, orientation, or home visit.

For young infants, less than six months, the transition to school will likely be fairly simple. It will be helpful if your child gets an opportunity to meet their caregivers and see the environment but mostly the change will impact parents.

Older infants and toddler need an intentional transition which will be most successful if it includes spending time with you at school. Visiting for a few hours, few days, or even a few weeks can help your child adjust to the new school environments. Many families find it easier to have the first week or so be shorter days to give the child time to adjust. Your role when helping your child on the first visits to your child’s new school is to be a secure base.

We find families are most successful if they find a place down on the floor to sit and allow their child to move from their lap when they are ready and return to their parent’s lap as they need. By staying in one spot your child can feel secure in knowing they can return to you. Being on the floor is best because even if your child chooses to be in your lap when you are sitting on the floor you and your child are in the action of the new classroom. The school environment should be safe for your child so you do not need to follow them as they explore.

Be clear with your child about time using terms the child can understand, “I’m going to play with you at school all morning, we will go home for lunch.” or “Today I’m going to play until morning snack then I’m going to say goodbye, I’ll pick you up at lunchtime today.” If your child is feeling secure you may choose to shorten this transition period. There is no right or wrong way to start a new school. You know your child best, so attune to their needs to plan for their success.

Preschoolers transition to school much like toddlers but children over two have a better understanding of time and so it may be a bit easier. All of the ideas above can be helpful. For an older child it is also helpful to map out plans in advance or on a calendar. Preschoolers benefit from being part of the process by choosing which comfort item to bring, helping buy the lunch box for school or picking a backpack. Parents can still act as a secure base by finding a place to sit.

Empathy throughout this transition is important, it may be a challenge no matter your child’s age and your calm support accepting their emotions will help ease the transition. Expect that after school your child will be more tired and need more of your attention. Food, sleep, and potty experiences will likely be very different at school and may change at home as a result. Avoiding over-scheduled evenings and weekends during the first few weeks of school can help ease the transition.

A Successful Transition for You

The transition to school is also a big challenge for families. It is normal to feel sad when you leave your child and this likely won’t end after the first goodbye. Even families who know and love their child’s school feel sad and worried about leaving their child. Our school has had many families who express just as much challenge leaving their second and third child as their first. Separating from your child is difficult and empathise with yourself during this transitional time.

Creating an intentional plan to ease your transition stress is crucial. You may need time to adjust, support from friend, and calls or emails with the school during the first few weeks. Knowing yourself you can plan for how to ease the transition back to work. It can help to start school before work or start back to work at half time at first. Early childhood educators are not judging you and they have seen this challenge before. It is ok to tell your child’s teacher what type of support would help you on difficult days. With time the emotional days will get easier, unfortunately they don’t ever disappear.

Starting Off A Great Relationship with the School

This is also the beginning of a relationship with your child’s teacher and the school and there are ways to enhance that. Families who know in advance that the school is a good fit philosophically will have a lot more success. Reflecting in advance and communicating with the school your values, pet peeves, and needs makes the whole process much easier. Talk to your child’s school about how to contact them, systems for managing early relationships, and your values. Check the school cubby list and be sure you bring everything your child might need. Prepare your child for a good start by being sure the school has all the knowledge and materials to be successful. Early childhood educators are working hard to ease this transition and they are only human. Come in with a supportive attitude, talk to teachers and the director if you have worries, and consider this is a blossoming friendship.

Reflecting on Your Plan to Return to Work

  • How much time do big life transitions typically take for me? How much time might my child need? What can we do now to prepare for this change?
  • Based on my understanding of my child and their temperament, what do I expect will be the most challenging part of the transition? How can I support my child through that challenge?
  • What essential calming techniques should I tell or show my child’s teacher?
  • What do I worry about the most? How can the school help me with my worries? Who else may help me through this transition  (grandparents, friends, school buddy family, etc)?
  • What other stressors could we remove from our calendar around this transition?
  • What are my biggest values and pet peeves the teachers should know?

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