Starting daycare during COVID? Here’s what parents need to know

Transitioning your baby or toddler to daycare during COVID can be nerve-wracking. Here’s how to prepare (and what to ask) ahead of time.

All week leading up to my 15-month-old son’s first day of daycare, we watched a video tour of the centre every night at bedtime. This ritual pacified some of my guilt over sending my son to daycare during COVID. He was more interested in the keyboard than what was on the screen, but I memorized every detail since I knew I would not be allowed inside due to pandemic safety restrictions—no tours were being offered to parents. I was worried about the usual things: how he would adjust to not being with me all the time, if he would eat and nap well. On top of that, I was worried about COVID risks and whether I was making the right choice.

“The anxiety around the pandemic was definitely a new experience,” says Katie Watkins, a parent of three kids in Kitchener, Ont. “There was some pause as to whether or not we were going to send our daughter at all.” Her two older kids had attended daycare as toddlers, but they had also spent plenty of time with relatives and babysitters during their first years of life. But her youngest, born in October 2019, had never been in the care of anyone besides her mom or dad. “I really had no idea how the transition would go. Stranger danger is a lot more real in pandemic babies,” says Watkins.

Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety are, in fact, normal developmental milestones that typically begin around six to eight months, and peak between 10 and 18 months, regardless of your child-care choices. This means that for kids under age two, morning drop-offs can be tough and tear-filled at the best of times, even without COVID-related changes (such as ECEs wearing masks).

Despite Watkins’s hesitations, she knew her daughter would thrive once she settled in, as her two older kids had, and would do well with the routine and structure of a daycare setting.

During the pandemic, daycares have had to adjust with things like mask-wearing for the staff, eliminating indoor drop-offs, performing temperature checks at the door and decreasing the number of kids in a class. They may have separated play stations and set up individual sensory bins instead of shared ones, and some kids eat their lunches and snacks with only a few tablemates (instead of the whole class sitting at one table). Some daycares have relocated song circles outdoors, since singing can spread COVID.

But the essence of how children are cared for and comforted remains, says Heidi Briggs, owner of Evergreen Childcare Centre, a daycare in White Rock, BC. She knows how unsettling it has been for parents to be banned from coming inside, so she invested in an app that allows parents to communicate directly with their child’s teacher and get a glimpse into their child’s day through photos.

She also says that most of the children new to the centre during COVID have adapted in two or three weeks. She’s observed that her “COVID babies” go through a phase of looking at other kids in awe because they may not have seen another child their age before, but they adjust quickly after that.

“We’ve also noticed that if the parents are high-anxiety coming into a daycare setting, it really reflects onto their children,” Briggs adds. “But if we have parents who are more relaxed, the child is, too.” She also says that the full-time kids tend to adjust faster than the kids who attend only a few days a week.

I’m happy to report that the transition went fairly well for my son, all things considered. And by his second week, like clockwork, any remaining guilt vanished when I saw him happily be scooped up and carried inside by his teacher without even glancing back at me.

Due to different pandemic regulations across municipalities, it’s best to ask questions at your particular daycare prior to enrolling. Can parents go inside the building for drop-off and pickup? Do they have an app to help keep parents informed? What’s the policy on soothers, blankets and stuffies from home? What’s the protocol for a kid with a runny nose, fever or cough? What happens with tuition payment if the daycare must close temporarily due to a COVID exposure? These are all ongoing considerations as we await COVID vaccines for young kids.

Jacqueline Wong, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., enrolled her almost two-year-old in a daycare during the pandemic. As a mom and a doctor, she weighed the COVID risks against the benefits by looking at the infection rates and vaccination trends in her community. She advises parents to also evaluate any of their child’s underlying medical conditions that might put them, or someone they live with, at risk for more severe outcomes.

Even with the newer, more transmissible variants, Wong has tried to reassure parents who are anxious about their unvaccinated kids attending group daycares. “We’ve continued to observe that children have a much milder course,” says Wong. “Complicated cases are rather rare. And with the ongoing widespread use of vaccinations, including vaccines for ECEs, this creates an immunity ‘wall’ that prevents the spread of variants within communities, and therefore less illness among children who are too young to receive the vaccine.”

Wong feels the developmental benefits have outweighed the COVID risk for her family. Not long after her son son joined daycare, she noticed an enormous improvement in her son’s socialization and communication skills.

As you wade through your options, she suggests that you avoid thinking of daycare as an absolute decision, but instead accept that you are making a choice at this moment, based on what your child and your family needs now. Find comfort in knowing you can always reassess and change course if needed.

It may also be reassuring to know that many parents find the countdown to the end of a parental leave, and the anticipation of starting child care, is usually more emotional and stressful than the reality of the transition, once the big day finally arrives.

“Sometimes we don’t know how well our children will fare until we challenge them, and challenge ourselves,” says Wong.

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