During the first year of a child’s life, it builds a primary bond with the closest family members (usually mother and father). Relationship with a close adult gives children a sense of security, enables them to engage in new tasks and undertake risks. This means that in order for a child to be able to open up to social contacts and new people, he or she must be in the right conditions and time to build a secondary bond – an attachment to a caregiver.
It is impossible to predict in advance how long it will take for a particular child to adapt to an ECEC setting. On average, it takes about 2 weeks. But it may be that the child will wave ‘bye-bye’ to her/his mother on the third day and willingly stay in the group. It may also be that after three weeks the child will need to be accompanied by a parent. It depends on the child’s temperament, his or her experience with new situations, the type of relationship with the parent, the sensitivity and competence of the caregivers and the group of children in which he or she is a part of. [1,2].
A lot of parents and caregivers share a ‘folk belief’ that at the beginning of the stay at the setting, the child will cry, then stop and somehow get used to a new context. That crying is a “normal” thing. Such adaptation does not benefit children, it causes a lot of stress in many of them, it is also difficult for caregivers and parents whose anxiety often contributes to the stress of the child.
How can all parties – parents, caregivers and children – go through the adaptation process gently?
What does research say?
Research shows  that children in the adaptation period for 2-3 weeks are more irritable than normally and their general mood is worse (the level of cortisol – a stress hormone – is higher), so the presence of parents is very important for them . Older children (those over the age of one year) experience stress longer, protest more, especially in the second week of adaptation, when the curiosity about the new passes, and they are particularly sensitive to the way in which adaptation takes place. Leaving a child in a crèche for a long time from the very beginning (in the study pointed out to a stay of more than 4 hours from day one) causes not only a significant deterioration of its’ mood, but also affects the quality of his relationship with the mother – there is a limited sense of security. The mild adaptation of children to a crèche (i.e. short stays – initially for 2-3 hours a day) did not result in a weakening of the safe bond between the children and their mothers, although they were also associated with powerful mood fluctuations.
Another study  carried out with 70 children aged 11–20 months showed that cortisol levels increased significantly in children with sudden/early separation from their mothers (75% to 100% higher than at home) and remained at a balanced level (although also higher than at home) when mothers spent time with the child in a crèche, i.e. when the adaptation phase before separation was longer.
The process of separation includes not only physical absence, but also a sense of loneliness. It is normal for children to feel uncomfortable and stressed as they separate from their loved ones. Research shows that in the first and sometimes second week of separation, stress levels are high enough to show signs of stress during the day (the highest value is about an hour after the separation) . In addition, children have the strongest reaction to separation at the first stage (in the first days). Over the time, stress gradually decreases and stabilizes around the 4th week of adaptation. Remember, however, that stress is not only sadness or loss – it is also excitement, joy and new challenges.
Signs of dissatisfaction with the parent’s departure are rather common. Research shows that even children with a “strong personality”, with a safe bond (attachment) with their parents and a bond with their caregiver, and interested in what is proposed by the institution, often get frustrated in the first week of separation . But with time, however, the feeling of discomfort passes.
Three steps to nursery adaptation
Adaptation is a process that usually lasts about 10 days (but its length should always be adapted to the child’s needs!), and consists of several stages that can be labelled “The first meeting”, “Trust” and “Entrustment” .
The first meeting
At this stage, the child learns about the new environment (e.g. space, people, sounds, smells, habits, tastes), parents get to know the facility and its functioning, caregivers get to know the child and the parents. Here are some practical tips on how to implement this stage smoothly:
- Sharing information about the setting – written information for parents about how the facility works (opening hours, meal times, types of activities, rest arrangements, mission and vision of the facility and the child’s development).
- Individual meetings combined with parents’ visits to the facility – interview forms with open questions about the child’s habits, needs and favourite games are helpful.
- Conducting a workshop – meeting with a group of parents of new children just before the beginning of the year (getting to know each other, discussing potential concerns of parents, reminding parents of the rules on their’ presence in the institution).
- The first stays of children with their parents in the institution – in a small number of groups (if the group is numerous, within the adaptation period it may divided – some children can come with their parents in the morning, others at noon and others at teatime). In some institutions in Poland, there is a rule that there are no more than five new children per week– meaning that the adaptation is spread over several weeks.
- In the first days the children should not stay in a setting longer than a few hours (during which time the caregiver will get to know the child, listen to him/her, observe his/her favourite game, react to difficult situations and check how he/she reacts to attempts to include him/her in the rhythm of the group life).
Children and parents, building on positive initial experiences (the first phase), begin to feel safe in the facility. Children gain trust in their caregivers , are ready to play , receive help and, as a result, establish a safe relationship with them.
8 tips on supporting the relationship between the caregiver and the child:
- Give the child time to observe, create the conditions so that the child can join the activities on his/her own at any time (e.g. you can leave an empty chair at the table, an extra pillow on the carpet).
- Adjust the programme and space to the freedom of action and autonomy of the child – the possibility of independent eating, didactic aids, toys available (should not be too much), towels and tissues within a reach of children.
- Limit amount of visual stimuli and noise (these are also stressors!) – for example, spending as much time in the garden as possible.
- Provide attractive, little-known games and didactic aids, e.g. cake making, building a slide for cars, construction of a tower with large blocks, obstacle courses for children (tunnels, obstacles, rocking-toys), pouring water in the sensory corner (table or bowl with water on the terrace).
- Initiate contact: visually, at the child’s level, using body language. Then describe what the child is doing (“oh, I see you’re pouring beans into a big cup, maybe you want a spoon?”, “I see you’re building a tower, I’ve brought you more blocks”).
- In difficult situations – express understanding, label feelings (sadness, disappointment, anger, difficulty in waiting, etc.). Agree with parents that gradually the caregiver will be more active in helping the child and that the mother or father will just be there.
- Do not force a child to eat or drink. Meal time is a sensitive moment for many children, especially in their second year of life.
- On the first and second day, the parent is more active and accompanies the child in exploring the room, the toilet, the meal, etc. Then it is advisable to show the parent comfortable places to sit in the room, which will let the child understand: “I’m sitting here, I’m not going out if you want, you can play. I’ll be here”. Such information gives the child a sense of security, but also space and choice.
Entrustment involves separation from the closest parent(s). Only in this phase will the child be ready to stay in the institution without the presence of the parents – first for a short period of time, then for a longer period.
How can parents help their child get used to being in the crèche on their own? They can do the following:
- Schedule leaving the child for a short time (“I would like to go shopping right now and I will be back in 15 minutes. You will play with the children”).
- Tell the child about the changes: “Kasia, I have to go to work in ten minutes. I will kiss you and leave. I will come back after……” Don’t leave secretly!
- Introduce a farewell ritual, e.g. kissing on the ear, waving through the window, hugging a favorite mascot, singing a song.
- Not leave the child for a long time for the first few weeks.
- Instead of saying “Let Mommy go to work”, a specific message is needed: “Mommy goes to work and will be back in 4 hours”.
Educators can help parents who find parting with the child difficult, for example by sending a text message with information about how the child is playing. After all, giving a child to someone, even if trust already exists, is a very difficult situation.
We can conclude that the child has adapted when, among other things, he/she:
- eagerly enters the room, greets the caregiver ,
- knows where his personal belongings are (his/ her own cup, mascot),
- participates in games initiated by the caregiver and/or other children,
- looks at the caregiver and takes help from him/her, reaches for his/her favorite toys,
- parts with the parent without crying.
This post is based on 2 blog messages written by Monika Rościszewska-Woźniak:
- H.Rauch, U Ziegenhain, et al. (1996). Day-Care Experience an Infant-Mother Attachment, material presented at the 16 Biennial Meeting of ISSBD 1996 Quebec, Canada.
- L.Almert, M.R.Gunnar et al. (2004). Transition to Child Care: Associations with Infant-Mother Attachment, Infant Negative Emotion, and Cortisol Elevation, Child Development May-June 2004. Volume 75.