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Transitions in childcare: a 360 degree view

As childcare professionals you’ll understand how important it is to support transitions into childcare for both child and parent, and of course that ongoing partnership with the families of the children you look after.

Many of you will be parents yourself.  Those first goodbyes are hard. That separation is tough. But as their childcarer you can make it easier.

Here Virginia Lumsden, a clinical psychologist working with children and their families, and a parent who’s been through it, tells us her story.

Journey of development

When a baby is growing inside the womb, she or he has an experience of feeling warm, comfortable and safe. 

From the moment the baby is born, it is the first of many experiences of separation and transition.  A child being able to enjoy spending time away from her or his primary caregiver/s is a key developmental milestone of infancy. 

However, it is also a stage in the developmental journey of being a parent.  This is something that was very thoughtfully highlighted in Jane Comeau’s recent blog about how she supports children and parents when they are new to her setting. 

Having taken a baby-led approach to raising our little boy, I faced a difficult situation when my maternity leave ended and the time came to return to work. 

Childcare doubts

For nearly a year, I had immersed myself in what felt like a completely different and wonderful world with my baby.

So, when I started the settling in process at our childminder’s it struck me that I was suddenly imposing my own agenda on my little boy.  And I started to have doubts.  What if he wasn’t ready for childcare at one year old?  Was it wrong to feel excited about returning to work?  What if we couldn’t manage the new routine?  There was no way of knowing other than to try it.

Easing the transition

Fortunately, we have a very thoughtful and supportive childminder; and together we planned asettling in period of several weeks.  This began with my little boy and I spending increasing amounts of time together at her house, to my little boy spending some time on his own at her house, with this time gradually increasing.  The elastic connecting us became gradually more and more able to stretch.

Separation and reunion

Initially, when my little boy cried as I went to leave, I found it difficult to be able to walk away.  However, I reminded myself that by leaving him I was communicating some important messages: that I trusted the person I was leaving him with; that I believed that he was able to cope with my absence; and that separation is a temporary state.

In other words, I felt that it was important to try not to hesitate or look upset, as I may leave him feeling doubtful about whether or not we were both going to be able to survive this separation.  I was teaching him that we could spend time apart and come together again, that separation and reunion is an integral part of life. 

Feeling settled

Of course, this was easier said than done and when I did leave him crying, it was reassuring to receive a text from our childminder with a picture of him looking settled – in fact, settled is an understatement. The first picture was of him with a wide open-mouthed grin as he and another little boy tickled the feet of an older boy!  It felt bittersweet – my baby was growing up. 

Positives for parents

Thus, even when the process is going well, it is important that parents take care of themselves.  It may be helpful to talk to friends who are going through a similar experience; to talk to friends with older children who can offer reassurance; and to talk to people who love your child (nearly) as much as you do.  Also, amidst racing around making the most of being baby-free and ticking things off a never-ending to do list, it is also valuable to try and take a moment to sit down with a cup of tea.

Feeling supported as a parent

We are now three months down the line and my little boy’s enjoyment of his time at our childminder’s has surpassed my expectations.  I have come to understand that it is important for him to have time at our childminders as well as time with me. 

Of course, all children and parents are different and the process will vary accordingly.  But when both children and parents are supported to make this transition, it can be rewarding for everyone involved.

As a clinical psychologist working with children and their families, I know that when children are able to use a secure attachment to a primary caregiver/s to form new attachments this opens up all sorts of opportunities – emotional, social, cognitive and physical – and the experience will be used as a valuable template for transitions in the future.

Thoughts to take away

  • Childminders and parents can work together to develop a settling in plan that suits the needs of the individual child and the parents. 
  • Separation is an important part of a child development and leads to independence.
  • Parents need to be supported to understand that this is developmental stage for them too; and that it is valuable to have a support network around to support them in their experience of the separation and transition.
  • The successful negotiation of this stage of development lays important foundations for future transitions.
  • What do you do to support children and parents during the settling in process?

About the author

Dr Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist working with children, young people and their families in the NHS and independent practice.  She has an MSc in Child Development from the Institute of Education and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University College London.  Virginia is registered with the Health & Care Professions Council and is a member of the British Psychological Society.

Virginia believes that a strong caregiver-child connection is the key to developing a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.  To this end, she is committed to supporting parents and other caregivers in their own self-care as she believes that this helps to ensure that these adults are emotionally available to build meaningful connections with children.

Virginia is a guest lecturer at City University London, she presents her work at conferences, and has had her research published in peer-reviewed journals.  When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family.

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