It’s the question that can overwhelm a new parent with fear and guilt. Depending on who you speak to the ideal age for starting a baby in daycare can be anything from as soon as you can get a spot, to never.
I have two sons who were both in childcare. It was easier the second time because I knew what I was getting in to. By the time I’d been through the experience once, no one could talk me into the fear I felt the first time around after helpful parents shared daycare horror stories with me. The thing about daycare though is it would be rare to find a parent whose children were in daycare when they didn’t need to be, given the cost. So it doesn’t really help anyone to hear about what went wrong unless it’s a direct warning about a specific centre.
Through desire and necessity, I was always going to return to work when my first born child was six months old. At the time I was an editor at Australian Consolidated Press and I assumed I would be able to book my baby into the daycare centre that was literally across the road in Hyde Park. I had the romantic notion of driving into the ACP carpark, emerging at street-level with my happy baby on my hip who would willingly fall into the arms of an early childhood teacher and play all day surrounded by trees. I could pop back at lunchtime for a cuddle and I imagined that pick-up would also be relatively hassle-free as there was little more than traffic lights preventing me from reaching the centre before closing time.
With absolutely no understanding of the urgent requirement to put your child’s name on every list imagineable from the week of conception, I was shocked to discover I couldn’t get a daycare spot for my baby anywhere in the city. There was a two-year waiting list for my desired centre in the park.
Just as I started to panic my dad announced that he would be taking early retirement to coincide with my return to work. He was against his first grandchild going into a daycare centre to be cared for by strangers before he could speak – the rationale being that if there were any ‘issues’ he would be able to tell us. So even if I had successfully landed a place for my son at the centre near my office, dad would have been resistant to me leaving him there. It certainly solved a huge immediate problem for me and removed the fear and guilt too.
I realise that I was extremely lucky to have a parent who could and would do that for me. Dad moved in with us for three days each week while my mum continued working full-time. My parents-in-law cared for my son one day each week and my husband was there for the fifth day as he worked Saturdays instead. Having in-home care took the pressure off needing to be anywhere at a specific time as I resumed my career full-time.
My son attended daycare two days a week, from the age of two, until he started school. It was extremely tough at drop-off as he found the separation difficult for a very long time. He was also one of the first children at the centre on those days and one of the last to be picked up in the evening. But he seemed really happy after his daycare days, albeit exhausted, and the experience was positive for his socialisation as an only child.
We were fortunate to be able to repeat the experience with our second child because both sets of grandparents were keen to continue contributing to the care. As a result our sons have wonderful relationships with them.
I am not sure there is an ideal time to start a baby in daycare, other than suggesting it should be when you need it to be. Every situation is different. Everyone has a different belief system and financial need. There are libraries of studies published that offer conflicting information on this subject. The most important advice I can offer first-time mums looking to return to work is to ignore the guilt, block out the people offering you helpful words of fear and do what you need to do for you.
At what age did you start your baby in childcare? Did that work for you?