How to get the most out of childcare

Whether you’re heading back to work after maternity leave or a stay-at-home mom making a comeback, leaving your little one in someone else’s care can be daunting. Here’s how you can make things easier for both of you.

Choose the location carefully

Babies: If your baby’s going into daycare, it’s probably better to choose somewhere close to work rather than home, particularly if you work on the other side of town, because if your baby is sick, for example, you want to able to get to her quickly.

Toddlers and older children: Here you need to consider the school you ultimately want your child to attend, and then work backwards from there, says educational psychologist, Tshepiso Matentjie. Ideally, you should aim to live within the feeder area for the primary school you have your eye on. “If you live outside of that area, you’re going to find it hard to get a place at the school,” she points out.

Tshepiso adds that most good schools now offer a preschool programme from Grade 000, which ensures that your child has a place at the school, and that she will be on the right track as far as early childhood development (ECD) is concerned. This means that your child is less likely to have issues with school readiness when formal schooling starts.

“ECD really starts when your child is two years old,” Tshepiso comments, “whereas most parents are only thinking about education at age five or six. But you need them in a place where they’re being stimulated, where they can work on things like fine motor co-ordination, gross motor skills, speech, colour, the difference between big and small, etc. All of these things prepare them for formal schooling. Therefore it’s important to find childcare that provides a foundation for their later learning. Age four is too late!

“And if the school you want them to attend doesn’t have a preschool, then look for good preschools nearby that feed into that school. Otherwise your child will start her education at a disadvantage.”

Consider your home language

A very important consideration in South Africa is language. “Often, parents choose a school or preschool because of the quality of the education it delivers, but they forget that they’re making a choice in terms of language as well. If your second language is English, you could be creating a problem, so you may need to switch to English full-time at home to support your child in their studies later on.”

Quality control

The very best way to choose a childcare centre is via word-of-mouth. Talk to your friends and family and visit a few schools before you decide. Go with your gut – if something bothers you, walk away and find another place, even if you can’t identify what it is that has disturbed you.

You also need to ensure that the childcare facility you’ve chosen is reputable and safe. Make sure they have up-to-date first aid training, and that the staff are suitably qualified to teach in a preschool, for example. And even if you’re just leaving your baby or child at home with a domestic worker, ensure that they get proper first aid training – perhaps you could do it together.

If the facility offers meals, ensure they are nutritious and that there is supervision to ensure that your child does eat. Similarly, at home, ensure that you give your domestic worker clear instructions on suitable meals, as well as meal and snack times. A child with low blood sugar is not a happy child.

Get yourself ready

It’s normal and natural to be a little anxious about leaving your child with someone else, especially if you’ve been at home with them, but if you are experiencing severe anxiety, then you may need some additional support, says Tshepiso. “Most mothers who have severe separation anxiety have had bad experiences with nannies, or there’s something in their home environment that’s making them feel insecure,” she says.

“What they need is more support – counselling perhaps, and a strengthening of their support system. What they don’t need is being judged by family and friends, because negative feedback makes them more anxious.”

Get your child ready

You do need to prepare your child for the changes that are coming. “Start getting her used to daycare before you go back to work,” Tshepiso counsels. “That gives both of you time to get used to it.” And the best way to do things is in baby steps. Leave your child or baby for short periods first, and then lengthen their stay gradually as they get used to the new routine.

There are other small things you can do: read stories together about going to playschool, when you’re both relaxed. Take your child to visit before she has to stay there without you, and let her explore.

Also, ensure that if you’re talking about daycare or nursery school and your little one is in earshot, that you are positive – especially if you are anxious about it. And remember that children often appear to be focussed on a game and are playing happily, but they’re listening to every word. So be super careful – you don’t want to pass on your anxiety to her.

Domestic workers

If you’re leaving your baby or toddler at home with a domestic worker, ensure that your helper understands that childcare comes first, and housework second, says Tshepiso: “It’s no good having a spotless house and a hungry child who spends all day watching TV.

“Also, when you’re hiring a domestic worker or nanny, make sure you get someone with a decent level of education, or they could do more harm than good. And you want someone who enjoys being with children, is at ease with them, and is able to handle the frustrations that children often present.”

Ditch the guilt

Finally, many mothers still feel guilty about leaving their babies and children in the care of others, but if you’ve chosen a good facility, and you’ve done your homework, there’s really no good reason to feel guilty.

There’s plenty of research to show that children gain both social and cognitive skills at daycare and preschool. In fact, they get possibly more stimulation than they would if they were home with you. And they’re not going to lose their attachment to you, either, so you really don’t need to worry.

There are very real benefits to going to a playschool or preschool, particularly in terms of socialising, learning independence and confidence, and a host of new and exciting activities and play opportunities, all of which contribute to their early development.

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