Sometimes we hear of people describing childcare as ‘leaving a baby with strangers.’ This always makes me sad. By the time a baby is spending a full day in the setting, ideally, the relationship between the baby, the educator and the parent should be well past being strangers.
The process of settling in, in my view, is as much about parents and educators getting to know each other as it is about the baby settling in. Of course, forms asking parents to describe a baby’s preferences and daily routine can be very useful and important to have recorded, but I think nothing beats the parent(s)/ guardian sitting on the floor with the baby and educator chatting, modelling preferred ways of being, comforting and tuning in. In these moments you are sowing those vital seeds of connection that begin to build relationships. That three-way linking is really important, and we all know that relationships need trust to thrive. The foundations of that trust is built in those early days: the parents come to realise that they can trust the educator to love their child, to want what’s best for them; as an educator, you get to know what these parents expect and want for their child; and for the precious baby. It’s win/win… these people love me, they like each other, I’ll be fine here.
Of course, this has to be planned for. In these first days and weeks it is important that:
There are only one or two babies settling in at one time, and as much as possible, the times they are present in the baby room are staggered. This helps keep the environment calm, peaceful and centred on the family getting familiar with the setting and the baby room and the people there.
It’s important to have a key-person approach in place and explain this to the parents, so they know who their baby’s key person is. In some settings a key-person is described as a family worker, as the role is as much about being with the parents and not just working with the baby. Care needs to be taken, in assigning a key-person, that the educator assigned to a family is present for the periods of time the family is settling in.
Encourage the parents to bring a transitional object, something from home to ease the transition. This can be a toy, a blanket, even a suitable bracelet or scarf belonging to one parent. This object travels from home to setting and back and gives a sense of security and continuity to the baby.
The process takes more that a day or a few hours here and there. Some settings take up to two weeks and while this may not always be doable, the settling in period should be as long as possible, I suggest at least a week. During this time the parents stay in the room, sitting on the floor or in comfortable seating, playing with the baby and educators, chatting and getting to know each other, for an hour or so. Then the parent tells the baby they are popping out for a little while but will be back. If possible, there should be a comfortable room where the parent can go for a coffee for a short while and then pop back to the room. This period can be lengthened and extended to the parent leaving the setting for a short while, as the baby feels more comfortable.
If the baby gets upset and doesn’t settle quickly, call the parents back. The baby should not be allowed to get distressed. This adds to the stress and diminishes trust. Gradually build up the time the baby spends in the setting and remind parents that it is important they spend time in the room with the baby too, maybe at departure time. This applies to others collecting the baby too. It was lovely to see a grandad spending up to 30 minutes picking up his baby grandson one day in a setting I was visiting.
Building relationships with the other babies in the room is also important. And remember to introduce the new parents to other parents who may happen to be around. Make sure you have all their contact details. Make sure emergency numbers have not changed from enrolment.
Minimise transitions during the day. While a predictable routine gives a sense of security, this should not be too tied to specific times and must be baby-led. When a baby needs a sleep, put him/her in their cot and let them sleep. When the baby is hungry, that’s the time for a feed. The only transitions in the day should be arrival, play, feeding, nappy changing, sleep and home.
Sometimes, the time a baby spends in the baby room can be short. If a baby is 9 or 10 months old when they start in a setting and they move to a wobbler room at 12 months, it can be very unsettling for both the baby and their parents. Try to avoid this change so soon after a baby starts attending. If it really is unavoidable, then have the key-person make the move with the baby. This may mean a group of babies moving together, so the key-person has all their group together.
We know that love shapes brains. Aistear’s theme well-being says, ‘In partnership with adults, children will make strong attachments and develop warm and supportive relationships with family, peers and adults in out-of-home settings and in their community’. Having a strong, extended settling in period for babies and families is key to this goal.
Máire Corbett works in the Communication and Development directorate of Early Childhood Ireland. Her background is Montessori teaching and she has an MA in Integrated Provision for Children and Families, from the University of Leicester. She is passionate about supporting ELC practitioners to achieve the best outcomes for children.