Nothing quite prepares you for that first goodbye at the child care center. It’s so hard to leave them--our littlest children, our babies, the ones we so badly want to hold on to as we return to work, the ones whose delicious smell, lovely coos, and charming first smiles draw us closer and closer.

As a teacher, a director and a builder of schools, I’ve stood by many doors of many classrooms across the city, watching families of very young children grapple with the same questions I had with each of my own three boys: Who will keep him safe and comfortable? Who will make sure he’s not hungry? How will I know he’s ok? I was a frightened new mom.

All of these questions and more tear at new parents as they prepare to leave their child at a caring center. It takes time and days of positive experiences--hearing wonderful stories, seeing photos from caretakers, and knowing that your child’s just fine. Slowly, we begin to accept that first goodbye and get on with our lives as parents from afar.

There are many ways that a center can make your first goodbye easier, and as you look around to make the best decision about care for your family, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Do I like and trust the staff? It is crucial that you like your director and/or teachers and you feel a sense of connection personally with those who will care or your child. If you are comfortable, your child is more likely to be comfortable. You’ll need to ask your teachers lots of questions so it is important that they have expertise and that you can turn to them as needed.
  2. Do I like the space? A lovely environment sets the stage for loving and learning. Is the space clean? Does it smell good? Are there beautiful things to explore? Is it safe here? If someone is taking good care of the space, they’re likely to take good care of your child.
  3. Is there extended time for goodbyes? When a center builds in time for transitioning through the goodbye phase it helps everyone tremendously. You should feel the caretaker is your partner in this process. The two of you will be reading baby’s signs to make the child as comfortable as possible, and to decide when it is time for the parent to leave or when a few more minutes together would be best.
  4. Does the caregiver do a home visit? Exceptionally good centers send their teachers for home visits before the child begins. This helps to create a deeper personal connection between family and school, as everyone begins to get to know each other. Hopefully, the first day of drop off will be less stressful because the teacher has visited you at home.
  5. Are there other parents in the same boat? The community of young parents provides an incredible support network for you and your baby. You will have a million questions, about the center, about whether this or that is normal, and you need friends you can turn to at any time. Being a new parent can be scary, and while your mother in law might have lots of opinions, friends have a more neutral stance.

Remember, babies are born all the time. While school usually starts for children in September, your March baby will be starting something new in June perhaps. Centers must welcome children all year round, and be prepared to offer the same emotional support to families no matter when they enter the program. Also, a child can transition well at first and then need support separating as the months or even years go on. Caregivers must be prepared to nurture the whole family as necessary throughout their time at the center.

As hard as it is to say that first goodbye, there are some amazing programs out there with incredibly loving teachers who will care for your baby as their own, and teach you many things about raising your precious child. Success comes in finding a center that is the right fit for you and your family, one where you leave knowing your child is well cared for, challenged, and loved by friends and teachers every day.