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Going back to work - planning your child's care

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At some stage after the birth of a child many mothers decide to return to work. If this is in the first months or years of your child's life there are things that you can do that make the change easier for yourself and for your baby or toddler.


There is more about what may happen when you do go back to work in the topic 'Going back to work - what to expect'

What babies need

Making sense of the world.

  • In the first 6 months of life, babies are getting used to a whole new world and learning to make sense of all the things that happen around them and to them.
  • To help them make sense of all this and to learn to sleep and feed and play, it works best if they don’t have too many people to know and learn about at once.
  • This means that they can learn about how to go to sleep or be fed or comforted in a way that makes sense to them, rather than have a lot of different messages that can be confusing for a beginner in the world.

Feeling safe.

  • They also need to learn to feel safe and secure with the people who care for them - this helps them to feel free to learn and explore their world.
  • To be safe and secure they need people to care for them who are warm and loving and respond to their cries and other signals for what they need.

Encouragement to try things.

  • Babies also need to be in places and with people that are interesting and encouraging as they begin to explore all the things around them - first with their eyes, then with mouths, hands and feet.

What kind of care for babies

Individualized personal care.

  • It works best for your baby to be cared for by people who have the time and willingness to respond sensitively and caringly to your baby's needs and cries for help and comforting.
  • Your baby loves and needs to be seen as an individual, with his own personality, and own special likes and dislikes, rather than just one of a group.
  • Some child care centres now use a system of primary caregivers, where one staff member is primarily responsible for responding to your child. This is best for your baby, but there also needs to be another carer that your baby gets to know for times when the primary carer is not there.

Small numbers of carers.

  • One, or just a few people, caring for your baby in a fairly similar way means the baby is not confused by differences.
  • It is great for baby if all people caring for her can be introduced to the routines you use at home, so she can move between carers without having to relearn everything from the beginning.

Remember that everything is so new to her - she is trying to make it into patterns she can understand.

What crawlers need

A loving and stable base from which to test out the world.

  • After your baby gets to around 6 months of age he will have learned that there are loving people who care for him and he will be starting to use them as a safe base to explore the world on his own.

A safe haven to return to.

  • Crawlers are still babies though and they need a safe ‘someone’ to be near them before they can feel brave enough to explore and learn about the world in case something scary happens 'out there'.
  • Babies at this age will venture a little way from their safe person, find out about how something looks or tastes or feels and then need to check back in to make sure their safe person is still there, before venturing out again.

Relationships with people who are interested in the crawler's exciting new discoveries.

  • If the crawler is being watched over by someone who will take delight in each new discovery she makes, she will feel wonderful and successful and go on to learn some more.

Some predictability.

  • Babies of this age feel more settled and secure if there are some routines and predictability in their lives.

What kind of care for crawlers

The things mentioned above are important for your crawling baby too. He is more aware of the difference between people and so needs to get to know them before the feelings of safety and security can develop.

As well crawlers need:

A safe, crawler-friendly environment.

  • If family are to care for your baby you may need to remind them to put precious objects out of the way, and all 'poisons' locked out of reach. This could save later problems.
  • If you are starting care of your baby by someone else around this time, be aware there is this extra developmental factor to take into account.

Separation anxiety.

There is another thing to consider if you are looking for care for your baby starting around 8 months or so.

At around 8 to 12 months babies become aware that things exist even when they cannot see them – it's called object permanence, but they do not have a good concept of time yet.

  • This means that they can realize you exist even when you are not visible, but they will not be sure how long you might stay away.
  • This can bring on a feeling of insecurity and anxiety when you leave them.
  • Babies need experience and repetition to learn that you will come back to them.
  • The best way to handle this is to be responsive and return as quickly as you can. This is reassuring and babies learn there is no need to be anxious.
  • Then they can become more confident about being with other people.
  • It is not so good if babies are left and not responded to at these times, this will mean their anxiety level rises and their clinginess could get worse.
  • If this is a problem, you could try some practice by:
    • playing come and go games like hidey and peep-a-bo
    • calling out to her from other places a few times before you come back physically.

When you practise like this, you can stop before your baby gets distressed and this will help her to develop trust and feel safe when you are not there.

What toddlers need

A chance to try to do things themselves.

  • Toddlers are starting to explore who they are and to express themselves. They may be starting to show they want to try to do things more on their own.
  • They do best in an environment which understands their need to test out how things work, but provides overall safety.
  • However, if surprised or tired they will still need to be comforted and use the caring person to return to.
  • So they also need one or a few people with whom they feel very comfortable and close.

Lots of new things to explore as they master old ones.

  • Life is exciting for a toddler as there are so many interesting things around.
  • A different care environment can be stimulating and exciting if it provides new opportunities once the old ones have been mastered.
  • Their attention span is also still short and they need lots of changes of activity.

Exposure to other toddlers and children to begin to learn social skills and develop language.

  • They are starting to learn how to play with others.
  • They usually play near others rather than with them at first.
  • Toddlers do well if carers can show them how to take turns and talk about what is happening between children and ease the introductions or stresses.
  • However toddlers are not really ready to share and take turns and need close adult supervision and help if they are around other toddlers, otherwise the situation can quickly become a battle.

What kind of care for toddlers

Personal care by one or a few people is best for your toddler too. But they are a little more adventurous and so exploring becomes even more of a focus. It's important to look for:

A group size that is right for your child.

  • It can be good for toddlers to have others around them to learn from what others do, but too many people could overwhelm them.
  • Children’s personality and temperament vary and will affect how your child copes with numbers of other people.
  • Watch how your child is coping and also how much adult support there is if your toddler is in group care.

A care environment that is safe and not too large.

  • In a child-care centre the child needs to be in a space that is big enough but not so spacious there do not appear to be boundaries - he needs to have some little corners where he can retreat to.
  • If he is being cared for in someone else's home, make sure that it is toddler proof. Toddlers are great explorers. (See our topic Home safety)

Relationships with people who know how to encourage learning and language

  • This is the age where such learning happens so fast. It is helped when people around the child can encourage and delight in what the toddler has learned.
  • Listening respectfully and with interest to toddlers’ conversation helps them develop language so they need carers with time for this.

Relationships with people who know how to encourage social skills.

  • If toddlers are in group care they need carers who can
    • arrange interactions between children,
    • explain the behaviour of one child to another (Jake did not realize you still wanted that toy),
    • protect them from aggression
    •  encourage learning to share and take turns.
  • This helps children understand where they fit in the group and so feel good about being there.

Making the transition

The transition to a new carer is a really important thing in both how your baby feels about the new arrangements and also how you feel yourself.

Consider your child care options well ahead of time.

  • Think about what kind of care you might want for your baby or toddler.
  • Go and visit different kinds of care and get the feel of the place and people and how they might suit you and your baby.
  • If it is a relative or nanny or friend, think about how long they will be able to care for your child.
  • If it is a child care centre there may be waiting list and application forms to be completed.
  • Ask your friends for recommendations. (See our topic Choosing child care)

Choose the kind of care your baby needs.

  • What kind of personality and temperament does he have?
    • If he is sensitive and gentle, then - a one to one or small intimate care situation will be best.
    • If she is flexible and bold, then a larger group provides opportunities for social interaction and learning - especially for older toddlers who are getting towards three.
  • Plan to be involved in your child’s care 
    • Have a good long discussion with your child’s carer before you start so they know your child’s likes and dislikes.
    • Make a relationship with the carer that allows you to discuss concerns and successes.
  • Make as many visits as you can to the new person and the care environment to gradually introduce your baby to it.
    • You can stay with him the first couple of times, then leave for increasingly longer periods.
    • Even if he is sad, make sure you let your baby know each time you are leaving so he can trust you not to sneak out on him.
  • Leave your baby with others in the family before you go back to work so he can get to feel ok about being away from you.
  • If possible start the care gradually ahead of the time you start work so you can both get used to it before you are dealing with the job as well.
  • For babies make sure that the care is as similar as possible to what you do, so it is not too confusing to them.
    • Let the carer know what your baby likes to eat, how he likes to be held, the words you say when you comfort him, the little songs he hears, and send him with a rug or something that he has at home and that has your smell on it.
  • For toddlers and older children you can begin to talk about the change that will happen, even act it out in play.
    • Emphasise that at the end of the time apart you will be back together and back in the familiar and secure home.
  • Introduce or continue a comfort object (a blanket, a stuffed toy, something of yours) that the child connects to home and you.
    • The child can take this object with him wherever he goes (make sure that the carer will let him have it when you are not there).
  • Develop rituals (special things to do) for the morning when you part and the evenings when you get back together.
    • See if you can spend 10 to 15 minutes together when you reunite to reconnect and cuddle.
  • Plan to simplify your life in other areas for the first few months while you are coping with this transition.
  • Enlist the support of family and friends to help with the transition.


Are you going to continue breastfeeding?

Have a look at the topic 'Breastfeeding - balancing breastfeeding and work'.


South Australia

  • Parent Helpline   
    1300 364 100 (South Australia only)
  • Department of Education and Child Development.
    In South Australia, phone: 8226 1000 or 1800 088 158 
  • Australian Breastfeeding Association
    Local branch, Norwood South Australia; 1800 686 268
  • Child Care Access Hotline (National).
    Freecall 1800 670 305, Monday to Friday, 9am - 6pm; Saturday, 9am to 5pm (Eastern Standard Time).
    Information about services across Australia, and types of care available



Howes, Carollee. (1998) 'Continuity of Care: the importance of infant, toddler and caregiver relationships'. Zero to Three Bulletin, June-July.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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