Six Ways to Maintain Attachment When Using Daycare

Libby Simon, MSW, discusses the importance of avoiding peer orientation for kids in daycare.

Practical advice for parents

The issue of how to care for children while pursuing career has been with us for many decades. We know what parents prefer: 76% of Canadians believe it is best for children under six to be at home with at least one parent. If parents cannot be home, they prefer options closest to the home environment, starting with relatives, then a neighbourhood home daycare, followed by other arrangements. The last choice for their children is centre-based daycare.1

Yet the same issue remains regardless of what form of care we must use, be it relatives, small neighbourhood daycares, a nanny, family members or centre-based care. How do we successfully pursue and maintain good attachment for small children? What does good attachment even mean? This article offers suggestions in response to these questions.


In Child Care Today: Getting It Right for Everyone, Penelope Leach, a British psychologist says that mothers are generally the first “attachment figures” because of biology, but not necessarily the only potential caregiver. "A mother does not have to be with the baby every moment to love her… Babies can form attachments to fathers (and other loving caregivers), that are not secondary to, but distinct from, attachments to mothers,” Leach explains.2

John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist and the father of attachment theory, along with Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, emphasized the significance of the first infant/mother bond in historic studies in Attachment and Loss3. He found the prerequisite to a successful learner lies within a safe, secure and stable home with an empathic and nurturing environment.

When we don't meet the attachment needs of children, adverse behaviours are the result. As a school social worker and parent educator for twenty years working with children from kindergarten to grade 12 and their families, I have seen many clever children who functioned poorly because of behavioural, emotional and psychological problems.

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld identifies what the order of priorities for parents should be: first pursue good attachment with children, then maturation (in the context of solid attachment), and only then, socialization.4 It is always the adult’s responsibility to establish and maintain a good relationship with the child as a first order priority, regardless of who cares for the child during the day.


When children depend on their peers for parental guidance and direction, the authors of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, Drs. Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld call this peer orientation. “The chief and most damaging of the competing attachments that undermine parenting authority and parental love is the increasing bonding of our children with their peers. [The] disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents now heading toward adulthood is rooted in the lost orientation of children toward the nurturing adults in their lives,” write Drs. Maté and Neufeld. The immature are raising the immature.5

Children, like the young of many other species, have an innate orienting instinct and take their bearings from adults. Children cannot endure an orientation void.6 “Orientation, the drive to get one’s bearings and become acquainted with one’s surroundings, is a fundamental human instinct and need. Disorientation is one of the least bearable of all psychological experiences. Attachment and orientation are inextricably intertwined,”7 Neufeld and Maté write.

The way parents currently use daycare illustrates how, unwittingly, we “court the competition” for adult attachment. Millions of children throughout the world today spend some, if not most of their waking hours in out-of-home care. Studies show children’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise at daycare, indicating increased stress levels, since normal cortisol levels peak in the morning and then decline.8 Other research links non-maternal care in the first year of life with increased aggression, reaching even to a child’s eighth birthday.9

This is indeed some of what Gordon Neufeld has witnessed. He says children are falling between the cracks, exhibiting negative behaviours like counterwill—the instinctive resistance we all have to being forced to do something.10 “The more they had been in day care, the more these children exhibited counterwill as indicated by arguing, sneakiness, talking back to staff, and failure to take direction. Their elevated frustration was indicated by temper tantrums, fighting, hitting, cruelty to others, and the destruction of their own things,” writes Neufeld.11 They also exhibited inappropriate behaviours like boasting, incessant talking and attention-seeking. “Viewed from the lens of attachment, the findings…could not be clearer in pointing to the risk of our young of becoming peer-oriented in our daycares and our preschools”12 (Italics are mine).

It appears to me that parenting has changed over the decades. Children seem more defiant, disrespectful and detached to the point that it has become the norm. For example, one highly verbal youngster I saw as a social worker presented with many such symptoms. This child was attending two different half-day kindergartens and being transported by the school bus daily, creating a chaotic day of “emotional overload.”13 This preschooler was dealing with overwhelming changes in environments, different adults and children from early morning until dinnertime, and then going to bed. During our “talks” he complained about how he feels about being away from home for so long, and “not seeing my mother.”

“Did you tell your mother how you feel?”

“She doesn’t care!” he blurted out.

“Why do you think she doesn’t care?”

“Because,” he said in helpless resignation, “nothing changes.”

In a meeting with the parents, I suggested reducing attendance to only one half-day kindergarten. This is more than he can handle at this stage of his development, I reported, but his father’s eye roll at his wife nixed any changes. As it happened, his mother lost her job a month later. She changed his schedule to attend only the morning half-day kindergarten, allowing for more time at home with her. Within three months, the symptoms subsided without medication or professional intervention.


Losing a job is hardly the ideal solution to attachment disorders in children. Rather, parents caring for children, grandparents, nannies and daycare workers all need to aspire to the same shared goal, which is encouraging a child’s attachment to loving and stable adult role models.

To develop and maintain attachments to alternate adult caregivers, Neufeld suggests re-creating the attachment village model from previous generations. Here are six practical tips toward building your own attachment village:

ONE As a first method to develop good parent-child attachment, Neufeld counsels parents to foster connections among family, friends, and other reliable and responsible adults. This extends the network of positive adults involved and caring about your child’s life. Cultivating social relations in familiar settings like neighbourhoods allows children to feel at home without actually being at home.14

TWO Create trust with the caregiver. In whatever form of child care you use, spend time with the caregiver, showing your child you trust the daycare provider. As the child sees how his or her parent has a good relationship with the caregiver, the child learns to trust the caregiver.

THREE Ensure the caregiver is mindful of attachment principles. The caregiver should purposefully invite the child into the space. Neufeld recounts from his own memory how his grade one teacher welcomed him, with tremendous effect. He calls it “collecting” our children, which is part of inviting them into relationship with you. “After my mother deposited me in the doorway of my first-grade class, and before I had a chance to be distracted by another child, this wonderful smiling woman came gliding across the room and engaged me in a most friendly way, greeting me by name, telling me how glad she was that I was in her class, and assuring me what a good year we were going to have. I am sure it took her very little time to collect me. After that, I was all hers and rather immune to other attachments. I didn't need them; I was already taken,” he describes.15

FOUR Understand that attachments to different adults don’t compete, they cooperate. It is important for adults and children alike to realize that increasing attachment for another adult does not need to mean decreasing attachment to a parent. The caregiver can say nice things about the parent, and the parent can likewise complement the caregiver. “Our job is to make sure the child is covered by a working attachment with an adult at all times and that we function as an attachment relay team. We need to make sure we have successfully passed the attachment baton before we let go.”16

FIVE Slow down morning routines so you do not rush small children out the door. Gordon Neufeld writes about how meaningful it was to wake up ten minutes earlier with his own children: “We designated two comfortable chairs in our den as warm-up chairs. Right after the boys woke up, my wife Joy and I put them on our laps, held them, played and joked with them until the eyes were engaged, the smiles were forthcoming, and the nods were working. After that, everything went much more smoothly. It was well worth the investment of getting up ten minutes earlier to start the day with this collecting ritual instead of going directly into high-gear parenting.”17

SIX Giving your child a locket or other memento with your picture on it, so s/he can look at it at will reminds a child of a parent’s love even when apart. There are other ways to nurture this connection, which might include little notes or a phone call during the day. The latter may not be possible for busy caregivers. However, ideals are important quite apart from what is feasible in the care systems care we have created. It also helps if parents can tell their children as much as possible about their work. It’s something we do with loved adults, and children can benefit from understanding (to whatever extent is realistic) of a parent’s work activities.


Our challenge, more than ever, is to hold on to our children, particularly when they are very small. Fortunately, parents have nature on their side because in the end, children want to be with them and want to look up to them. In a recent Ted Talk, Dr. Gordon Neufeld says that, “children learn more in their first four years of life informally than all their formal education put together.”18 It is in the context of nurturing relationships (attachments) that children realize their learning potential. Nurturing adult orientation and attachment to trustworthy, mature adults is far more important than most parents and caregivers realize. This importance increases when you aren’t able to achieve the child care you desire. The good news is we can all work toward better attachment and adult-oriented children, regardless of care situation.


Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services for several years prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a School Social Worker for 20 years. As a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada and the U.S. in a variety of periodicals, such as Canadian Living, Winnipeg Free Press and OISE.


Topics: Family, Daycare