Navigating Mother’s Day Out

Whether you’ve been a stay-at-home mom or you’ve been back to work with help from family members, sitters, or a regular nanny, reading this probably means that the time has come for you to send your little to Mother’s Day Out (or Parent’s Day Out). Whatever your reasons—whether you want some socialization time for your son or daughter, extra time to stay on top of cleaning your home without a toddler underfoot, just a little time for yourself, or all of the above—this is a big, brave step for you both and I’m proud of you. Any and all reasons are valid, and though it may not always be easy, this is a wonderful thing.

My son starts PDO soon, and it’s been an interesting (read, hotly-anticipated but also stressful and anxious) time preparing for him to begin. Truthfully, PDO feels like a secret club that is hard to infiltrate as a newcomer. If this is your second or third+ kid, then I’m sure you’ve got this down. But if you’re a first-time mom like me, you probably have a myriad of questions and no small amount of anxiety about your little one’s first day.

I am by no means an expert—just a mom feeling her way forward—but I wanted to share some of the information I’ve learned, my key preparations, and valuable advice I’ve received from seasoned moms along the way. So whether you’re in the same boat or in the throes of the baby stage and hitting “save for later,” MDO Mama, read on!

1. A is for Administration

Wow, there’s a lot of paperwork to complete when your little one starts MDO/PDO! From the application form onwards, prepare to stay on top of the administration side of things. The school will need an up-to-date list of your contact information, emergency contacts, family members who are permitted to pick up your little at the end of the day, and information about your child’s doctor, any medical needs, and your preferred hospital for treatment. You’ll also need to provide them with an up-to-date vaccination record at the start of the year.

We had to pay half of the first month’s (that is, September) tuition in July, and although this isn’t universal, you’ll want to make sure you stay on top of any and all correspondence you get requesting information and payment. It makes sense that MDO programs need advance payment because, unlike many schools, they provide the supplies needed for your little one to participate in arts, crafts, play, and more.

2. Set Up A Recurring Payment

If you keep reading, you’ll find out that the first rule of PDO is that it can be really difficult to get a spot. There will be a waiting list (as long as your arm) of parents wishing for a spot for their child, so stay on top of the payment schedule. You’ll most likely pay tuition monthly (even if weekly or daily rates are provided on the MDO website) through an online portal, and it’s often easier for everyone involved to simply store your card on file and get charged at the beginning of each month.

3. Ready, Set, Label

Label all of your child’s gear, from clothes and shoes to bags, lunchboxes, water bottles, and outerwear. There are many online businesses providing a variety of easily customizable labels for decent prices, and they are multi-use. Follow the included instructions and you’ll often be able to use the same (albeit smaller size) labels on clothing and fabric, as well as plastic boxes, bottles, and anything else your child will be taking to MDO (even if it stays in their bag).

4. Preparation is Key

Though different programs will have different demands, there are some pretty universal needs and requirements for toddlers attending a PDO program. Getting familiar with what you need, buying necessary supplies, and keeping the basics on hand will make the transition from stay-at-home tot to PDO pro seamless.

If your child is still in diapers (Mine is. Please, please don’t ever think that your child is behind for following their lead on potty training, whatever online forums tell you about early “elimination communication.”) you’ll need to include a Ziploc bag containing enough diapers and wipes for the time they are there—plus extras. This is really important, because if your child is like mine they may have a poor reaction to borrowed diapers/wipes that aren’t their usual brand. Accidents happen, and a good stash is better than “just enough.” Label the Ziploc bag with your child’s name.

If your child is attending a morning-only program (typically finishing at noon) they will not need a nap mat. If it’s a full day (typically finishing at 2:00–2:30 p.m.) they may. Providing the nap mat is by no means a guarantee that your child will nap on it, but we can hope! You’ll find a dazzling array of adorable and affordable nap mats in kids’ boutiques, on Amazon, and even at your local H-E-B. While I highly doubt that my son, whom I have a hard time getting to take a nap in absolutely perfect conditions, will nap at MDO, I think we’ll also be able to use the nap mat on trips. Label your nap mat, too!

Find a decent backpack for your child, as in addition to the Ziploc of diapers and wipes, you should provide another bag containing at least one extra set of clean clothing (I’m going with two). As mentioned above, accidents happen, and it’s better to be over-prepared. Chances are your MDO program will ask you to provide extra clothing in case of pee, paint, poop, food, and anything else your toddler might get covered in during their time there. That clothing baggy? Label it up, Mama!

5. Think Play

While we’re on the subject of clothing, you might want to keep those smocked dresses, Jon-Jons, bubbles, and collared shirts for non-PDO days. You want your child to be both comfortable and easily able to join in, so play clothing is by far the most practical option.

While everyone wants their little one to look picture-perfect on the first day (I get this, and mine will, because I *cannot* help myself.), pull-on pants, leggings, and basic T-shirts are the perfect “uniform” for your little one as they explore, play, craft, snack, and generally enjoy life at MDO.

By the same token, many programs will include an element of outdoor play. I think closed-toe shoes (especially sneakers, tennis shoes, etc.) are by far the best option. They can be worn with socks, are easily adjustable (usually Velcro-fastening) to help busy staff members, and are much safer and sturdier than sandals.

6. Lunchbox Heroes

If picky eating is your day-to-day woe, chances are you’re worried that your child will subsist on air during their days at PDO. That may happen. But, kids have been known to eat more (and maybe even try new things) under the gentle encouragement of staff members and their fellow classmates.

In packing a lunch for a toddler, try to avoid sending anything that requires assistance to eat beyond simply removing the lid of the box. You can’t assume that there will be refrigeration for lunch boxes, so pack anything that needs to stay cold with an ice pack. I’ve gone for a combination approach in buying my son’s lunch kit—a lunch bag that is insulated, a cool pack underneath, and a multi-compartment, leak-proof bento box on top. The box can simply be pulled out and serves as a tray.

Though you will want to provide variety (just as you would at home) you do also want to play favorites and include a couple of items you know your toddler will actually eat. A hungry toddler is a hangry toddler, and no one wants to deal with that kind of energy at pick-up time! You should also ensure that things like grapes, blueberries, carrots, etc., are cut appropriately and safely for your little one’s age and stage.

Many PDO programs, like schools, will require the food you send (both snack and lunch) to be nut-free. Be sure to check with your school and follow their food guidelines. There are many easy, pre-prepared snacks and options available that are labeled nut-free (our favorite are the Made Good brand) and are perfect additions to your little one’s box or bag.

Finally, look on Pinterest for hints and tips on packing toddler lunches. Things like mini quiches and sweet and savory muffins are quick and easy to bake and work well in this setting. Noodles in olive oil (with or without cheese), wraps, and roll-ups all make good alternatives to sandwiches. Try to pack protein and fat sources as well as carbs (the standard toddler diet), as they will keep your little one going during their time at PDO.

7. Follow Along

Stay engaged with the activities and events that are happening at your child’s PDO program, whether via newsletter, email, or social media. Facebook groups are a popular way of sharing information for parents, and you’ll find announcements about pajama days, holiday events, topics, and unforeseen closures in one place.

8. Sign Up Early

If your little one is already enrolled in a PDO, this isn’t as relevant, but if like me you’re shocked at just how hard it was to get a spot in a program you like, you’ll know that signing up early (and staying on top of re-enrollment) are all part of the secret club known as MDO. While many programs offer re-enrollment for existing families before general enrollment, this isn’t always the case, so ask early and be ready if this is something you’re interested in.

If you want a place for your child after the year has started, join the waitlist and stay in contact with the coordinator. You may get lucky! But you’ll also hear when the open enrollment starts for the following year. I was surprised to find out how in-demand good PDO programs are in San Antonio.

9. Meet the Teacher

A meet-the-teacher event will be scheduled several days before your child starts MDO, and you should attend. You’ll be able to meet the caregivers and ask questions. For those of us who have had our toddlers at home until their first day at PDO, there is no small amount of anxiety surrounding leaving them in someone else’s care. Being able to match a face with a name and ask questions like, “If I want to call and check in, is that OK? Who will I speak to?” is really important.

You’ll also be able to see where your child will put their things (like their backpack) and learn about any additional items you may be expected to provide.

Finally, your little one will meet their teacher, get acquainted with the space, and see their classmates for the first time. This is a huge deal for them, too, so stay close by for emotional support.

10. Make Plans (But Not For Day One)

I’m both very fortunate and unfortunate that my husband is self-employed, and we’ve made a commitment to spend time together or grab lunch weekly while our son is at PDO. He has created a list of lunch spots in close proximity to our son’s PDO so we can enjoy a leisurely meal before picking up our son together, which I really appreciate! Thinking of ways to spend that time—whether it’s working on your marriage, getting back to the gym or an exercise class, or engaging in some much-needed self-care appointments—is a great way to think of MDO as an important opportunity for both you and your child. As stay-at-home parents, we often feel guilty that we cannot possibly do or be everything for our children. Making the decision for them to spend time outside of the home can be really hard and lead to anxieties that we are being selfish for needing time to ourselves.

So I’m looking forward to the things I’ll do—both on my own and with my husband—on the two days a week that our son attends PDO. However, I won’t be making any plans for that first day because I’ll be a ball of anxiety. Going home and mindlessly watching TV, taking a nap, and counting down the minutes ’til pick up are all valid “Mom things” on Day One!

If your little one is starting MDO soon, know that I’m right here with you, Mama. We’ve got this! I hope these tips and tricks will help you as they’ve helped me, and I hope you’ll share your own tips and tricks with me in the comments below or on a social media post.

Natalie is a proud Brit, but moved to Texas at the end of 2017 to be with her husband, a native San Antonian. Their son was born in late October 2020, so her entire experience of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum has been under the cloud of Covid-19. She spent the frivolous years of her early 20s pursuing a PhD in Renaissance history, living in Venice, Italy, and teaching students. She pivoted into editing when she moved to the US, but currently has her academic pursuits on hold while she focuses on her son. Despite being in San Antonio for a few years now, she still considers herself a newbie. She loves to find out more about the history and culture of the city, explore new places, and find local businesses to support. A fastidious researcher and lover of lists, she’s always excited to share her finds and experiences with others. Favorite Restaurant: Dough Favorite Landmark: World’s Largest Cowboy Boots Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Riverwalk Christmas Lights