Drop Off Drama: Separation Anxiety and Child Care

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Photo by Jody Roethele

My youngest son is 6 months old. Dropping him off in the morning just recently started to feel a little better. I now know his caregivers pretty well. We have a fairly solid morning routine. I was starting to get my confidence back each morning.

Last week, though, it all changed. I go to the child care center to feed my son on my lunch break every day. As I was handing him to one of his caregivers so I could leave, he lunged toward me and started crying. It was not his normal cry. It was a terribly sad, hysterical cry. I reached for him and held him close. He stopped crying and smiled at me.

Thoughts raced through my mind quickly as I tried to grasp what was happening. I had not thought about the separation anxiety phase since my older son was a baby. He is 4 now and I have to remind him to give me a hug and kiss goodbye as he runs off to play with friends when I drop him off in his classroom. Most days, he asks to stay longer when I pick him up. I had not yet prepared myself for mornings where my baby reaches for me and screams as I walk out the door, trying to hold back tears.

sad unhappy crying little girl

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development that begins when babies gain object permanence – the understanding that people and things exist even when you cannot see them. This begins as early as 6 months and usually ends by 18 months or so. Some parents may think that their baby is trying to manipulate them, but that is not the case. My son cried because he genuinely needed me, not because he thought it would be a good way to keep me from walking out the door. He smiled when I held him because he loves me and was happy to be near me, not because he had gotten his way.

How can a parent help her infant or toddler deal with separation anxiety in child care settings?

  • Make sure your child is left with someone he/she is comfortable with. If you must leave your child with a new caregiver, spend time with that person beforehand, so your child can become familiar with them.
  • Stay upbeat and try your best not to get upset in front of your child. A quick, cheerful “goodbye” will be much better in the long run than having your child see you crying as you leave.
  • Do not go back in once you go out until you are ready to take your child with you. It is tempting to go back in for one more goodbye but that can be confusing and make it more difficult for the caregiver to calm your child.Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.04.00 AM
  • Most importantly, do not sneak out without saying goodbye. I have talked to child care providers who encourage parents to do this but this does not help and can sometimes make drop off worse in the future.
  • Share your concerns with your caregiver. It is helpful with separation anxiety, as with all child care related concerns, to communicate and be on the same page as your child’s caregiver.
  • Talk with your child about what is happening and remind him or her that you will be back. One way to prepare your child for your absence is through stories and books. Twigtale offers a book called, Mama Always Comes Back! that can be personalized with your child’s name and pictures.

This is a heartbreaking phase for parents, but remember that it is normal and will not last forever. When your child is upset when you leave, you can be confident that he or she truly loves you and enjoys being around you.

2 thoughts on “Drop Off Drama: Separation Anxiety and Child Care

  1. I have dealt with separation anxiety over the years, and it’s always a heartbreaker for working moms. Thanks so much for sharing your tips and the “Mama Always Comes Back” book. We also like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighorhood,” which has an episode that shares the message “Grownups Come Back.” My son says it gleefully every time I come home from work 🙂

  2. Thank you Jillian! I am going through this with my youngest (12 mths) and it’s a good reminder that I’m not alone, and it will pass!

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