Helping Your Toddler with Separation Anxiety

Dreading leaving your toddler with the babysitter or at daycare and want to prepare him? Here's your 12-Step Program.

Photo: Hooi See

Virtually every parent who has left a toddler with a caregiver has experienced the crumpled face, the arms velcro-locked around your knees, the wail that rips through your heart.

It's the normal response of a securely attached toddler who protests what she perceives as a life-threatening separation from her mother. Your toddler will learn, over time, that you do return when you leave, but she is not yet capable of understanding this fully.

Toddlers are designed to spend their time with humans to whom they're attached: parents, older siblings and cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. It's hard for them to have their needs adequately met by a caregiver who is trying to take care of other children. Research shows that toddlers who are in childcare all day end up with high levels of stress hormones by the afternoon, compared to toddlers who spend the afternoons at home. There is some evidence that in high quality day care situations, where the child has an opportunity to securely attach with the carer, the stress on the child is lessened, and the cortisol level more closely resembles the normal levels of a child at home. That is why it is so important that children in daycare centers are able to form strong attachments with their carers, where by necessity they have to relate to many different carers. 

What if you have no choice except to have your toddler spend time in childcare? I believe the best arrangement if you can swing it, is for your toddler to spend at least half of her time with a parent or other dedicated “permanent” person, who can tend mostly to her needs, so she doesn't spend fulltime in childcare. (By definition, caregivers are not a permanent part of your child's life, and the turnover of daycare workers is constant.) It’s true that it’s good for your toddler to interact with other kids, but she can do that in a playgroup situation, with you there. If your toddler will be in daycare, see if you can arrange it in the morning rather than all day, with you or a sitter picking him up so he has the afternoon at home.

What if your child is starting childcare? Choose one where you see the caregivers interacting warmly with the children; and where the children are clearly happy to be dropped off in the morning. Walk away from academic curriculums; instead look for a place that emphasizes emotional and social development.

Once you’re confident about the caregiver or daycare center, focus on helping your toddler get through this difficult stage and have a good group experience. Here’s a twelve step program to smooth the process.

1. Facilitate your toddler’s bonding with the caregiver.

Toddlers don't "get used to" doing without you. They begin to feel safe with someone else. The only way to help your toddler over her upset when you leave is for her to develop a great relationship with her caregiver.

She will still protest your leaving, but the caregiver should be able to comfort her. Her protest should be brief. If she keeps crying for fifteen minutes, it means she isn’t willing to accept comfort from this new person.

How do you facilitate a great relationship? First, by letting her have good experiences with her caregiver in your presence. Second, by relating warmly to the caregiver yourself, in your toddler’s presence. Third, by putting up a photo of the caregiver holding your toddler on your refrigerator, and speaking warmly to it often. (“Helen, you won’t believe it when my daughter shows you that she knows how to wash her hands all by herself!”) Fourth, by speaking with enthusiasm to your child about the caregiver.

2. Help him get comfortable in this new situation.

Invest in making this experience work for your toddler by spending a few mornings, or parts of mornings, at the caregiver’s. Facilitate your toddler’s bonding with the other kids, and especially with the caregiver. The minute he gets engaged in something, try to take a back seat, nearby but not engaged.

3. Start with short separations.

After he feels comfortable with this new situation, and has developed more of a relationship with the caregiver, practice leaving him for a short time — start by saying goodbye, leaving, and then returning as soon as he stops crying.

If you start with short absences, your toddler will learn more quickly that you always return, and can gradually get used to the separations as you gradually extend your absences. But try not to return while he is still crying, or he’ll think crying can bring you back, and it will be hard for him to give up that strategy!

4. Develop a parting routine.

For instance, always read her a quick story, then hug her and tell her you love her and when you’ll be back, then put her in her caregiver’s arms, then say your standard parting phrase (“I love you, you love me, have a great day and I’ll pick you up at three!”). Stick to your routine every day and resist the urge to either extend it or cut it short. It will help your toddler to know exactly what to expect.

5. Leave her with a comfort object.

If you can give her something of yours, such as a scarf, she may be able to comfort herself with it, although don’t be surprised if she throws it on the floor as you leave. Many people suggest giving your child a lovey, and of course these are helpful, but no securely attached toddler will find it more than small comfort in the absence of a parent.

6. Help your toddler to understand what’s happening.

His language may be limited, but he still understands a great deal. It will help him to cope if you reassure him by explaining what will happen. Don’t stop with the separation, keep going to describe the fun he will have:

“First I will read you a story. Then we will find Helen and she will hold you. I will say ‘See you later Alligator!’ Then I will leave to go to work, and I will wave goodbye and you and Helen and your lovey will wave from the window. Then you and Helen will dance to the music you like. You might be sad, but the music and dancing will make you feel better. Then all the kids will have snack. You will play outside, and you will play with the playdoh, and then you will have lunch, and then I will be back right after lunch to pick you up. Mommy always comes back.”

7. Don’t give in to the temptation to sneak out.

It will make her separation anxiety worse in the long run. When she bursts into tears, say calmly

“I know you don’t want me to leave, but I will be back right after lunch. I will wave goodbye from outside. Helen will take you to the window to wave.”

Then leave. Resist the urge to run back and grab your crying child. It may take her weeks to start waving to you, but you should always wave to her. Hide your own distress and signal that things are fine by being matter of fact.

8. Discuss in advance with the caregiver what she can do to comfort and distract your toddler.

It's important that your toddler feel comforted by the caregiver, so you want someone who is comfortable with a crying child, not just trying to shush her. Distraction may work temporarily, but long-term what your child needs is to express his desolation at your departure, and to have someone who understands step in to hold him and communicate that he's safe. So distraction by itself is not the best policy.

On the other hand, caregivers have other children to care for. Most of your child's emotional processing will happen with you, at night or on weekends. Your caregiver does have to eventually help your child shift gears from his unhappiness to the fact that there are some wonderful, fun things to do right there right now, even with mommy gone. So also plan distractions that will help your child to calm down and shift gears.

Some toddlers are calmed by running water, or by always visiting the window to watch the birds at the feeder, or by dancing in the caregiver’s arms to particular music. One boy I knew was always distracted by a particular video of earth moving equipment; his mom could say goodbye, settle him in front of the video with his lovey, and leave. When the video ended half an hour later, he joined the other kids without a fuss. Maybe there is a specific toy that your daughter loves (even one that you bring from home but she only plays with at her caregiver’s.)

You want to make sure that the caregiver will keep trying until she finds something that helps your toddler, and that she will hold your toddler until he is calm and whenever he needs to be held while you are gone. And if she can get the other kids started on a fun activity that your toddler can’t wait to join (“Look at the playdoh!”), it might really shorten the hysterics.

9. Don’t be late to pick your toddler up.

If she finishes lunch and you aren’t there yet as promised, it will make things harder in the future, and you will be setting up a long-term feeling that you don’t always follow through on your promises, which is no basis for a bond with your child.

10. Help your toddler learn that people return;

That what disappears isn't gone forever but can reappear. Play games like Peek a Boo, or hiding and finding a loved object (“Is your lovey under the bed? No, it isn’t under the bed. Is your lovey behind the shower curtain? YES, there’s your lovey!”), or Hide and Go Seek (and of course hide in a place where he can easily find you!)

Read books about separation and return, like Kathi Appelt’s Oh My Baby Little One (which is a fabulous book about leaving your baby at daycare, The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn (a wonderful book about a raccoon who wants to stay home with mom instead of going to school), Karma Wilson's Mama Always Comes Home, and P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother?

11. Create a “Lots of People Love Me” book.

Put together a small child-sized photo album with people your toddler loves holding her: you, her other parent, her grandparents, her caregiver, aunts and uncles. Add cousins and friends. Read the book often. Let her get used to her caregiver reading it to her in your presence. Many children are comforted by reading such a book when they miss their parents.

12. Give your toddler lots of love and attention when you are with him.

You may need a hot bath and a cup of tea at the end of the day, but your toddler has a pent up need for you. Of course he’s demanding. He’s stressed, and he needs your calm, loving presence to unwind and relax. Make the simplest dinner you can, keep things calm, avoid power struggles, and look for opportunities to connect. Be sure he gets a lot of opportunities to laugh, to get those tensions out. And leave extra time for cuddling at bedtime.

Your toddler will eventually outgrow his separation anxiety. I'm hoping this twelve step program will make the process faster and easier for your toddler – and for you!

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