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15 month old - Separation Anxiety

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Dr. Laura,
I have a 15-month-old daughter. I stay home with her and work from the home. As she's starting to get into things more and more, I am having a harder time getting any work done. Additionally, she has become very attached to me, and I have trouble leaving her with anyone else. Therefore, I felt it would be a good idea to take her to a friend's in-home daycare service one or two days a week. This opportunity gives me a chance to get some work done and run errands, and it gives her a chance to be around other children and to learn that she will be ok without me in her sight at all times.

The problem is whenever I leave, she cries for at least 20 minutes. It breaks my heart to walk away from her screaming like that. I still feel that this situation will be the best for both of us, but I want to make the transition as easy as possible for her. So what should I do? Leave her crying and let the child care provider try to comfort her hoping it will get better with time? I've thought about bringing toys from home to make her more comfortable, but she doesn't really have a "favorite" toy that I feel would keep her happy. I understand that separation anxiety is normal at this age, but what is the best way to deal with it? Any advice you could offer or an article you could refer me to would be greatly appreciated!



Dear Jill,

My heart goes out to you. This is the normal response of a securely attached 15 month old who protests what she perceives as a life-threatening separation from her mother. Your daughter will learn, over time, that you do return when you leave, but she is not yet capable of understanding this.

You are correct that it is hard to get any work done with a toddler around, and that it is good for your daughter to have time around other kids. The best arrangement, if you can swing it, is for her to have that time with other kids in a playgroup situation, with you there. But many of us have to work, and need to have our toddlers spend time in childcare.

The next best arrangement is to have her go to "school" in the morning for three hours, rather than all day. A full day is hard on babies. They cope best with any stress (and childcare is a stressor) when they are rested. Then you can pick her up and hopefully get some work done while she naps. 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.

My own view is that babies need to be with their parents as much as possible, because it is hard for them to have their needs adequately met by a caregiver who is trying to take care of other children. But if you are confident about the caregiver, you can help your daughter get through this difficult stage and have a good group experience. Here's how:

1. Facilitate your daughter's bonding with the caregiver. Babies don't get "used to being independent." They get used to being dependent on a person other than you. The only way to help your daughter over her upset when you leave is for her to develop a great relationship with her caregiver. She will still protest your leaving, but your friend should be able to comfort her. If she is crying for twenty minutes, it means she is not 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. Third, by putting up a photo of the caregiver holding your baby 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!”) Fourth, by speaking with enthusiasm to your child about the caregiver.

2. Help her get comfortable in this new situation. Invest in making this experience work for your daughter by spending a few mornings, or parts of mornings, at your friend's daycare center. Facilitate your daughter's bonding with the other kids, and especially with your friend. The minute she gets engaged in something, try to take a back seat, nearby but not engaged.

3. Start with short separations. After she feels comfortable with this new situation, and has developed more of a relationship with the caregiver, practice leaving her for a short time — start by saying goodbye, leaving, and then returning as soon as she stops crying. (Don't give in to the temptation to return while she is still crying, or she will think crying can bring you back, and it will be hard for her to give up that strategy!) If you start with short absences, your daughter will learn more quickly that you always return, and can gradually get used to the separations as you gradually extend your absences.

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 daughter 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 baby will find it more than small comfort in the absence of a parent.

6. Help your daughter to understand what's happening.
Her language may be limited, but you should still reassure her by explaining what will happen. Don't stop with the separation, keep going to describe the fun she 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 baby. 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 daughter.
Some babies 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 distracts your daughter, and that she will hold your daughter until she is calm and whenever she needs to be held while you are gone. And if she can get the kids started on a fun activity that your daughter can't wait to join (“Look at the playdoh!”), it might really shorten the hysterics.

9. Don't be late to pick her up. If she finishes lunch and you aren't there yet, 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. Besides, it isn't fair.

10. Help your daughter learn about returning. 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 she can easily find you!) Read books about separation, like P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother?, or Kathi Appelt's Oh My Baby, Little One (which is a wonderful book about leaving your baby at daycare.)

11. Create a “Lots of People Love Me” book. Put together a small child-sized photo album with people your daughter 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.

Your daughter will eventually outgrow her separation anxiety. Your ability to give her lots of love and attention when you are with her will go a long way.

I hope this is helpful, and I wish you lots of luck.
Best wishes,
Dr. Laura

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