Separation anxiety is a completely normal developmental milestone that typically shows up around the 6-month mark, although it really doesn’t peak until those early toddler months, around 12 to 18 months. And it is the worst.
Being a working mother, I had to leave him with family caregivers when he was 7 weeks (sniff) and then at a daycare when he was 5 months (deep breaths) and then at a new daycare/preschool setting when he turned 18 months. And although it was hardest for me when he was an infant, it was really the 18-month separation that was the hardest on him.
Whether you’re leaving your baby with a part-time babysitter every now and then, or you’re heading back to work soon, there are very specific DOs and DON’Ts I learned when it comes to handling separation anxiety. I learned all of these tricks from the phenomenal infant/toddler daycare teachers we had when my son was 18 months old, when every morning drop-off was like a torture experiment for my soul.
- Transition with short separations. It’s best to start out with a familiar face — a Grandma or an Aunt — and just leave for maybe 15 minutes. Work your way up to an hour. Even if your baby doesn’t cry or get upset, you’re teaching a very important lesson: mommy/daddy always comes back.
- Transition into introducing your new caregiver/daycare setting. If you’re using a babysitter, start off by having him/her over for lunch. Let them play together in another room in the house. Make your baby feel comfortable and familiar. If you’ll be using a daycare facility, on the other hand, ask about a transitional period. My son started out just playing there for an hour or so (with me), and then we’d slowly transition into me leaving for an hour, then a few hours, then eventually a full day. It won’t guarantee a tear-free goodbye, of course, but it monumentally helps. Our preschool now does home visits before the first day, which helps them get to know each other on familiar turf.
- Leave a comfort object. When Noah was an infant, I used to leave him one of my previously worn shirts that smelled like me to cuddle with during naps. Or, of course, a precious lovie that feels like home. We also left family pictures with his daycare, which I think helped a lot.
- Talk about what’s happening, and read books that reassure your baby that you’ll always come back. Here are 7 books that help ease separation anxiety. On the way over to school every morning, we’d talk about what was going to happen in specific detail — how we’d put his backpack away, go to the texture table, give hugs, etc. — so that he was prepared ahead of time.
- Leave detailed instructions for your babysitter or daycare teacher about soothing techniques (if you know of any), and be sure to leave your contact number in case your baby is still feeling anxious and upset.
- Sneak out without saying goodbye. Don’t, don’t, don’t. It’s easier on you, yes, but every single childcare expert I’ve spoken to has been very firm about this rule. You’ll want to be clear and direct about what’s happening, considering your baby is sure to go into a panic if he looks up and you’re gone.
- Make the goodbye period a long production. You’re not going off to war, so don’t make it feel that way. Get your baby situated and engaged in something and then quickly give a hug and a kiss. Then leave. It’s not easy — none of this is easy — but it’s best for everyone.
- Make sad faces or (oh my god don’t) cry. Try and be cheery, even if you’re bawling on the inside. Your baby can pick up on everything, so you’ll want to give off a calm, easy-breezy vibe. You can collapse into a heap of tears in the car — we all do it. (Babble.com’s expert Heather Turgeon gives a good script for acknowledging your child’s obvious feelings, while also calming him or her down. You’ll want to be comforting, not dismissive.)
- Come back after saying goodbye. This just confuses your baby, because if you said goodbye and came back once (and twice and three times), why are you not coming back now? WHAT’S GOING ON? If you forgot your baby’s binkie or lunch or whatever, try and sneak it back in without being seen or heard. Odds are your baby has already calmed down, so seeing your face again will just re-start the cycle.
- Leave in a stressed-out rush because your baby picks up on all of that tension, too. Leave enough time to get your little one situated before scooting out the door.
Kids typically calm down by the time we pull out of the driveway, but if you get a call or an after-school report that it took a long time for him or her to stop crying, or that there was a lot of anxiety throughout the day, you might want to try transitioning in again more slowly — or possibly even finding a different childcare solution, if the problem doesn’t get better.
But it will get better. It always does. Now go discreetly dry your tears and put on a happy face.
See even more separation anxiety tips over at Babble.com.