Dealing with separation anxiety in toddlers when you start child care

February 03, 2020


Whether it’s day one of child care, or day 101, separation anxiety can strike at anytime. Even if your toddler is normally fine when you leave, all of a sudden your departure can lead to floods of tears, leg clinging, and the type of wailing that just breaks your heart.

For some parents, drop offs can become fraught with anxiety in the days or hours before. When your child makes it clear that they don’t want you to leave, what can you do? 


1. Know that it’s normal

Separation anxiety most often strikes between the ages of six months and four years old. It appears to be just as common for kids to experience separation anxiety even if they’ve been cared for by other people before.

Everything is new, and that can be upsetting for tiny humans. It generally improves with age and exposure to the child care environment.


2. Give yourself a buffer

If you can, allow yourself a little extra time in the morning so that you’re not rush-rush-rushing your toddler out the door to child care. 

Toddlers often find transitions tricky, so a simple ‘hurry up!’ can lead to epic meltdowns before you’ve even left the house. 

So set the alarm a little earlier, have as much ready as you can the night before, and leave the house with plenty of time to spare. If you can be one of the earlier arrivals at your child care centre, it gives your little one time to settle in without the hustle and bustle of other children.

Similarly, if you know you’re starting at a child care centre as you’re heading back to work it can be a good idea to start the care a few weeks prior. This can help ease everyone into the new routine.


3. Pack something special

Depending on the age of your child, it can be helpful to pack something in their backpack that will offer some comfort during tricky moments. 

For instance your child might like a little hand drawn love heart note from Mum tucked into their bag, their bedtime lovey, or a special toy that gives them reassurance.


4. Have a goodbye routine

You don’t want to sneak off without saying goodbye (although this may be tempting) as this will break your toddler’s trust. Speak with your child’s educators about the anxiety, and they will be able to help settle your little one in on arrival. 

For instance they might know that they love being a special helper, so the educator might ask your toddler to help them set up the painting area for the day.

Try not to prolong your goodbye, as this doesn't improve the situation. When you’re ready to go, reassure your toddler that the educators are here to play games with them and keep them safe, and that you’ll be back later to collect them and take them home. Give them a kiss and a cuddle, then go. 

Try your best to keep your emotions in check. If the child sees you upset it can be very confronting for them – take a moment to yourself once you get outside.

You can always phone the centre later that morning to ask how your child is and how long it took them to settle. 


5. Have a pick up routine

Yes we talk about routine a lot with kids, because knowing what’s going to happen next makes them feel safe. 

You could have a special hug that you offer when you collect them at the end of the day. You might count the number of trees before you reach the gate. You could have a favourite song ready to play in the car, along with a snack waiting on their seat. This gives them something to look forward to, and reinforces that pick up and drop off times are fun and normal.


6. Talk about it

Your toddler might feel alone in their anxiety. Why not share stories of when you felt worried or nervous, and the steps you took to feel better? 

For instance you might say ‘I used to feel sad when Nanna dropped me off to get minded too. But she always came to pick me up in the afternoon and we would go home and colour in together. Would you like to colour in when we get home today too?’

Reassure your child that you will always come and collect them, that you miss them too, and that they should think of all the fun they’ll have with their friends. Even if you’re forcing back tears of your own, your reassuring words will help to make them feel safe.

Even though it can feel very stressful at the time, know that most children grow out of separation anxiety on their own. 

Children are tough little cookies, so rest assured that this behaviour won’t last forever. If ever you’re worried, speak to your child care centre director or your child’s educators. They’ve been dealing with this for many years with thousands of children and will be able to offer the reassurance you need.

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