How to make daycare drop off easier without separation anxiety

Jul 28, 2010 at 9:29 p.m. ET

It's a problem almost every parent faces at one time or another: separation anxiety rearing its ugly head during a daycare or babysitter drop-off. What can you do to ease the transition? We asked an expert for some advice.

The question:

My 18-month-old has started getting separation anxiety, and gets very upset during daycare drop-offs. How can I make this time easier for her?

The Childcare Expert Answers:

Mom and baby wavingThere are a few things you can do to make drop-offs less difficult for your daughter (and you). First, I recommend that you ask the childcare provider for her ideas since, I assure you, she has seen this happen before.

Here are a few tried and true "good good-byes" that I have come across:

1Kisses to keep: Give your daughter a "pocket full of kisses" at the center right before leaving. Explain to her that if she misses you during the day, she can reach into her pocket (or pocketbook) and pull out a kiss. Kiss her several times on her palm, counting together as you go, and let her tuck each one away for safekeeping. If she wants, have her give you a few kisses to tuck away too.

2Give a memory: Find a small snapshot of your family for her to carry around (or put in her daypack). I did this with my younger son and it worked beautifully. He carried it constantly for a few days, then lost interest in it and kept it in his backpack for "emergencies." You may want to make sure you have reprints of the photo or laminate it since they can get lost or ragged pretty fast. If a photo isn't appealing, see if your daughter wants to carry something else of yours (like a scarf or inexpensive bracelet).

3Read up: Ask your local librarian to recommend some good childrens' books on working moms to share with your daughter. Although she is young, she will still understand a good story about moms who go to work and always return home. Meredith's Mother Takes the Train, by Deborah Lee Rose, is my personal favorite, although your daughter may be just a little too young for it.

4Sing about it! There is also a wonderful Hap Palmer song (on the Baby Songs DVD) entitled "My Mommy Comes Back" that shows toddlers who go to babysitters and have their moms pick them up later. Watch it a few times with your daughter, using your own narrative to relate it to her day, and learn the words. Try singing this happy song with your daughter as you pull up to daycare and she may start to join in!

5Be strong, mom: Finally, remember that you must behave in a positive fashion during drop-off time -- even if you are heartbroken with her crying. Avoid saying things like "Mommy will miss you, too," and instead try, "We are going to have so much fun when I see you later!" and "You're going to have such a great day -- I can't wait until you tell me about it when I pick you up!" Your daughter will pick up on your positive attitude.

More than one option

There is no single "right" way to solve this dilemma. It is really a matter of trying a variety of approaches for a few days each until you find one that best addresses the needs of your daughter. In the meantime, take comfort in knowing that your daughter is following in the footsteps of many daycare toddlers before her!

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Now, I am assuming that you have made an effort to determine the reason for her behavior, especially if it is sudden in its appearance. It is important that you first try to figure out what is causing her to be so sad.

The good news is that your daughter is in the right age-range for manifestations of "separation anxiety" -- a perfectly normal developmental stage. I suggest that you speak with her caregiver and find out what she does once you have left the scene. Find out how long she continues to cry, and if her behavior is "sad" and takes awhile to rebound. There is a good chance that she recovers fairly quickly once you have left. If that is what you are told, I imagine that you may still want to "make sure."

Do it. Drive around the block, have a cup of coffee and come back to the center in thirty minutes. Being careful that she does not see you, seek a peek into your daughter's care room (note: if the center has a problem with you doing this -- meaning they might not have an open-door policy -- you have another set of problems to worry about). It is likely that you will see her happily at play or otherwise enjoying herself.

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On the other hand, if it appears that there is something still amiss, you need to determine if there is something at the center that is causing her to became so distraught.)

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