9 Ways to Ease Baby Separation Anxiety

mother kissing baby's forehead

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Separation anxiety can hit at any stage of child development. Maybe your 9-month old baby suddenly wails when you leave for work or your 2-year old child sobs during daycare drop-off.

Separation anxiety is emotionally draining for working parents and their children but the good news is that it won't last forever. To help you through these emotional times, here are nine things to try to help ease baby separation anxiety.

Use Routines to Help Set Expectations

Children feel more secure when they know what to expect. Following a morning routine helps them through the transition from home to childcare

It helps them remember what's coming next, which is you leaving for the day. Try not to skip any part of the routine so your child doesn’t feel rushed and stressed.

Sample Morning Routine

Here's a routine you could follow to start your day with your baby.

  • Cuddle in bed or on the couch.
  • Eat breakfast, brush teeth, and get dressed.
  • Pack for school and get into the car or stroller.
  • Make the trip to school a happy one, maybe by singing songs together.
  • Get your child settled into school and say a short goodbye.

Follow a Goodbye Ritual

Some daycare centers has a wonderful tradition of a “bye-bye window.” The top half of the classroom door opens separately, so the parent can lean in and give a kiss goodbye. Older children start the day outdoors, so part of the playground equipment is dubbed the “bye-bye tower.” Kids climb up and wave over the fence as the parents drive away.

When a child is having trouble separating, a teacher or parent will say, “Do you want to go to the bye-bye window?” The remainder of the goodbye ritual often stops the tears.

If your childcare provider doesn’t have any goodbye rituals, suggest one. Or, create a ritual or special goodbye words just for you and your child. Of course, it takes a while to establish the ritual, but after a few weeks, your child will know what to expect.

Set a Positive Tone for Separating

It’s remarkable how sensitive children react to our moods. Even a small infant can tell when a parent is upset, and often will start to fuss. Bigger children may act out or become clingy if their parents seem unhappy.

When you let your anxiety or unhappiness show through your facial expression, your child thinks there is something wrong with leaving them. Is it any wonder they will conclude that they're not going to be safe and loved without you there?

So no matter how you're feeling at drop off time, smile. Speak positively about how much fun your little one will have. Make your kid believe they are going to have a great day because they will.

Make a Clean Break

It's important not to linger when your child is having a hard time separating. If you prolong the goodbye based on how much they cry, it'll be worse tomorrow. 

Give an extra big hug, a kiss, and a smile when your kid’s upset, but then detach yourself. Be strong. It’s okay to dawdle in the hallway, out of sight, until you hear their cries subside. You'll wait less than a minute.

Make sure you don’t forget something that will force you to go back. If you have, ask for help.

Ask another parent to deliver a sippy cup or grab the keys you left in the classroom. This way you don't have to say goodbye again.

Distract Your Child

At the moment of separation, you may be able to distract an infant from being upset. Point to a favorite toy, or ask the teacher to carry them to a window to see birds or trees. Then say goodbye and leave.

With an older child, ask a question about the day’s activities. Remind them of a story they wanted to tell their teacher or one of their friends. Point out that their favorite tricycle is free. Sometimes you can forestall a crying fit by a well-timed distraction.

Decide Whether to Sneak Out

One decision you’ll have to make is whether to sneak away when your child isn’t paying attention. This is a subject of controversy. Some people see no problem with it, while others want their child to know that they’ll always say goodbye. Perhaps they don’t want their child to worry that they've disappeared.

Certainly, there's a benefit of leaving while your child is sleeping or playing with a toy — it lessens the opportunity for a crying fit. But some can never bring themselves to do it. Desperate times can call for desperate measures. And sometimes you just can't be late for work. So this is an option if you feel OK doing it.

Use an Engaging Object or Special Treat

Objects carry power. Plan ahead by asking your child if they want to bring in a special rock or picture to show their teacher. That can be your distraction ploy at the moment of goodbye.

You may also want to give your kid something from home to carry through the school day. Some ideas: a favorite teddy, a family photo, or something you wear. Maybe this is why schools have show-and-tell (or show-and-share) — to give children something to clutch instead of their parent's hand.

If your child is going through a particularly rough time, think about planning an after-school outing. Whether it’s pizza night or an after-dinner walk to see the fire station, it gives them something to look forward to during the drop off at child care.

Identify and Avoid Anxiety Triggers

Pay attention to the days when your child has trouble separating. Look at recent events to see if there is a common thread that is triggering the tears. Make sure you’re not pressured and rushing through the steps of the morning ritual.

Mondays are hard for many households. You may want to give some extra time and affection on the first day of childcare after a weekend or vacation.

Some kids hit an emotional wall after eight hours of childcare. If you can pick them up at 5:15 pm instead of 5:45 pm, it can make a world of difference. When saying goodbye, tell your child that you'll pick them early. They may find it easier to say goodbye.

Enlist the Help of Your Child’s Caregiver

The transition to child care is like a football pass. You can set everything up perfectly only to have your child’s caregiver fumble the reception. Make sure the two of you are working together.

If your child is struggling with separation anxiety, ask your child's caregiver what might help. A plan that the two of you agree on will be much easier to implement than something you dream up on your own.

By Katherine Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a journalist, author, speaker, and certified parent educator who writes about modern parenting and discipline.