Separation anxiety: How to help your child settle at daycare

Posted in Childcare.

Leaving your baby at daycare is always a tense moment, but when they’re crying and unsettled it can be unspeakably stressful. This is when the mum-guilt kicks in and you start questioning how you’re ever going to make this work. But rest assured, separation anxiety is perfectly normal and it does improve over time.

What does separation anxiety look (and sound) like?

As parents, we know the full range of crying, from a few sniffles, to all out raging. But how can you tell if your baby is suffering from separation anxiety? Dr. Kimberley O’Brien is an Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Sydney-based child psychology practice The Quirky Kid Clinic. She says separation anxiety is easily distinguishable from a bit of crying.

“Typically separation anxiety is traumatic for babies and toddlers and they will cry out for really extended periods of time. So it could be three or four hours of crying, which suggests that they need that nurturing and comfort from their primary carer.”

That said, some children will cry passionately when you drop them off, and then stop as soon as you’re gone. So be sure to talk to your carer to find out how long the crying is lasting, and whether it’s happening every day, so you can get a clearer idea of your child’s unsettled patterns.

When does it peak?

According to Dr. O’Brien, the prime age for separation anxiety is around two years old. Before this age, some babies will naturally cling to one alternative carer. So if you’re introducing a young baby to daycare, you could help initiate this bond by finding one key carer at your centre that you really trust.

If, however, you’re introducing a one- or two-year-old to daycare or preschool, you’ll find they’re more likely to experience heightened separation anxiety. This is the age when children are much more aware of their surroundings and may become hyper-vigilant. So this means they’re clinging to your legs and keeping an eagle eye on you as you hover around the door. It’s totally normal, but it can also be really upsetting for both you and your child. Just keep in mind that it’s common at this age, and like all things, it will pass.

So it’ll get better?

Yes, good news – separation anxiety definitely improves over time. Dr. O’Brien says that in typical cases, parents can expect their children to settle into a new setting, with alternative carers, in about six weeks. She encourages parents to persevere – even though it can be downright stressful driving or walking away from your baby when they’re crying.

“In most cases, it does settle,” says Dr. O’Brien. “There’s less crying for extended periods, and you probably will hear from the carer that it stops after five or ten minutes.”

Are there any long-term effects?

According to Dr. O’Brien, there are typically no long-terms effects of separation anxiety. However, you may notice some short-term impacts on their behaviour. For example, your child will probably want to stay close to you after you pick them up, and you might find that handing them over to someone else, like a grandparent, can trigger the same level of separation anxiety as daycare or preschool.

“Children and babies will be quite cautious when going through separation anxiety,” says Dr. O’Brien. “But these effects are not likely to last long term. Usually kids will become more accustomed with alternative care settings from the ages of three or four.”

She does however encourage parents to be careful in the way we manage separation anxiety. So even though sneaking away at drop off time feels less painful to us, it can actually make things harder for our child. Dr. O’Brien suggests saying goodbye to your baby or toddler, and making a public exit, rather than slipping away unnoticed.

How can we help our babies through it?

Here are a few tips to help ease the transition to alternative care:

  • Get to know the carers who will be looking after your child, and try to become familiar with the centre. A few orientation visits with your child can help.
  • Give your child a comfort item to bring with them each day. This could be a special blanket or toy. For young babies, pop the blanket or toy down your top for a little bit so you can leave your familiar scent on the item.
  • Use a reassuring voice when you leave your child. Babies are very in tune with the tone and pitch of their parent’s voice.
  • Try to be as calm as possible and manage your own anxiety.
  • Make a very public goodbye, then make a quick exit.

What about mum and dad? How can we cope with the drop off?

It all starts with how we think about it. Remember:

  • Your child is in safe hands, and separation anxiety is perfectly normal at this young age.
  • Eventually they will grow out of it, and there are no long term effects on your child’s wellbeing.
  • If you’re working, you’re doing an important thing providing for your family. Not to mention looking after your own career, wellbeing, and sense of self.


Are you struggling with the daycare or preschool drop off? What do you find works for you?  


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