When my 2.5-year-old daughter, Addy, was between 4 and 7 months old, she struggled with separation anxiety. I noticed it the most when I would drop her off at childcare at our church on Wednesday mornings. I attended a Bible study group comprised of moms, and we would leave our children in the caring hands of volunteers in the church’s nursery. As a mother, it was a much-needed time for me to sip coffee and find encouragement from friends. But saying goodbye at drop-off was making my daughter and me very anxious.
Unfortunately, it was hard to drop Addy off. She would scream as soon as I’d hand her over to her caregivers. “She cried non-stop for the first ten minutes,” they’d tell me when I returned. “And not just sad tears, either. She seemed angry!” However, I was encouraged that she would stop crying after 10 or 15 minutes. As time passed, Addy’s separation anxiety decreased as she became more familiar with the women who watched her and came to trust them.
How to Say Goodbye at Drop Off
This kind of scenario is all too common in drop-off situations. Saying goodbye to your child at drop-off is not always easy. Whether your baby or preschooler goes to daycare or you have a babysitter come over a few times a week, saying goodbye can be rough. Even dropping junior off at grandma’s house can elicit a tearful response from your child . . . and she’s his grandmother!
At these times, remember that your little one is constantly going through new developmental stages. As a result, you may find it easy to drop him off at childcare and say goodbye one day, while the next day, he cries and finds it nearly impossible to let go of you! Through my experience as a mom, babysitter, teacher, and school administrator, I’ve assembled a few tips that I have found helpful in making the “goodbye” process easier.
1. Create a consistent routine before drop-off.
Children thrive off of a consistent routine. Predictability can help them better cope with the often unpredictable emotions they may feel at any given moment. A set routine lets them know what they can expect at certain times of the day. This gives your child a sense of security.
For example, having a morning routine and ensuring that your little one has had their diaper changed, been fed breakfast or a bottle, and had a hug or cuddle time with you before you drop them off ensures a pattern that leaves them feeling well-cared for before you say goodbye.
2. Let your child know that you will come back.
Even if your child is under one year old, get in the habit of letting your child know that you’re leaving and when she can expect you to return. This can help establish a line of communication and a bond of trust between you and your child.
If your child is sensitive about you leaving, sneaking out the door when they aren’t looking typically doesn’t work. It may even backfire because when your child realizes you are no longer there, they may cry. Your lack of communication reinforces feelings of abandonment and may worsen the situation. Ultimately, you want your child to understand that you will come back. And that it is okay for them to stay in this new place without you.
3. Don’t stay too long at drop-off.
Lingering at your child’s daycare or in the room with a babysitter can cause your child some measure of confusion. It can ultimately make it harder to part when saying goodbye. Unless it is your child’s first time with the sitter or childcare provider (in which case you can stay a bit longer to help them acclimate and get comfortable), it is better to give your little one a quick hug, tell them when you’ll be back, and say farewell.
A parent tried to stay for almost twenty minutes every time she dropped her preschooler off in my class, though her child was doing fine. Her child would say goodbye to her, then run off excitedly and play. Her presence seemed more about her anxiety and difficulty separating from her son than the child’s circumstances.
I had to gently tell her that this process did not benefit her son. He would circle back, confused as to why she was still there. It also caused stress and confusion for other children who didn’t understand why one mommy stayed while their parents had left. This particular parent got upset and pulled her son out of my care. Still, I think the situation spoke more to her personal challenges than anything else.
4. Encourage distractions.
Allow the caregiver to distract your child with a toy, activity, etc. Be sure to say goodbye, but release your child’s attention and help the caregiver take over with their method of distraction without injecting your own.
5. Be aware of your emotions; your child will pick up on them.
Your little one is a sponge and highly sensitive to how you feel, what you say, and what you do. This is because babies and young children are biologically designed to depend entirely on their caregivers at this early stage in life. So they are greatly attuned to what their caregivers are feeling.1
This also means that your little one may absorb and even copy some of the emotions you’re feeling. With this in mind, it can be helpful to put on an upbeat face for junior when you say goodbye, to leave him with a sense that everything is okay.
I’m not suggesting stuffing your feelings—if it’s hard for you to say goodbye and you’re feeling sad, it’s healthy to address those feelings with another adult. You could even talk with your little one about what saying goodbye feels like. But do this outside the classroom, not when you’re about to leave your child (i.e., at home together on the weekend).
6. Talk to your caregiver.
Maintaining an open line of communication with your child’s caregiver helps in all areas of your child’s development, including navigating the drop-off process. Have a conversation with your caregiver about what to expect at drop-off. Also, tell them about any fears, hopes, or expectations you may have related to the experience.
It is perfectly normal to have some anxiety around saying goodbye to your little one when you leave them with a new caregiver. Ideally, have this conversation with your childcare provider before the drop-off—for example, via e-mail, an in-person classroom meeting, or a phone call.
7. Understand what stage of development your child is going through.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes separation anxiety generally peaks between ten and eighteen months.2 It should decrease during the last half of the second year. Be aware that your child may go through periods of ease at drop-off, followed by weeks of difficulty saying goodbye. This is not necessarily a reflection on your methods or your caregivers. It may be as simple as a change in their cognitive development. Additionally, your child is more vulnerable to separation anxiety when he feels tired, hungry, or sick. So keep that in mind if the struggle seems sudden or out of the ordinary.
If the crying is constant and happens consistently for months, you may want to consider a different childcare option. Listen to what your gut is telling you. If you feel strongly that the childcare situation is not best for your child, consider turning to friends, family, or other reliable sources to help you find an alternative childcare option. Likely, the caregiver you’ve chosen is great, and your little one’s separation anxiety will pass within weeks. Soon, saying goodbye at drop-off will be a quick and easy affair. And before you know it, you’ll be crying as you drop them off at college!