How to reduce separation anxiety for children in care

Published on Wednesday, 11 March 2020
Last updated on Monday, 09 March 2020

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Although some children embrace child care straightaway and don't look back, it is common for many youngsters to feel separation anxiety when their parents drop them off and disappears out the door.

It’s normal for young children to fear being away from their parent, and although it can be hard leaving your reluctant child in care, this is an important part of growing up, becoming more self-sufficient, managing emotions and learning socialisation skills.

Here we look at separation anxiety in more detail and see how you can help your little worrier feel better.

When do children get separation anxiety?

Age plays a key role in how your child feels about themselves and their connectedness with you. 

Raising Children says that separation anxiety can start when your baby is around eight-months-old and peaks when they’re about 14 to 18-months-old. It usually goes away gradually throughout your child’s early years, coming and going along the way. For instance, your previously confident preschooler might feel separation anxiety when they transition to a new room at their early childhood education (ECE) service.

Separation anxiety usually decreases as your child develops a separate sense of self, understands that you’ll come back for them, and generally gets used to their child care experience.

What are some common signs of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in young children often presents as:

  • Shyness
  • Crying
  • Screaming or tantrums
  • Refusal to leave their parent
  • Pretending to be ill

You might feel guilty leaving them in this state, or be frustrated by their behaviour, but it’s good to know that there are ways to reduce separation anxiety in babies, toddlers and preschoolers. 

By building a connection with your child’s educator and taking the time to support your little one, you can help make the early learning experience a lot less scary. 

Five key ways to reduce separation anxiety in young children

To make your child feel better about their parent-free hours, it helps to:

  1. Have an orientation. Visit your child’s ECE service ahead of time and meet their educator, so that the place and person is familiar on their first day. 
  2. Be positive. Youngsters pick up on stress, agitation, sadness, worry and other negative emotions and behaviours, so take a calm, confident and happy approach to child care.
  3. Be transparent. Tell them when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back (even if they’re not talking yet). It’s important not to sneak out. 
  4. Show empathy. If your child is upset, give them a cuddle or assure them that you know how they’re feeling. 
  5. Settle them in without rushing, then commit to your goodbye. Help your child get into an activity, then say goodbye and leave without dragging out your departure.

Drop-off strategies for babies and other early learners

Different ages have different capabilities and perceptions of the world, so here are some tips for dropping off infants, compared with toddlers and preschoolers: 

To reduce separation anxiety in babies, Bright Horizons recommends that you sit calmly with your child and let them take in their surroundings in an unrushed way. 

Once they’re comfortable with the activities and people around them, let your care-giver take your baby. Give your little one a kiss and a cuddle goodbye, then leave without stalling. 

It can be confusing if you go and then come back, so even if your baby is crying, leave them in your educator’s capable hands. You can always call the ECE service afterwards to see how they’re going. 

To reduce separation anxiety in toddlers and preschoolers, the experts suggest that you:

  • Sit down and read a book together, then give your child a hug and leave.
  • Draw a picture with your child, and leave it with them.
  • Sit with your little one while they do an activity with a friend. Then, once they’re immersed in the activity, give them a kiss and cuddle and leave.
  • Let your child hold a family photo or something of yours (e.g. Mummy’s scarf) as you leave so they feel a strong connection to you. A comfort item, like a favourite teddy or blankie will also make them feel more secure.
  • Foster your child’s self-esteem by praising them when they make it through the day without you.  

For all ages, it’s important that you allocate enough time for drop-off, manage your own emotions and leave your child feeling supported. 

Partnering with your educator to reduce separation anxiety

It’s also important that you build a strong parent-educator relationship and communicate openly with the person who’s looking after your child. 

This means taking the time to greet your educator when you arrive and letting them know things like how your child slept last night, what mood they’re in and if anything out-of-the-ordinary is happening in their life. 

Your educator can also help you build a ‘departure ritual’ for your child to get used to. This could involve them taking your preschooler to the window to wave goodbye or comforting your toddler when you signal that you’re ready to leave. 

Day-by-day, your calm, consistent and caring drop-offs will teach your child that separations aren’t so scary. And with the support of their educator, they’ll soon be embracing the joys of child care. 


Raising Children

Bright Horizons

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