Don’t Go, Mommy!
You can reduce trauma when you drop off your child for day care.

by Deborah Hewitt

Going to child care for the first time, or going to a new child care setting, is usually difficult for a child. In fact, being left by Mom or Dad in any place that’s not familiar provokes separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety generally becomes very intense for babies when they are around 8 months old, and again at about the age of 18 months. Preschool-age children are usually past the worst of separation anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.

Learning to cope with separation anxiety is an important skill we need throughout our lives. How intensely any given child experiences separation anxiety varies greatly. Your child could be very extroverted, rushing into new places with no apparent anxiety. Or your child might cry and cling to you when it’s time for you to leave. Sometimes children will withdraw and refuse to talk. Even the least anxious child will probably need some help in making the transition to child care.

Preparing for Child Care
You can do several things to help your child when he starts child care, goes into a new setting, or is just reacting to something stressful.
In new settings, you can ask the provider if you can bring your child for a visit.

Play near your child at first, and then move to the side of the room and watch. You will still be present so your child can look over and see you, and then, when she feels safe, she can go about her playing. Once she seems comfortable, you can say goodbye and take a short walk or read a book outside, increasing your time away until she is comfortable.

Often just one or two visits are enough for a child, or it might take several visits over one or two weeks. It really depends on your child’s temperament. If you can’t take time away from work for several visits to help your child with a gradual transition, perhaps the child’s other parent can take turns with you, or a grandparent or other trusted adult can substitute.

In any event, some phase-in time will help your child let go of you more easily each day. Even if your child has been in child care before and is just moving to a new setting, a phase-in time can be very helpful.

Other Ways to Prepare
There are other ways you can help prepare your child. With your child you can read books about other children going to child care, or play “child care” at home, using common terms such as “snack time” and “group time.”

Preschoolers can be encouraged to see this as an exciting chance to be a “big kid.” You can present a positive image of the new setting by talking about the kinds of things your child will do there. You might even ask the provider if she’d be willing to check with another parent about introducing your children and letting them play together.

That way, your child will know another child the first time she is left there. If it’s not against a home or center’s policy, talk with your provider about letting your child bring a special toy — perhaps a favorite doll or stuffed animal — or blanket with him in the beginning to ease the transition. Such “transitional objects,” as child development experts call them, help your child take a little bit of home with him. You can also provide a photo of you and your child that he can keep with him or tape to his cubby.

Time to Say Goodbye
Saying goodbye is the hardest part. Lots of parents find it very painful to walk out the door when their child is clinging to them and begging them not to leave. What parents often don’t realize is that children often begin playing happily with other children about 15 seconds after the parent is no longer in sight. Ask your provider how long it takes your child to settle into the routine after you leave. This is important information that may be very comforting to you.

Sometimes it’s tempting to just sneak out without saying goodbye. You tell yourself your child will avoid the pain of separating if you do this, and you know you’ll avoid the pain of watching your child cry or beg for something you can’t give him. Still, it’s not a good idea. Sneaking out teaches your child to be wary about when you might leave and can actually increase future anxiety.

When you say goodbye, do it quickly. Accept your child’s fear. Don’t shame her. It isn’t helpful to say things like, “Big girls don’t cry.” And don’t try too hard to talk your child out of it. If you work overtime to protect her from her fear, she could end up believing there really is something to be scared of.

Be honest about your own feelings, but make sure you don’t let your anxiety rub off on your child. Just try to be matter-of-fact. You might say, “I’ll miss you, too, but I know there are lots of fun things to do here. And I’ll be back soon.” Then leave.

Most providers understand how to help children make this transition. They’ll give your child one-on-one attention if he’s having trouble settling down when you leave. They’ll involve him with an activity or with another child, comfort him, and give him reassurance.

If your child attends a child care center or family child care for three or four months and still cries for long periods every time she is dropped off, you might want to ask yourself if the setting is a good match for your child — or you might need to talk with a parent educator or counselor.

Prolonged separation anxiety is difficult for everybody. Getting some extra help will benefit both you and your child.

This article is excerpted from Behavior Matters: Making Child Care Work for You by Deborah Hewitt (Redleaf Press, $10.95). Hewitt is a veteran preschool teacher. Her other books include The Optimistic Classroom, Pathways to Play, and So, This Is Normal Too?