Separating From Your Child

Separating from your loved ones is a lifelong process. If you think of separation in the broadest terms, it begins at birth and ends at death. In a more limited way, it happens every day as we say goodbye to various members of our family when we, or they, go to work, school, child care or to the corner store.

While each family handles these daily separations in its own way, it is the act of leaving our very youngest children in the care of another that seems to cause the most stress. Adjusting to such a separation may take on an individual meaning for each parent. Separating may also be a different process with different children or child care providers. The sadness or anxiety caused by separating can resurface as children grow older and can be triggered by certain situations such as travel, illness or the birth of a sibling.

Tricks of the Trade

  • Begin to separate before you have to separate.
  • Always say goodbye. Goodbyes are important even to very young children.
  • Always come back when you say you will or call if you are going to be late so the provider can tell your child.
  • Tell your child when you will be back by referring to some daily child care activity. “I’ll pick you up after story time” will mean something when the child is older or more accustomed to the routine of the care.
  • Don’t linger…once you’ve said that parting phrase, leave.
  • Give yourself time to make a transition. Get up a little earlier those first few days and weeks so you don’t feel frantic when you drop your child off at care.
  • Separating may be harder on the parent than it is on some infants. Don’t be disappointed if baby has less trouble saying goodbye than you do. Just remember, your baby is making new friends but you can never be replaced.

Working Parents

Separation can be extremely hard for working parents. Many working parents who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s came from families in which the mother worked in the home, and the belief persists that this is where mothers belong. This leaves many working mothers without a role model to show that children and parents can thrive in a different situation. In addition, the work place has not yet adapted to the needs of working families. Many mothers strive to be good employees while trying to remain “old fashioned moms” – doing all things for everyone. The situation can cause a tremendous amount of guilt and feelings of inadequacy as a parent. If you have no choice but to work, you will need to find ways to keep these anxious feelings at a manageable level.

Opportunity for Growth

Despite the stress separations can cause, there are ways to ease the “pain” and turn this process into a positive opportunity. It can be a time for parents to examine their fears, beliefs and goals and to reaffirm their love and attachment to their children. For children, mastering separation at an early age can lay the foundation to meet this and other challenges with trust and confidence throughout life. We hope that some of the following suggestions work for you as your child enters a child care program.

Prepare Your Baby

Prepare your child by assuring that physical needs such as eating, sleeping and pacifying can be provided by someone other than yourself.

  • While there is no reason to stop breast-feeding, make sure your baby can also drink from a bottle or cup. Revise your nursing schedule so that your child nurses at the times you will still be together after the baby is in care. By doing this your breast milk can remain a source of nourishment if you so choose.
  • Look at how your baby goes to sleep. If you always nurse the baby to sleep, the transition will be harder for both the child and the provider.
  • Begin early to teach your child other ways to nod off – rocking in a cradle, listening to music, using a pacifier, falling asleep alone with a favorite toy.
  • Play hide-and-seek games like peek-a-boo with your baby. Hide a favorite toy under a cloth and encourage your little one to pull it off to find the toy. These games teach children to say goodbye and hello again. Talk to your baby when you leave the room for a minute. “Mommy is going in the bedroom to get your sweater, but I’ll be right back.” Leaving for short periods of time and returning helps babies learn to tolerate separation. Even very young children will soon recognize that things (and mommies and daddies) can go away and reappear again.
  • Use occasional care provided by friends or babysitters to get your baby and yourself used to the idea of having another person providing care. Having success with occasional care sets the stage for a successful transition to child care.

Choose Child Care Carefully

Nothing can give you more comfort than knowing you have looked at all your child care options and have selected the one that best meets the needs of you and your child. It is very important to feel good about your final choice. If you are satisfied that you have made the best child care choice for your child, you will feel much more secure when it is time to say goodbye and actually leave your child in care.


Beginning Care

Nothing can really prepare you for the day when you must actually return to work and your child enters child care. But knowledge does give you some measure of control. If you can afford to use the care now and then before you resume working (and the provider is available), by all means do so. This gives you some forewarning about how you and the baby will react to more time apart. Using care ahead of time also familiarizes you with the child care routine so you can comfort yourself at work by thinking about what your baby is doing now. This approach can also allow you to stay with your baby a few days for decreasing amounts of time to see whether s/he agrees that this would be a good way to begin care.
Find out from the provider what items and/or equipment she would like you to provide. Many providers expect parents to supply diapers, formula and a change of clothes and some might even want you to provide a crib or playpen. Others furnish these items. Pack the child’s care bag ahead of time so you don’t forget that favorite toy, enough diapers, an extra pacifier…. You may want to send a “transitional” object that feels like home – a blanket or one of your scarves.
Your child is going to take her cues from your behavior. A cheery positive attitude can be contagious. Talk to your baby as you get her ready to go and during the trip in the car, or on the bus, to the child care program. “Today, you are going to child care and mommy is going to work. You will have a good time and I will be back to pick you up later.” Even if your child is too young to know the meaning of the words, your tone of voice conveys your feelings. Be as positive as you possibly can.
Once you get your child settled in care and are ready to depart, be sure to say goodbye. Never slip away without a goodbye even if parting is hard on both of you. Your child needs to hear you say, “Mommy is leaving now but I’ll be back to get you in the afternoon. I love you. Goodbye.” After you say goodbye – leave.

There are two forms of anxiety which some, but not all babies face when beginning child care:

  • Separation anxiety – It is a normal stage of development for a child to show real sadness when separated from her parents, particularly her mother. You may be able to reduce some of this anxiety by using the child care ahead of time (as already suggested). Your provider will probably have other ideas for dealing with separation concerns. Give the situation and your baby time to adjust. There are no set rules and it can take as long as three months for a child to adjust to a new child care setting.


  • Stranger anxiety – It is another perfectly normal milestone for infants to react to strangers after the age of five or six months. While some babies never seem frightened by new faces, most infants at this age react to a new person in some way – crying, becoming withdrawn or clinging. Your baby isn’t reacting because the situation is bad. She is showing anxiety because she has learned who mom and dad are and she is smart enough to know that this new person is not familiar. Stranger anxiety is also connected to children beginning to realize that they are separate human beings from their parents. Most children pass through the acute stages of stranger anxiety fairly quickly.

During the Day

The first few days will be the hardest for you. Ask the provider to call you or arrange a time when you can call to reassure yourself that baby is doing fine. Don’t assume the worst if baby cries a bit. It can take some children several days or even weeks to become accustomed to care. On the other hand, don’t be disappointed if the baby has an easier transition than you do. Some babies, especially very young babies, make a very quick and uneventful adjustment to care.


Saying Hello Again

Picking up your child at the end of the day can be very stressful. Both you and the baby will probably be a little tired and anxious. You may be greeted by a big smile, a wailing infant or a withdrawn, even rejecting, baby. Don’t read too much into how your baby acts those first few days. Give him and yourself time to settle into a routine. Your baby is learning to separate from you and learning that you will come back. Sometimes the relief of seeing you again can overwhelm your little one. Take your cues from baby as to whether he is ready for a quiet hello or a noisy joyful one.
Knowing what kind of a day your baby has had can relieve your anxiety. If your provider doesn’t already keep charts on the infants in care, you can ask her to do so. The record can be very simple. Just ask her to jot down information about when the baby napped, when and what the baby ate, whether the baby had a bowel movement, or cried when you left, etc.
The travel time on your way to and from child care will become a very valuable transition time for you and your child. This is the time when you begin saying goodbye and then hello again. Be sure to allow yourself enough time so you aren’t frantic or rushed. Try to “separate” from your job as you drive to child care so you are ready to begin reconnecting with your baby as you drive home. Take a few minutes when you first arrive home to sit quietly with your child and engage in some activity which makes you and your baby feel close again – nursing, reading a story, just chatting about the day. Do this before you launch into your “second shift” family activities like cooking dinner.

Adjusting and Regressing

Some children adjust readily and rapidly to child care. Others take much more time. Every situation is different and individual. Stay in close contact with your provider. Make an appointment to talk things over if you have concerns about your child.
Remember that even families which make easy adjustments need to be prepared for separation anxiety to recur. Children often regress after being out of care when they are ill or on vacation. Changes at home: a visit from grandma, a new baby, a divorce or remarriage – can cause a child to suffer separation anxiety all over again. And, changing to a new child care program can also trigger the separation blues. When this happens look back on your past successes and reassure yourself that they can happen again.
Used with permission from BANANAS Child Care Information and Referral

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