Starting Childcare When Your Baby has Separation Anxiety

Leaving your baby or child in the care of others can be a stressful time for parents, some children take the transition in their stride, but others struggle much more with the separation. While some settings and childcare providers offer brilliant support and advice to ease the transition, others are less helpful. Much is made of attachment theory in early years settings, yet I’m not certain that some truly understand its implications.

Photo by Lina Kivaka on

I have often seen well-meaning nursery workers peeling a sobbing child or screaming baby off of an equally distressed parent with reassurances of, “It will be okay, don’t worry.” The parents walk away with tear-stained cheeks, desperately trying to not look back, whilst the childcare workers speak in jolly voices trying to cajole toddlers with the promise of a sticker or story, or bounce babies whilst playing peekaboo.

Understanding attachment theory is so important here, for both parents and professionals. In the case of a securely attached mother-infant dyad, both will be experiencing trauma in the above situation if it is not well handled. The abrupt separation of the child from his or her ‘secure base’ is not something that can be ‘got over’ in minutes or hours. The child will stop eventually crying for its parent, but perhaps because of ‘learned helplessness’ or distraction, rather than being truly calm and reassured. It is important to realise that the potential trauma of separation is very real and valid, and to acknowledge, rather than try to silence it. Only then is it possible to move on to the ultimate goal – that of a truly happy child and a happy parent whilst using childcare.

See the video below for more on understanding attachment and why separation anxiety happens:


So, How can you help to smooth the transition, mindful of attachment?

1. Empathy and respect
Listening is so important. Don’t be tempted to tell your child: “don’t worry”, “don’t be silly” or similar, all of which dismisses feelings. Instead, you could say, “I can see you’re very upset, that’s okay, it’s a really big thing. How can I help?” which validates feelings and shows your genuine concern. Of course, in the case of a baby or young toddler, this sort of conversation won’t be possible, but you can still empathise and ask yourself if there is anything you can do to make it easier for them. I think, more than anything, it’s important to face this transition as a unit, recognising that your baby, toddler or preschooler is not behaving this way to deliberately make things harder for you.

2. Questions, questions, questions
Asking lots of questions about the setting, what happens and when, how it happens, who is responsible for what  etc can help. Especially if you can make up a visual timetable of sorts to share with your child (again, suitable for older toddlers and preschoolers, but less so for younger). .Don’t be afraid to ask anything that is on your mind, especially something you feel might be silly to ask – it is often these points that bother parents the most and are therefore the most important to discuss. Also, make sure the staff have as much information about your child as possible. Tell them what their favourite toys and activities are, what television programmes they like, what craft activities they enjoy, what their favourite book is, how they like to calm if they are angry, or settle to sleep. The more information you provide, the easier it will be for the childcare staff to meet your child’s needs in a bespoke way. You could even consider writing this information down as a sort of plan, over a couple of sides of A4.

3. Speak with other parents who have been through similar
It can be tremendously helpful to access peer support from those who have been in a similar situation. You could ask the setting if they have a parent there who had a tough start but whose child is now thriving that you could talk to, or consider asking parents with a similar parenting ethos to you online what helped them (you can join my Facebook chat group if you’re in the UK HERE, or HERE if you’re outside the UK).

4. Make sure your child has a key person
A key person becomes a replacement attachment object for the child, so it is vital that they form a good bond with the child in advance of the child starting. Both the parent and child need to meet their key person several times before starting day. I recommend a minimum of 3-4 times, for a minimum of 30 minutes per time (though more is usually better). It is also helpful to take a photo of your child’s key person (with their consent of course) to take home and refer to, building recognition and bonding at home.

5. Visual cues
Young children do not process and store information in the same way as adults. Using visual props can be very helpful, e.g. a small scrapbook with pictures of the nursery and staff that you share with your child at home, in order to familiarise.

6. Transitional objects
If your child already has a comforter, a cuddly toy, for instance, this should always come with them to the daycare setting and should never be taken away. If your child doesn’t have one, try to condition one a good month before daycare starts (or immediately if already started) – do this by involving the comforter in hugs and cuddles and feeds if the child is a baby.

7. Ask for honesty
Ask your childcare provider to always be honest with you. If your baby or toddler has had a bad day tell them that you would like to hear the truth, however hard it is. If they tell you today has been especially hard, ask to have a conversation about why this may have been (what happened that day? Did anything different happen? How did your child sleep? What did they eat? Can you spot any patterns over time?). Try to use the bad days as an opportunity to discuss how you can improve things with the childcare provider.

8. Consider who does the drop off
Children of all ages are usually ‘better’ at the drop off (by that I mean less upset) if it is not the primary attachment figure (and here this is usually mum) dropping them off. If you live with somebody else and they are available to do drop offs, it may well be calmer and more successful. If you are alone, or nobody else can do drop offs, try to really work hard on your own emotions. Babies and children definitely pick up on our own anxieties and emotions. Practice some positive affirmations, deep breathing and mindful for a few minutes before you leave the house and again just before you get to the daycare setting. Aim to be as calm and positive as you can be. On this note, unless you absolutely MUST leave at a certain time (eg to make it to work on time), it is not better to make a quick dash and leave your child crying if you can stay for a while and help comfort them, whatever anybody may tell you at the setting. If you do have to leave by a specific time, consider arriving earlier if possible, to build in some time for a slower drop off.

9. Ask the provider to consider babywearing
Using slings and carriers can be an amazing way to settle fractious babies and young toddlers, especially if you babywear at home. Ask your childcare provider if they would be willing to carry your child for a short while after the drop off, especially if they have other children to care for. We know from research that a child crying ‘in arms’ does not suffer the same toxic stress effects as a child who is crying out of arms. Babywearing allows a childcare work to have free arms to support other children in their care, whilst ‘holding’ your child through their upset. This is a good article to share with your setting if they are not sure of the idea.

10. Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives
If your child is persistently failing to settle into the setting, don’t be afraid to consider alternatives. This is really pertinent if it is relating to a toddler starting preschool. I believe many toddlers are forced to start before they are ready and that waiting just another few months can make a dramatic difference, although this of course only applies if you don’t *need* to use childcare. If you need to use childcare because you are working, then consider other providers – e.g: some do much better in a home based care environment, such as a nanny share or childminder. Or if you are already using home based care, it may be that your child will form a better bond with somebody else. If your child is in a nursery and you want them to stay there, or there are no home based alternatives, perhaps they may do better with a change in keyperson. If you use childcare part-time, consider if it’s possible to switch the days, for instance, many do better if they attend on concurrent days, rather than spacing care out by a day or more over the week. There is usually something you can consider here, so don’t be afraid to think about alternatives.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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