Separation anxiety is a typical problem for young children. It’s common for toddlers and preschoolers to have some anxiety when they separate from their parents. It’s also a sign of healthy attachment to mom and dad. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for anyone to cope with the tears at day care drop off.
Toddlers and preschoolers still depend on their parents for managing their emotions and they get a healthy sense of security and courage when their parents are around. Nonetheless, it’s important to give your child some safe opportunities to overcome their anxiety and develop resiliency.
Whether your child is starting day care so you can work or you’re using a drop in day care for exercise classes, it’s a good stepping stone to separating from you in preparation for school.
I’ve compiled a list of 11 tips to help you cope with the day care drop off.
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1. Ask your child why going to day care is hard
While you may have a guess about why day care drop off is hard, it is important always ask your child why he or she is having difficulty. Even with very young children, speech-delayed children, or children with other developmental or neurological differences, don’t underestimating the value of asking your child.
Asking our children even when we don’t believe they have the ability to answer us is another way of recognizing their inherent dignity and value. Asking when we think we already know the answer is important to learn about our children’s authentic concerns.
2. Prepare your child for day care
Explain to your child what will happen at the day care drop off. Then explain that you will come back at a certain time.
We like to watch the episode on Daniel Tiger: Daniel’s Babysitter. In the second part of this episode, Daniel Tiger goes to preschool and experiences anxiety when his dad drops him off. His dad comes to pick him up when the day is over and Daniel learns that grown-ups come back. We watched the episode repeatedly to reinforce the idea that I would come back to pick up my child.
We also like the book The Kissing Hand. Chester the Raccoon is afraid to start school but his mom shares the secret of the Kissing Hand to ease his fears. We reference the Kissing Hand at drop off to remind my son – that he can press his hand against his cheek to remember me.
3. Give your child a picture of where you will be
Describe to your child in detail where you will be while he is at day care. I explain in detail: I’m going to get back in the minivan. I will drive to Starbucks. I will order a coffee. I will sit and work on my laptop. I will come back when you are eating your lunch.
Also, you can literally take a photo of yourself at your desk at work, at home doing laundry, or at the gym to show your child your child where you will be during day care.
4. Develop a plan with the providers
Talk to the child care provider ahead of time if you know your child is a crier at drop off. Ask them what they do to comfort a crying child. Find out if there is a number of minutes your child can cry before they will call and ask you to come back to pick him up.
Some providers will tell you to just leave and let them manage it, but some prefer you stay and help your child feel comfortable. Think about whether it is better for your child to make it swift or for you to wait for your kiddo to get comfortable.
5. Pack a snack for day care
One of my son’s day care teachers suggested he eat a snack as soon as he arrives. We usually pack a granola bar or applesauce pouch since we get those through Amazon Subscribe & Save. This has been surprisingly effective for my son.
When I thought about it, I realized it gives him a transition activity that he can immediately transfer his attention to. When you go to a party and don’t know anyone or what to do, do you head for the buffet or bar? Having a snack is a familiar activity that can be anchoring.
6. Switch the drop off person
If your child has a harder time separating from you than your husband, consider if someone else can drop your child off.
For my children, saying good-bye to me at home and having my husband Kyle manage the drop off is easier. In your family, it might be easier if Grandma, a neighbor, or another caregiver can pick your child up and drop off at the day care. If you have a friend who has a child at the same day care, consider whether you can carpool for drop off and pick up.
7. Have a saying good-bye ritual
We always do put your backpack in your cubby, give your lunch box to the teacher, and give mom a good-bye hug. In your family it could be kissing the hand like Chester Raccoon in The Kissing Hand.
Depending on your child’s day care and the set up and routine, the ritual could also involve getting a drink of water at the fountain, settling in with a toy, book or puzzle, or washing hands.
8. Use a visual schedule for day care
Print out the visual schedule I created and discuss the routine with your child. I created two printables in the file you will download: one for mom and one for dad.
The visual has the same basic routine: You will go to day care. You will say good bye. You will play with toys. You will eat a snack. Your parent will come back. You will go home.
Pictures stay in the brain a lot longer for children than words so consider printing on cardstock or laminating and taking it to day care with your child. You can ask the provider to reference it with your child.
9. Play day care at home
Use the day care visual schedule to rehearse this routine at home. Set up your living room to look like school. Explain to your child that you’re going to play pretending to go to day care.
Rehearse each step on the visual schedule complete leaving through the front door and then returning after a few minutes.
10. Have a lovey for day care
Having a lovey, or a transitional object, has been key for our children. Both our children are attached to the Angel Dear Pair and a Spare loveys. We adore these because they come in sets in case one gets lost or dirty.
If your child hasn’t attached to a special toy yet, consider if taking a photo of you will help. You could also choose to purchase a new special lovey at the store with your child or help your child choose a stuffed animal or toy from home.
11. Use reinforcement for day care
Use the printable sticker chart to reinforce your child’s bravery for going to day care. We got fun vehicle stickers for our truck-obsessed toddler and him gave a sticker for each time he went to day care. He got a sticker regardless of whether or not he cried at drop off. We wanted to reinforce that he can do hard things.
Our reinforcement was he could take a ride on the Max Train, the local commuter train, on a Saturday with my husband. We drew a picture of the Max Train in the blank spot on the chart. Our son had special time to look forward to with my husband.
When Day Care Drop off Tears Persist
If this persists for weeks and weeks, you’ll want to check with your child’s medical provider to make sure it isn’t a cause for concern. I checked with my child’s doctor and it relieved my parental anxiety to discover my toddler’s intense separation anxiety was within the range she considered normal for a two year old.
Better Day Care Drop Offs
Separation anxiety is a typical part of childhood and with several steps, you can support your child as he or she manages this big step in independence. Make sure to get your printables here.