Parenting Tips: Separation Anxiety and Daycare. Can't a Dad Get a Break?

First, I want to thank you, my readers, for giving me such great suggestions. Tons of you submitted questions and ideas for posts, and I'm diligently responding, writing, (and plotting and scheming on site improvements!) Many of your questions centered around babies and infant development, so I thought Backpacking Dad's question was perfect:

Hiya Babyshrink!

The last few times I've gone to the gym I've had to turn around almost immediately and head home. My once delightful, friendly, playful, and charming 13-month-old daughter turns into a wailing ball of snotty tears when I try to drop her at the gym day care center now.

It's made me wonder if they did something there that she's afraid of (although I don't rationally believe this, it's the crazy worry that I have when faced with this inexplicable reaction).

I'd hate to stop going to the gym. And the child care there is highly recommended by parents I respect, and I personally like all of the girls who work there. I also don't want to reinforce any "if I cry he'll take me home" attitude she might have begun developing.

In talking with one mom there, who is also a pre-school teacher, she said that kids go through peaks and valleys, sometimes very comfortable with everybody, and other times, suddenly and briefly, hating being separated from mom and dad. Since this is the first time in a year that my daughter has manifested any such attitude I'm not sure if it's just a phase or if there is a problem that I need to work through with her.

Thanks, Backpacking Dad.

Hi Backpacking Dad,

Between about 10- 18 months, there's a peak in Separation Anxiety, based on your baby's newfound independence from you. SHE can now walk away from YOU...get around the house by herself, even lose sight of you as she explores. As exciting as that is, it also scares the daylights out of her. If SHE can go away from YOU...then YOU can certainly go away from HER.....and so you do, at the gym. Did you study Ainsworth and Attachment Theory in undergrad, by chance? If not, here's a link to a classic psychological/developmental theorist who addresses just this issue.

Jakestanding_3 Now, you say that you trust the daycare people at the gym, so I would assume nothing bad happened there. It's worthwhile to ask them, though, if there was a bossy kid around her one day? Or perhaps she witnessed a tearful separation with another child and parent? Anything to give you a clue. Use the daycare people as a resource; ask them for suggestions and advice.

But the bottom line is this: Your daughter is facing a really difficult life lesson in separation and reunification.

It's important that you help her through it by being supportive, but not denying that separations will occur.

She's still not 100% sure that you WILL RETURN when you do go away from her. And there's no way to learn but through experience.

PHOTO: When they start walking, they make the scary realization that YOU can walk away from THEM, too.

Plus, as you say, you don't want to give her the message that her tears will be so powerful that she can control important adult activities.

Having supportive daycare people, plus an understanding Dad, will help her to learn this important life lesson and skill in a way that will help her deal with the issue productively in the future.

I also think it's important to model for her that you value some adult time, and your own health, by sticking to a workout schedule. You can be very understanding with her about it: Talk with her frequently about what you see as her fears. Be reassuring. Remind her that you will return. Tell her you know she might cry a little. But her teacher Ms. So-and-So will be there to help her feel better while you're exercising. And then when you return, you'll both be so happy!

Talk to the teacher first, to let her know you expect a reaction from your daughter.

Plan it out in advance. Don't try to sneak out.

Be upfront and matter-of-fact with your daughter about it. "I know you'll be sad, but you'll be fine. See you soon!" And then leave. If you must, listen by the door, or have someone check in on her after 5 minutes. I almost guarantee she'll be fine after a few minutes of tears. (She may protest an extra while at first, since her crying DID deter you from exercising in the past, so surely she'll try it out again. But stick with it.)

I know it's heartbreaking to see your baby in such distress. I know your instinct is to rush in and make it better for her. But she's a toddler now...the baby rules don't apply as much anymore. She's older and sturdier now, psychologically. She's ready to plow into this difficult life lesson. And she's so lucky to have a caring, thoughtful Dad like you to help her through it in a good way!

If you're worried that she might develop "abandonment fears" from being left at daycare, let me give you an example of how that MIGHT happen: If you took her to a gym that she'd never been to before, and where you had no knowledge of the quality of the teachers, and you didn't give her any time to "warm up" to the situation, and you just left her there for a couple of hours, without explaining that you were going, or that you would return, or providing any reassurance. Just dumped her there. THAT'S what you would NOT want to do. But you're so far away from that!

Know that this is good for Erin, AND good for you.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Post Script After a nice discussion with Backpacking Dad about this, he let me know that Erin started walking the following weekend! Surely, her developmental changes were disturbing her usual acceptance of the separation at the gym. But he and his wife kept trying, and after a few minutes of tears, his daughter settled back into her nice gym-daycare routine.  Nice going, Shawn! And check out his backpacking  "dadventures"  here at his blog!