Worried About Transition and Separation Anxiety? Learn How to Ease the Pain and Stress

Transitioning an infant or toddler into childcare or preschool can be difficult  for both parents and children. Parents may experience the guilt of leaving their child with another caregiver and must develop new routines that include drop off and pick up. Children, especially those over 8- or 9-months-old, are likely to experience some separation anxiety and must adapt to a new environment and form new attachments.

However, parents can greatly diminish both their own stress and their child’s stress by creating a transition plan in conjunction with the childcare or preschool. We interviewed Evelyn Nichols, owner and director of Mighty Bambinis, a home-based childcare and preschool in San Francisco’s Sunnyside neighborhood (prior to Mighty Bambinis, Nichols was also a K-12  teacher and school administrator) to learn more about how parents can have a successful transition.

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Both parents and children can experience extreme stress and guilt about transitioning.

Transitioning Infants (up to 7 months old)

Nichols tells us that transitioning young infants is often easier than toddlers, primarily because infants are not as susceptible to separation anxiety. According to Kathy Zetes, former Child Development Specialist at Children’s Council San Francisco, infants have little fear of strangers and “are intrigued by studying faces and listening to voices. Anyone who smiles and talks to a 3- or 4-month-old will be rewarded with a returned smile and cooing.”

With young infants, it is helpful for new caregivers to observe parents with their infants to learn their routines, soothing techniques, and ways of being with the baby, since infants thrive on consistency. It is important for caregivers to cater to the baby’s rhythms, even if it requires compromising, rather than adjusting the baby’s routine to fit the childcare’s schedule. Overtime, children’s routines within a group setting often naturally merge together.

Nichols’ recommendations for parents transitioning infants:

  • Communicate the schedule for napping, eating, and playing on an on-going basis.
  • Spend a few hours at the daycare with the baby so caregivers can observe and learn how parents hold, sooth, feed, change, speak to the baby (sharing songs and words used at home can be helpful), and put them down for nap.
  • Discuss ways that nursing can be supported while in childcare.
  • Understand what supplies (diapers, formula, bottles etc.) the childcare provides and prepare the supplies that parents will need to bring.
  • Bring security objects such as toys, blankets, and pacifiers to use for comforting.
  • Complete a Child Needs and Services Plan, which serves as a “cheat sheet” that caregivers can refer to.
  • Do a dry run of pick up and drop off at commute times to become familiar with traffic and parking.

Although there are many ways for parents to communicate needs to caregivers, completing a Child Needs and Services Plan (see Mighty Bambini’s versionis highly recommended. Nichols also advises spending time at the childcare during the first week or before. The investment in time at the childcare demonstrates to the baby that there is a trusting relationship between parents and new caregivers, gives caregivers a chance to see parents with their children, and provides ample opportunities to communicate and work together to understand in which ways care will be similar or different than what is possible at home. Communicating needs over phone calls and emails also work, but the Child Needs and Services Plan can help caregivers keep the baby’s needs organized and at reach.

Transitioning Older Infants / Toddlers (8 or 9 months and older)

By the time babies reach the second half of their first year, they start to discriminate between the faces and voices of people they are familiar with and those of strangers. Attachment to parents or an existing caregiver, such as a nanny, can make separation difficult and children may experience a fear of abandonment. Separation anxiety tends to peak at around age 18 months and is manifested in sadness, crying, tantrums, and withdrawing. Separation anxiety when starting care may last anywhere from a few days to one month, and it is important for parents to have appropriate expectations and a plan in place to manage it. If parents know that their children have a significant amount of separation anxiety, it’s best to send children to childcare full-time rather than part-time. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, young children thrive on predictability and routine. Full-time care allows them to know what to expect five days a week and to more quickly adapt to and to enjoy their new environment and caregivers. However, with older children, the focus of the transition plan is on preparing the child for the separation, and empathizing and providing support, but not “rescuing” a child experiencing separation anxiety.

Nichols’ recommendations for parents transitioning toddlers:

  • Starting 2-3 weeks before school, talk to the child (even if they are 7-8 months) about school; telling them about the teacher, other children, activities, and where you will be while they are at school.
  • Read books together such as Llama Llama Misses Mama, which introduce the concept of separation, but also having fun at school.
  • Have the child help with preparing a backpack for school, including extra clothes, transitional/security objects, sunscreen, etc.
  • Go over a visual schedule of the school day with your child (which the childcare/preschool can provide or you can make from internet photos); Let your child know clearly when you’ll return, for example “after nap and snack.”
  • Arrange a transition schedule with the school, which may include visiting first for a couple of playdates, and/or gradually increasing the length of the day.
  • Develop and stick to a routine for short and consistent goodbyes.
  • Resist the temptation to  “rescue” children by saying things such as, “if you cry, I’ll pick you up early,”  or staying for extra hugs and kisses if the child cries.
  • Be confident about coming and going (children can pick up on your anxiety).
  • Leave a family photo with the school that a teacher and your child can visit together during particularly sad moments.

Nichols tells us that separation anxiety can feel like intense grief to a child, often like a loss of all that is known and familiar. It is not uncommon for children to cry much of their first day at school. It is important for parents to know that this separation anxiety is normal and to keep to the transition plan.  Skilled caregivers are adept at acknowledging your child’s feelings and comforting them, while encouraging and introducing them to try the new  activities and experiences of school.  It’s important to help children put names to their emotions and to allow them to feel and express themselves. To aid the transition process, Nichols assigns one teacher to focus on the new child to make sure he or she can be adequately comforted and starts to build a bond with their new caregiver, while other teachers work with the existing children. Most of the time, the amount of time spent crying or being sad will gradually diminish, though Nichols warns that for some children it may take up to one month.

Nichols also emphasizes that throughout the transition period, parents and caregivers should communicate frequently to stay abreast of the child’s progress and parents should feel free to  check-in during the day.

Separation anxiety can come and go, and peak at different times for children. If your child is starting care at one of these peak times, particularly if they start care part-time, a child may struggle with separation beyond what parents or caregivers feel is appropriate. Each program and family gauges how much is too much crying and stress, but if a child cries most of the day for more than two weeks, or their general well-being and mood are being significantly affected, it might be worth reevaluating whether now is an appropriate time to start care in a group setting. Most programs have a two week trial period at the start of care to allow for both parents and caregivers to feel out if the childcare arrangement is appropriate for their child at that time.

However, in the vast majority of cases, with a thoughtful transition plan and supportive caregivers, your child will shortly be on their way to enjoying school, building relationships with teachers, and making new friends.

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