There are many reasons why parents leave their baby or toddler in the care of another adult. Some families have daily goodbyes when the grown-ups go to work while others have time away from their young child less frequently. Babies and toddlers can have many different reactions to being left in the care of someone other than Mommy or Daddy. Some are perfectly fine as their parent walks out the door or are even excited about the time they will have with the babysitter. Others may pout or whimper at the goodbyes, while many children become very upset and resist the separation by physically clinging on to the parent and crying. Even more puzzling to parents is the very common situation in which their child suddenly cries and clings desperately when Mom or Dad leaves him with the very same babysitter whom he greeted happily for months before. Going in and out of a “Mommy phase” or a “Daddy phase” is also typical for many children.
Like their children, parents may have a range of different feelings about leaving their baby or toddler, including relief and excitement for having time to oneself or with one’s partner, guilt about having to leave for work or go on a trip, worry about leaving the baby/toddler in someone else care, and dread about the difficult goodbyes and tears as the child is left behind.
Mastering separation is one of the most important developmental tasks of the first three years of your child’s life and every child goes through various normal phases during the process. We often first experience struggles with this during toddlerhood, but learning to cope with separation starts during the first months of life, even when you leave the room your child is in for a few moments.
Parents can establish routines that help pave the way towards healthy separations. These routines will allow your child to develop trust that “Mommy and Daddy go away and they always come back”.
Here are tips when leaving your child in the care of someone else:
Enlist the care of a trusted caregiver, friend or family member who is familiar to your baby/toddler. Spend time together with your child and this person so that they can develop a relationship before you leave.
- Prepare your child for the goodbye, but not too far in advance “Grandma is coming after you finish your snack and Mommy and Daddy are going to go bye-bye”.
- Talk to your child about what she will be doing in your absence. “Aunt Sara is going to give your bath, get you in your pajamas, read you Curious George and Goodnight Moon and put you to sleep after Mommy and Daddy leave. We will be here when you wake up in the morning.
- Always say goodbye and let your child see you leave. Some parents are tempted to sneak out to avoid the hysterics of a difficult goodbye, but this is not helpful. It can cause a child to worry that his parents can disappear at any moment, making it difficult to trust the idea that “Mommy and Daddy go away and they always come back”.
- Establish goodbye rituals. “Remember, Maggie is coming after breakfast. You and I can sing Wheels On The Bus and Twinkle Twinkle and then Maggie will bring you to the door to say goodbye.” Older toddlers may like to choose between a few routines, (2 or 3 choices are plenty). This allows them to feel some control over and take a more active role in the goodbye. Some children like to push their parents out the door themselves, turning a passive experience into an active one again.
- Make goodbye routines short. Drawn out goodbyes can lead to increased worry or upset for your baby/toddler. This often means prying your child from your goodbye hug and leaving them crying in the arms of the caregiver. For some children, the crying becomes a helpful part of the ritual and is not an indication that the goodbye is too difficult. Tolerating the crying and leaving with the confidence that she will be fine helps your child to trust this too, and minimizes the crying in the future.
- Play “goodbye games” with your toddler. The first of these games, starting at about 5 months, is Peek-a-boo. Playing lots of Peek-a-boo, which most children love and want to play over and over again, helps your child master the experience of seeing you disappear and re-appear in a playful and enjoyable manner. Starting at around 2, you can pretend that they are leaving you and you are feeling upset about their going. Many toddlers initiate this game themselves. They carry a pretend briefcase or pocketbook and pretend to leave for work or date night. This allows them to turn their passive role in most goodbyes into an active role and they are thrilled when the parent has a huge reaction to the goodbye. So pretend to cry and carry on as they leave and joyfully greet them as they return “from work” or their “Big night out”!
The above tips are general ideas about how to help you and your child with separations and can be used for saying goodbye from home, school or daycare. Some children struggle more than most with separations and parents may need more support and guidance to find an individualized approach to helping their child master goodbyes. UWS Parenting Support works with families to support healthy separations and goodbyes.