Coping with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is stressful for parents as well as kids. Learn seven tips for helping your child cope with your leaving.

By Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.

Every Friday my babysitter shows up at 9:30. As soon as she says, "hello," right on cue, my toddler begins to cry hysterically. What's going on? He has a major case of toddler separation anxiety, which can be as stressful for mom as it is for baby.

As soon as she takes him out of the room, however, the sobbing stops as suddenly as it began. I work from home and so, throughout the day, I can hear him giggling and playing, happy as can be.

Not every kid gets over separation this quickly, however. With September approaching, many families are considering enrolling toddlers in early preschools. If your toddler falls apart every time you leave, here are a few tips and tricks that may help ease the transition between mom and another caregiver: 

  • Is it necessary? Sometimes we need other people to take over for a few hours—whether we need to work or just need a break. If you neither want nor need a regular separation, however, do not feel obligated to create one! Toddlers do not need to "practice" separation any more than they need to practice driving a car. If you are happy and your baby is happy, then just enjoy the time together!
  • Say goodbye. Although it can be tempting to sneak away, leaving without saying goodbye can actually create more anxiety. Before I read this advice with my first, I used to try to slip out unnoticed. Once I included a goodbye ritual when I left, my daughter overcame her anxiety. Toddlers still may not like it when mom leaves but knowing she is going out is a lot better than worrying about when mom might disappear again.
  • Let him have some control. Like with many toddler discipline issues, it is wise to offer some choice. You need to go and that is not up for discussion. You can let your toddler choose whether you give two or three hugs and kisses before leaving or whether you say "see you soon" instead of "goodbye." Your toddler may feel better if he has some control over the situation.
  • Hands-off hand-off. Every child is different, but I have found that all three of my kids get more upset when I leave than when the caregiver takes them into another room, preferably outside if weather allows. Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution, advises parents to leave while the baby is in a high chair or playing on the floor, rather than handing the baby to the sitter. In this way, she explains, the sitter can be the "hero" and come to the rescue when the baby cries, rather than being the cause of the crying.
  • Consider alternatives. Even if you have carefully interviewed the babysitter and vetted the daycare, your child may just feel uncomfortable with that situation. Babies have their own personalities and opinions, too. Just because an environment works for one child, it may not be right for another. If you have other choices, see if a change of scenery makes a difference.
  • Accentuate the positive. Even young babies can pick up on parents' emotions. Sometimes mom is as anxious about separation as the toddler. Reassure yourself that you are making the right decision for your family and that you have chosen safe and warm care for your child. Instead of focusing on your child's fears, remind him of all the fun he'll have and how much you are looking forward to hearing all about it. A special toy can be part of this positive experience.
  • He'll grow out of it. Separation anxiety is a phase. Some children feel it more intensely than others but all children will eventually grow out of it. The important thing is always to take care of yourself and continue to be the parent you want to be.

My first baby was intense and we were almost never apart. I did not spend a night away from her until she was two and her baby brother was born. Now, with my third baby, I have had childcare one day a week since he was born. I went to a conference for two nights when he was 14 months old. So far everyone is surviving and thriving. How do you maintain a healthy attachment (and your own sanity) during the separation anxiety stage?