What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development; it usually starts to happen around the four-month mark—right when your little one begins to understand that they are their own person, unconnected from Mom, Dad, and their caregivers but before your little one fully understands that anyone who leaves still exists (known as object permanence)5, 6

Not every little one displays or develops separation anxiety. Some infants are fine until it’s time for daycare or preschool enrollment, at which point separation anxiety appears.2

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

The telltale signs of separation anxiety pop up when a child’s primary caregiver leaves the room—or leaves the child altogether—and typically include:3, 4

There is another kind of anxiety to look out for in your toddler: stranger anxiety. While they can go hand in hand, they are distinct. The hallmark of stranger anxiety is your little one fussing or crying when approached by someone they’re unfamiliar with—even if you’re holding them close. This type of anxiety pops up around the eight-month mark and typically resolves around the age of two. Until then, taking time to introduce new people or rarely seen relatives to your little love is typically all that’s needed to ease this type of anxiety.1

How to Help Your Toddler Through Separation Anxiety

Helping your toddler through separation anxiety around starting daycare or preschool starts with careful planning and continues by sticking to routines. Here are tips for helping your toddler with separation anxiety before they start attending daycare or preschool, for the first day of entering their new program, and beyond.

Before Beginning Daycare or Preschool

Demystifying daycare and preschool for your little one is the best way to make them feel more comfortable and less anxious:4

  • Introduce your toddler to the new school and caregivers before the first day.

  • Play pretend about going to this new place and ask and answer questions about what it might be like.

  • Read stories about going to daycare or school and talk about what you’ve learned about it.

  • Practice your routine for getting ready to leave the house and head to daycare or preschool—including a dry-run commute to the place, if possible.

On the First day of Daycare or Preschool

Once the first day of daycare or preschool arrives, these steps can help the transition to attending their new program go more smoothly for your toddler:4

  • Take advantage of all that dry-run practice!

  • Have your toddler choose a favorite toy or object to bring with to daycare or preschool—provided it’s allowed by the caregivers’ rules.

  • When you say goodbye for the first time be loving but strong and remind your toddler that you’ll miss them and that you’ll be happy to see them at the end of the day. Make the goodbye short and sweet as lingering can lead to increasing anxiety.

  • Don’t double-back for another hug and kiss—this will just confuse and maybe even upset your toddler.

How to Keep Easing Toddler Separation Anxiety

A great way to keep supporting your little one in combating separation anxiety is to focus on always having a good experience saying goodbye:4

  • Stick to the routine you established for getting ready and leaving home. Practice makes perfect, and consistency eases anxious little ones. Keep up with your morning routine and any routines around packing bags or bringing a beloved toy along with to daycare or preschool.

  • Have—and stick to—a special and personal goodbye ritual. Whether it’s saying the same thing, having a special combination of hugs and kisses, or something else, a personalized and special goodbye will boost your little one’s spirits and keep them confident.

  • Don’t make a fuss even if your little one does. After your goodbye ritual, leave without further fanfare. Keep a stiff upper lip and stay kind, but definitely make your way out the door.

  • Always say goodbye. Even if you’re in a rush, even if your little one has immersed themselves in an activity, never leave without doing your goodbye ritual—or at least saying the words, “I love you, goodbye.”

While it’s a normal part of growing up, toddler separation anxiety around starting something new, like daycare or preschool, can be trying for everyone. But with careful planning, patience, and routine, your little one will soon feel confident and comfortable embarking on being more independent.

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