"My son is starting school soon and I expect a lot of tearful goodbyes, as a parent, how do I navigate these?"
I support parents to transition their infants and children into the loving arms of new caregivers, and any time I talk about starting school, daycare, or preschool, this is the worry that comes up most for parents. The fear that, at drop off, their little one will cry, or worse, be inconsolable, and they won't have the tools to know what to do.
How do you walk away from a distressed infant or child?
Let me start by saying, the goodbye is so important.
I myself have been advised, many times, to just "slip away" when my child starts to play or averts their gaze from me. Unfortunately, this all-too-common advice is not helpful. Whilst you may avoid tears at that goodbye, those tears will be stored up for later, and the thing is, it is better for our child to cry in our loving arms, than when we are not available to them. I would rather hold those tears for my child than have someone else do it.
Sneaking away can lead to hypervigilance in your child. If they cannot trust you to let them know when you are leaving, the separations can feel unpredictable and chaotic to the child. This can lead to anxiety at not-knowing when you might sneak off next. Goodbyes build trust.
A big part of the approach I teach is preparing children (and ourselves) for the goodbye. For a younger baby that might involve micro-separations by playing peek-a-boo or popping out of the room momentarily; all of these moments allow your baby to experience separation in a way that is tolerable. For older infants I recommend we role-play the separation and practise those goodbyes ahead of the moment. It can be helpful to visit the setting ahead of time, show your little one where you will say goodbye and what that moment will look like. For my little boy starting nursery he was told,
"Mummy will walk you to this door - that is your classroom, we will have a big cuddle and Mummy will say goodbye. Mummy will leave and then Mrs Brown will take you in to wash your hands before you start playing."
Orientate Your Child to the Next Point of Connection
I know some of our tiniest babies will be too young to understand this, but even if they are it can soothe us if we picture the reunion when it is time to say goodbye. My daughter transitioned into the care of a nanny at 13 months old and with the support of baby-sign she understood that Mummy would come back and we would do "milkies." For my older son, orienting him to the next point of connection might have sounded like:
"Mummy will collect you right after story time today."
Give a Calm and Confident Goodbye
This is where we have to dig deep. The more we can regulate ourselves in the goodbye, the calmer the transition will be for our child. Our child's nervous system will resonate with ours, and if they sense our calm confidence they are so much more likely to feel safe being left in the care of someone else. Babies, in particular, will use "social referencing" to check-in with us to determine whether or not we are comfortable with what is happening. They will look to our face, our facial expression, our body language to gauge, how does my parent feel about this and therefore how should I feel about this? This is where preparation comes in for us. The more prepared we feel, the more confident we can have in the transition plan we have made for our child. Trusting the strategies we have used to nurture a relationship between our child and their new caregiver, comforted in the knowledge that our child is equipped with the tools necessary to bridge the separation from us. This allows us to calmly and confidently walk away even if our child cries. We will have faith that our child's sadness at being apart from us will be tolerable in the loving arms of someone else until such time as we are reunited.
Remember, tears don't mean it hasn't been a successful separation.
A successful separation means that your child trusts that their connection to you remains, that they know you will come back, and that they know they will be okay while you are apart. Tears at the goodbye are completely normal for many little ones. If the level of distress you observe is at a level you are not comfortable with, you can work with your child's new caregiver to decide on the best course of action for your little one moving forward. Speak to staff about what your child is like once you have left.
How long did it take them to stop crying?
How distressed were they?
What helped to soothe them?
Were they able to rest-in-play shortly after the goodbye?
How were they for the rest of the day?
Were they able to eat/drink/sleep?
Remember you know your child best and therefore you are their best advocate for what they need moving forward.
Difficulties with separations often require an increase in connection, to the new caregiver, and to you. That might mean shortening time spent apart for a period of time, or finding ways to deepen their attachment to their new caregiver. I offer many practical tips like dropping your child off a few minutes early each morning; a simple tweak that allows our more sensitive little ones to have a less busy drop-off before the other children arrive. This provides them with a few minutes each day to bond one-on-one with their new caregiver.
Much of the support I offer focuses on how we as parents can prepare our child for any big transition regarding their care. I absolutely believe that when parents are provided with a framework that enables them to tailor their child's transition to their child's needs, that we can avoid tearful drop-offs altogether. When parents have the tools to support their child to feel connected to their new caregiver and still connected to their parent, then they are able to lovingly leave their child with calm confidence that their little one will be stretched without feeling overwhelmed.
If you wish to learn more about settling your baby (0-18 months) into childcare you can do so here.
If you have an older toddler or child (18 months +) starting daycare, preschool or school, then this course is for you.
With so much love as you navigate this transition with your little ones,