Your child’s feelings about child care: separation and stranger anxiety

Separation anxiety and stranger anxiety often go hand in hand with starting child care.

Separation anxiety is when your child gets upset when you leave him. Stranger anxiety is when your child gets upset around other people. These feelings are a normal part of development.

The difficulty is that this is going on just as many parents are thinking about going back to work and starting child care for their baby. It’s not your fault – it’s just how babies develop.

Why separation anxiety and stranger anxiety happen 
Around six months, babies develop an understanding of object permanence. This means your baby understands that you exist, even when you’re not with her. But she doesn’t understand that you’ll be back if you leave her, so she might get upset when you go. This generally passes once she learns, through experience, that you’ll come back.

Almost all babies and children go through separation anxiety and stranger anxiety to some extent. These feelings usually peak at 14-18 months, although older children can experience separation anxiety too.

What you can do
Try not to worry – children usually adjust as the new faces in their care setting become familiar.

You can help your child overcome these anxieties by spending some time together in the new child care setting, before you start leaving your child there without you. If you can, try leaving your child for just short periods, and build up to a whole day.

Your feelings about starting child care

Starting child care is a big change. It can be an exciting and emotional time for families – both children and parents.

Although it might be hard, it’s important for you to be positive with your child about the experience. Children have an amazing ability to pick up on when their parents are worried or anxious, so try not to share your worries or anxious feelings with your child.

This doesn’t mean you can’t show your feelings though – you might like to share them with your partner, a friend or a family member who can give you some support during this emotional time.

How children feel about starting child care: other factors

Children have different experiences of starting child care. Your child’s feelings about starting child care might also be affected by:

  • carers, especially how carers get to know your child
  • the child care setting, and whether it’s like other places your child is familiar with
  • your child’s experience of being cared for or spending time with people outside your immediate family
  • your child’s temperament, which will affect the way he responds to any sort of change, including a new child care setting
  • your child’s personal preferences, such as how he likes to be fed, comforted and soothed, and how he asks for and accepts affection
  • your child’s age and stage of development – for example, babies (less than six months) are often happy to be left with carers because they haven’t yet developed separation and stranger anxiety
  • the number of days your child has in care – for example, a child who attends care one day a week will often take longer to settle than a child who attends five days a week. This is simply because children attending fewer days a week have less time to become familiar with and comfortable in their new setting.
It’s best to think about the quality of care you choose for your child, and how well this care fits in with your family’s values and interests. Quality is about the relationships your child has with his carers. A quality child care centre is one with strong staff–child relationships and excellent communication with parents. You can read more about how the National Quality Framework promotes quality in early childhood education and care.