Separation anxiety and fear of strangers when children are starting child care
Many babies and children are happy and comfortable about starting child care.
Some babies and children have other feelings too:
- Fear of strangers: this is when children get upset around other people. It usually peaks at around 7-10 months of age.
- Separation anxiety: this is when children get upset when you leave them. Separation anxiety peaks around 14-18 months, although older children can experience it too.
Fear of strangers and separation anxiety are typical aspects of child development, and many babies and children go through these feelings to some extent. This is the same whether children go to child care or not.
The difficulty is that the time in child development when separation anxiety and fear of strangers happen is often the time when parents are thinking about going back to work and starting child care.
So, if your baby or child is starting child care and experiencing separation anxiety and fear of strangers, it might help to remember that this is just how babies develop.
What to do about separation anxiety and fear of strangers at child care
Try not to worry. Children usually adjust as the new faces in their care setting become familiar. It just might take some children a little longer than others.
When you’re getting ready to start child care, you can help your child overcome anxieties by visiting the child care service together, easing into new routines at home, talking about child care positively and reading books about child care.
And in the early weeks of child care, it’s best to take things slowly. If you can, start with short days and stay with your child. Then try leaving your child for just short periods, and build up to a whole day.
When it’s time to say goodbye, give your child a few minutes warning before you leave. It can also help to talk about activities you’ll do together when you get home. This can be part of a goodbye routine, which might also include a special book, cuddle, wave or ‘a kiss to last all day’.
Other things that affect children’s feelings about starting child care
There are a few other things that affect the way your child might feel about and respond to starting child care:
- Trusting, caring relationships with your child’s educators: these relationships help your child respond well to child care.
- The child care setting: if the setting is like other places your child is familiar with, your child might feel more comfortable.
- Your child’s experiences of being cared for outside your immediate family: these experiences give your child practice in building relationships and help your child learn that you’ll always come back.
- Your child’s temperament: this affects the way your child responds to changes, including changes like a new child care setting.
- Your child’s personal preferences: for example, your child might feel more comfortable if the setting’s routines are a good fit for the way your child likes to be fed, comforted and soothed.
- Your child’s age and stage of development: for example, babies younger than 6 months are often happy to be left with educators because they haven’t yet developed separation anxiety or fear of strangers.
- The number of days your child is in care: children attending fewer days a week have less time to get familiar with and comfortable in their new setting.
You can’t change things like your child’s age or temperament or how fast your child forms new relationships. And you probably don’t want to change things like how many days your child is in care. But there are other things you can do if you think your child isn’t settling in at child care.
Your feelings about starting child care
Starting child care is a big change. It can be an exciting and emotional time for families – for both children and parents. It might help to share your feelings with your partner, a friend or a family member when your child isn’t around. And if you need support for feelings of stress or anxiety, you can start by talking to your GP.