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. This fear usually peaks at around 7-10 months of age.
- Separation anxiety: this is when children get upset about being away from you. Separation anxiety peaks around 14-18 months of age, although older children can experience it too.
Fear of strangers and separation anxiety are typical aspects of child development, and many babies and children experience these feelings to some extent. They happen regardless of whether children go to child care.
But the time in child development when separation anxiety and fear of strangers happen is often the time when parents are thinking about returning to work and starting child care.
So if your child is starting child care and they’re experiencing separation anxiety and fear of strangers, it might help to remember that this is a natural part of development.
Child care is also known as early childhood education and care or early learning and care. Likewise, child care centres are sometimes called early childhood services or early learning centres. We usually talk about child care and child care centres or services in our articles.
What to do about separation anxiety and fear of strangers at child care
Try not to worry. Children usually adjust as new faces become familiar. Some children might take a little longer to adjust than others, and that’s OK.
When you and your child are 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
- reading books together about child care.
Also, 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. Talk to your child’s educator about what might work best for you and your child.
When it’s time to say goodbye, give your child a few minutes warning before you leave. Let your child know when you’ll be back and what you’ll do together when you get home. This can be part of your 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 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 starting child care.
- Your child’s personal preferences: for example, your child might feel more comfortable if the service’s routines match 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 might take longer to settle in because they have less time to become familiar with and comfortable in the service.
You can’t change things like your child’s age or temperament or how quickly 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 things you can do if your child isn’t settling at child care.