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The Best Way to Handle a Toddler’s Drop-off Anxiety

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

My toddler is now 2.5 years old and has been going to the same dayhome since she was 1 year old. I’m wondering if there is anything I can do to help her with our morning routine and going to dayhome.

Often when we get to dayhome drop off she cries and tries to hold onto me etc. I just say goodbye and pick her up and pass her off to the dayhome lady and she is perfectly fine and happily playing by the time I get back to the car. Some days, she gets distracted when she gets there and will just wander in by herself and play with the other kids but most days she still has a bit of a fit until I directly pass her to our dayhome lady.

I’m getting worried if when she is a bit older I register her in a preschool or unparented program she is going to have problems letting go? Anything I can do to help at this point?


Your toddler’s behavior is totally, utterly, practically textbook normal

I wouldn’t worry about it, or try to do anything other than 1) stick with what you’re doing, and 2) wait it out.

By the time she’s a “bit older” and ready for a proper preschool this will either 1) not be a thing anymore, or 2) it will still be a slight thing, but believe me, she won’t be the only child in the school who does this exact thing.

It’s separation anxiety…

But don’t let the word “anxiety” alarm you or think this is something super serious that needs to be “fixed.” She cries a bit and protests before the moment of separation and then is perfectly happy once the moment is past. That’s great! That’s a toddler with a healthy parental bond AND the ability to be successfully independent, and who feels secure in her childcare environment.

If she were crying and inconsolable for an extended period of time after you left — and I do mean extended, like hours to almost the full day — that’s a whole other story. A child like that might benefit from a transitional object (like a photo of you in her pocket), or a re-evaluation of her school readiness, or the program itself.

But what you’re describing is a perfectly typical and age-appropriate reaction to her separation from you. All of my kids did this at some point in the two- to three-year-old range. All of them! And they all outgrew it eventually, and no preschool teacher ever batted an eye over kids who cried at the morning preschool drop-off, because there are ALWAYS kids who cry at the preschool morning drop-off.

How to handle separation anxiety at drop-off

The key is to keep the ACTUAL moment of separation short and sweet. Rip it off like a Band-Aid. I’ve gotten a lot of letters about this topic over the years, and I will say that some daycare and preschool programs do NOT make this easy on parents. Long, inconvenient walks to the classrooms, parents being responsible for or encouraged to hang around until their child is unpacked and settling in, “goodbye” windows to stand and wave at, etc. No! That all makes it worse! Don’t extend it! Say goodbye, one hug, one kiss, hand her off, and leave.

The anxiety she’s feeling is about that ACTUAL moment — maybe a little dread, some sadness, some small hope that you’ll change your mind and take her to the playground instead  — and by prolonging the moment with a ton of extra time, contact, parental visibility, etc., you’re keeping the child IN that moment and prolonging the time she has to experience those negative feelings. A quick goodbye is the kindest goodbye, especially for a child (like your daughter) who reliably demonstrates that she’s able to quickly pivot, move on, and transition successfully through the rest of the day.

The best system I ever experienced was a preschool that sent the teachers and aides out to retrieve children directly from their carseats and walk (or carry) them inside the building. By the time they reached the door, you were already out of the parking lot and completely out of sight. Yes, there were still children who cried, who howled, whose bones turned to jelly out on the sidewalk and who needed extra assistance and encouragement to Get Over It and Get Inside. At least at first. Then maybe not so much, and eventually not at all. By the time they walked inside the building and then inside their own classroom, that dreaded Actual Moment of separation happened like, a million toddler years ago.

What happens if there’s separation anxiety during drop-off to preschool?

So if this behavior hasn’t gone away or has actually intensified by the time she’s ready for preschool (STILL. NORMAL.), definitely ask any schools you’re considering about their drop-off procedure. Something similar to what you’re doing now is probably fine — just don’t be tempted yourself to delay the hand-off to her teacher because you’re hoping to stop the crying yourself, before you leave. I knowwwwwwwww it feels horribly twisty inside to have a sad and crying face be the last thing you see in the morning, but I promise you, it’s for the best. Once the separation is over, she’ll be mentally and emotionally ready to move on and have a fantastic rest of her day. Which will make YOUR day fantastic as well, knowing the momentary morning blip was exactly that.

More on separation anxiety and caregiving at Alpha Mom:

1. When to Pull the Plug on Your Daycare
2. A Terrible, Horrible, Not-So-Good, Very Bad Preschool Transition
3. Toddler Separation Anxiety & Morning Melodrama


Photo source: Depositphotos/felixtm


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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