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Toddler Separation Anxiety & Morning Melodrama

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I know you’ve had quite a few toddler questions lately, but I’m hoping that you might be willing to take one more.

I have a generally easygoing 17-month old, but getting ready and out the door in the morning has become a source of hysteria of telenovela proportions.  Unless he is being held, he will lie on the floor sobbing pretty much from the moment that he wakes up (or we wake him up) until the moment that I get him strapped into his carseat to go to daycare.  We’ve tried a number of things, but all he wants is to be held by me or my husband.  I’ve gotten pretty good at brushing my teeth and applying mascara while holding on to my 30-lb toddler, but a) there are certain parts of the morning routine when I just can’t hold him (showering, for example), and b) this is getting a little ridiculous.  He generally gets to bed around 8 pm and we generally wake up around 7 am, so I think (?) he’s getting enough sleep.  He sometimes does ever-so-slightly better if I can get some calories into him, but often he just throws his milk/banana/waffle/you-name-it on the floor or at me and that’s the end of that. 

Thinking back, I think that all of the morning drama may have generally coincided with him moving from the baby room to the toddler room at daycare a couple of months ago, but he moved up at the same time with his favorite teacher and his friends and they really tried to make the transition as easy as possible.  Plus he seems to really like daycare — as soon as we get there, he’s all smiles for his teachers and friends, happy to sit at the table and eat (without throwing anything), and/or join in whatever activity is going on.  His teachers at daycare say he’s one of the mellowest kids in his class, and that he rarely cries.  And evenings at home with us are generally fine, too.  We have the occasional toddler temper tantrum, but he’s otherwise happy to play either with me, or on his own if I’m cooking or whatever.  But the mornings are killing me.  Thoughts?

Thank you!
Mom of an adorable toddler who would, justthisonce, like to get to the office having dried her hair

Here’s the weird thing about separation anxiety — sometimes it actually manifests at every OTHER possible moment BESIDES the actual for-real moment of separation. So even though your son is all smiles and confidence at daycare and joins his class without a second look back at mom or dad…this is still pretty much classic, age-appropriate separation anxiety.

Even though his daycare did everything right when it was time to transition from one room to another, they still ever-so-slightly mucked with your son’s sacred makes-me-feel-safe routine and oh, SOMEONE MUST PAY. And that someone is always going to be mom and dad, of the unconditional love and more willingness to do whatever it takes to please him. Like, say, putting mascara on while holding a 30-pound thrashing toddler. He can’t get away with that sort of clinginess at daycare and he knows it, so he’s protesting the separation ahead of time and basically getting himself all worked up over the chance that his routine might get messed with again. Or something like that. Toddlers aren’t exactly known for being entirely logical.

Most of the “classic” techniques for dealing with toddler separation anxiety aren’t really useful here, because you’re getting one long, slow burn of a freakout all morning instead of the “classic” wailing and crying at drop-off. That usually can be circumvented with allowing a transitional object/lovey, keeping your goodbyes brief and unemotional, and having a teacher immediately show up to throw distractions at your child.

And all the books and websites stress the importance of keeping a very set morning routine leading up to your departure for daycare — which is way easier said than done when your child is basically screaming and tantruming throughout the entire routine. So I’m wondering if there’s a way to shorten his morning? To limit the amount of time between Point A (his bed) and Point B (out the door)? Do you really need to wake him up at 7 and have him awake during your shower and dressing routine? Maybe try doing all that first while he chills in his room and then only get him up when you or your husband can really focus on getting him ready, fed  and out the door?

I know it might sound counterintuitive to shorten your one-on-one time in the morning with a separation-anxiety-prone toddler, but it sounds like dragging out his awareness of what’s coming is only making things worse. (And I imagine you’re probably doing a lot of begging/pleading/bargaining with him to please sit and eat/amuse himself/whatever while you shower/dress/put on makeup, which is ALSO maybe contributing to him feeling neglected and angry that he doesn’t have your undivided attention.) It’s not like he’s eating breakfast or really BENEFITTING from all the extra holding he’s getting (i.e. it’s not actually making mornings go any smoother for any of you, including him), so frankly, I’d just try letting him sleep longer, or put some books/toys in his crib to look at while you shower and dress and do everything you need to do. Then get him up and dressed and out the door, maybe with a snack cup of Cheerios or waffle in the car. Basically blow through the anxiety-laden morning routine as quickly as possible, like a Band-Aid. By all means make the abbreviated steps as gentle and loving as possible — sing a specific song while getting dressed, give lots of kisses and cuddles while putting his coat on, talk about his teachers and friends by name, and be sympathetic and non-scoldy/dismissive to any tears and howls without giving in (i.e. “okay, we’ll sit and rock for 10 extra minutes even though we really need to leave right now”).

Just like some adults are better in the mornings than others, kids are the same way. Noah, for example, has NEVER had a problem with separation anxiety, but has a totally crap time making transitions throughout the morning. Eventually we stumbled on the discovery that he benefits from waking up about 30 minutes earlier than he “needs” to. And he is allowed to do whatever he wants during that 30 minutes. He can stay in bed and read, he can go downstairs and play, he can come cuddle with me and Baby Ike in our bed. Then we start the getting dressed/breakfast/find your shoes and backpack morning grind. If I ask him to basically hit the ground running (“OKAY WAKE UP GET OUT OF BED GET DRESSED GO GO GO”), I get a ton more resistances and tantrums.

(So on that note, if my previous advice backfires in a big way, try the opposite: Wake him up at 6:30 and bring him back to bed with you for an extra half hour of solid cuddling, and see if that time maybe helps take the edge off the rest of the morning.)

Ezra, on the other hand, benefits from a short and to-the-point routine, like I suggested for your son. The more he’s allowed to dawdle around his toys or entertain himself, the more likely I am to get a freak out when it’s time to put his coat on and leave. So he stays in bed and sleeps while Noah creeps out for his personal down time. Then I wake Ezra up and basically stay with him step by step from that point on, through getting dressed, eating breakfast and out the door. Of course, I have the benefit of being able to do all this in my pajamas, with no need to worry about mascara or wet hair until I’ve taken care of everybody else.

But if I were trying to get out the door to an office like you, I’d probably give up on trying to overlap/integrate my morning routine with my toddler’s, at least not until he’s past this phase. (And rest assured, it IS a phase. And it WILL get better, I promise!) In the meantime, try doing everything you need to do first and see if he’s able to stay asleep or relatively entertained in bed until 7:30 or 7:45, or however long you need. Then make his morning routine something uniquely his — short, sweet, to the point, and one where he doesn’t feel like he needs to compete with the hairdryer for your attention.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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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