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Toddler Separation Anxiety

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

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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  • Melissa C

    November 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    My mornings (2.5 year-old and 7 month-old) always go more smoothly if I wake up and get ready first. My goal is to be 100% ready for the kids to wake up – right down to pouring a bottle and a cup of milk for them. My older child does much better if she has 20 minutes of quiet time to drink her milk or play before we start the morning routine. When she was younger, it was the opposite, she did better if we got up and got out the door asap. I think it changes as they make their way through the different stages and Amy’s advice to test both ways out is good.

  • Olivia

    November 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Yep, I try to get myself completely ready down to packing my lunch before I wake up my 2.5 yr old. She’s one who doesn’t need a lot of time in the morning as she pops up smiling and ready to go. However, on the mornings she wakes up early on her own, she has fortunately reached the age where I can set her up with milk and a cartoon while I finish getting ready. The other good thing about getting yourself completely ready first, is that once he wakes up he gets your undivided attention from then until drop off. I also try to get up early enough that I have at least 20 min of cushion time for those mornings she dawdles or needs extra TLC.

  • Jeannie

    November 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    My kids don’t exhibit separation anxiety quite this way, so I don’t have any advice, but they are both NUTS when they aren’t well fed. So maybe try (with that morning lie in his crib) a sippy of milk or yogurt smoothie? Just to get the calories in and the blood sugar up? That always seems to drastically reduce the tears in our house.

  • Aubrey

    November 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Agree, agree, agree! My husband is out of the house by 6am so I’m on my own in the mornings with the kids. I wake up at 6:15am in order to get myself completely ready before kids get up. My 15month old wakes between 7-7:30 and he’s fine just chilling in his crib until I come in and get him. At that time, his breakfast is ready and waiting for him. That way after we change diaper and get dressed, we are ready to go into the kitchen and eat breakfast together. After breakfast, he will have brief playtime with 6yr old sibling while I get dressed quickly but keeping his morning routine at home short and sweet I believe is the best way to avoid any meltdowns. Good Luck! This too shall pass…

  • lesley

    November 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I agree with the other posters that I would definitely consider just getting up and getting ready before you go in and get your son. I don’t know if it would work to actually go in his room after he wakes up, leave him with books/toys/drink, and then leave again. He might freak. At least that’s what my son would do. Then, you actually would get to spend a bit more time with him during the day…a bonus for both of you.

    I also have another suggestion that may or may not help. There is a book called “Love and Logic Magic for early childhood” that has helped me immensely with dealing with my son’s tantrums. My son is now 27 months but I started it when he was just a little bit older than your son. It might not be helpful for your exact situation as far as the mornings are concerned, but if he’s already throwing fits like this, it sounds like here in the next few months you’ll want to have a game plan for dealing with his tantrums.

    Good luck!

  • Babs

    November 8, 2011 at 7:40 am

    Having music playing in the morning has changed our lives. I have 4 kids, all with varying degrees of AM anxiety. sometimes just doing something, anything, different is the key. Kids are weird.

  • Hannah

    November 8, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Echoing the suggestions to get your own personal morning routine done *before* you wake him up. I get up 30 minutes before anyone else and while it was painful at first, it has made a HUGE difference to our mornings. (My kids are 3 and 6, and there is another one on the way). By the time the boys need to get up, I’ve already got the coffee made, I’ve eaten my breakfast, had my shower, lunches are packed, etc. I can then focus 100% on feeding & dressing the boys; they feel good b/c they’ve got my undivided attention, and I’m not a whirling banshee trying to do everything at once.

    Not to mention the one person in the house guaranteed to throw a low blood sugar tantrum is me. It’s better for all concerned that I eat *before* I try to be a good mommy. 😉

  • Amanda

    November 8, 2011 at 9:29 am

    I do think an earlier bedtime would help, even if you get up earlier. (I really find this helps… ) I also think you need to make breakfast at home part of your morning routine. It doesn’t sound like you do. So you have this kid whose routine seems to center around getting you out the door, but he’s getting worked up (separation anxiety) at the same time getting hungry and having to do morning tasks like get ready.
    That said, this is a natural time for htis crazy anxiety and we are dealing with it, too. A reliable routine helps, with lots of gentle explanations about what will happen next, i.e., “let’s get out of the bed, we’re changing your diaper; then we’ll eat oatmeal for breakfast; after breakfast, we wash up and get dressed.” I agree that doing your routine before waking him up and keeping a steady pace (not rushed necessarily) on the way out the door will help. Good luck!

  • Karen

    November 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Yay! I’m not the only person with the crazy house at 7:30 am!! Our mornings were transformed when we finally shook all traces of our former “childless professional” lives and started to get up and ready before the kiddo. My husband is up at 5:30 to walk our dog and I’m up at 6. Ideally I’m out the door before my daughter wakes (7-7:30) and my husband is ready for her with breakfast or whatever is going to happen that morning. (I am then done with work early and we usually go to the park before dinner.) Some days she can bounce straight from bed to diaper change to breakfast, other mornings we skip the diaper until after breakfast. And it’s usually pretty clear when waking up needs to be followed by 5 minutes of rocking to get oriented. Your son doesn’t sound like he’s having separation anxiety as much as he’s showing a very typical (and somewhat unfortunate!) development – forming his own opinion about how his morning should go. Yay!

  • Katie

    November 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Had to add my two cents in case your son, like mine (18 months), is an early riser who will maaaaybe sleep until seven if he gets to come and snuggle in with mama and daddy at 5:30, but otherwise will be up and ready to start the day at 6:15. And six-months-pregnant mama really doesn’t want to have to be ready for the day by 6:15. He also sounds a whole lot like your son in terms of morning separation anxiety–he pretty much wants mama! up! the whole morning.

    So…I do as much as I can the night before–pack his lunch, set out stuff for breakfast, make sure he (and I) have clothes for the day. When he wakes up, we cuddle a little, do his breakfast together (I sit and eat a bowl of cereal with him) and then we get ready together. While I really hope not to be doing this forever….my life got much easier when I just undressed him, and let him splash in the shower while I was in there—if I fill the bath a little, he’s usually happy enough to stay in there and play with his toys while I dry my hair and do makeup (he loves the water). If he wants out before I’m ready, I drag our bathroom chair up to my husbands sink, and he’s usually willing to stand right next to me and play with my makeup brushes.

    It’s not perfect, but it gets us out the door. It will get easier, too. Yesterday, he actually ran and got his coat and handed it to me while I was still getting dressed. Which broke my heart in an entirely different way 🙂

  • Jen

    November 9, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Hi everybody!  

    Amy, thanks so much for taking my question!  I feel all famous.  🙂  And thanks to you and everyone else for the great advice!  My son tends to wake when he hears us up in the morning, so it’s tough to get the whole routine done before he’s up.  But I’ve tried streamlining things the last couple of mornings, and it does seem to be helping, so fingers crossed!

    And thanks for helping to frame this as a separation anxiety thing.  I hadn’t realized that separation anxiety could manifest itself that way, but the way that you describe it makes a lot of sense.