Here's How Day Care Affects Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety, or the fear of leaving mom and dad, may be a normal part of early childhood development, but it's sure not easy for anyone. Parents are often left emotionally drained during this phase, leaving many to wonder if there's a way to speed up the process. Can day care help with separation anxiety? Or does it only make it worse?

According to Barbara Jessing, a family therapist at child advocacy center Project Harmony in Omaha, "Separation anxiety is an expected stage of early childhood development. During the first year of life, most young children are reasonably flexible about who is caring for them. However, between 12 and 24 months, it is not unusual for children to have strong preferences to a particular caregiver, and to have intense distress when that person goes away. This tells us that the infant is able to hold an image of the caregiver in mind, where it can be an ongoing reminder of what that child is missing."

With this brain development, Jessing explains in an interview with Romper, the child is eventually able to remember that mom (or dad) goes away but always comes back. Jessing insists that the attunement of the day care provider is a critical factor in the child's eventual victory over separation anxiety.

"When a day care professional can support that child, see the world as they see it, comfort and reassure the child — the message is 'you are safe and OK.' The life lesson in this for our children is that they can learn to tolerate stressful situations, and to use a variety of coping techniques to calm and regulate, until that happy moment when mom or dad’s face reappears. Think about this happening day after day — mom leaves, but she always comes back, and meanwhile, she has chosen someone to care for me in ways much like she does," Jessing tells Romper.

No one will ever be able to fill the shoes of mom or dad, but that doesn't mean your little one won't benefit from receiving care from other adults, too. When choosing a day care provider, pay careful attention to the ability of the caregivers to connect meaningfully with your child in a calm and reassuring way. An emotionally attuned provider can help your child believe the world outside of the family is a safe place, too, and that's worth its weight in gold.