Comforting rituals can lessen trauma of day-care
Blinking back tears herself, Jennifer Weber hands her sobbing
2-year-old to day-care director Linda Valentin, says a final goodbye to
him, and walks out of the toddler room at Arc-en-Ciel in Jamaica Plain.
She takes a few deep breaths, shakes her head as if to clear it, and makes
her way to Valentin's office, where she spends the next 20 minutes
watching Daniel on a TV monitor.
Even before she gets there, Daniel has stopped crying. Snuggled tightly
against Valentin, he pops his thumb in his mouth and barely moves for 10
minutes. It's as if he's recharging. When he hears his friend Ruby laugh,
though, he looks her way, and when his teacher, Miss Barbara, invites some
children to play, he watches with interest. Finally Valentin sits at the
Play Doh table with Daniel on her lap. It's not long before Daniel slides
onto his own chair, asks for the green Play Doh, and begins to play.
What makes a happy, well-adjusted toddler turn into such a sad
At the top of the list is any dramatic change at home. Daniel has two:
twin sisters Lily and Molly.
''He's entitled," says Valentin, with just a hint of understatement.
Valentin also knows what parents go through: ''a mixture of guilt,
ambivalence, worry, and heartbreak."
That would describe Daniel's father, Laurence Bailen, in the two weeks
after the twins' birth when he was doing the drop-off. ''One day, he
grabbed my legs, screaming and crying, 'Daddy, don't go! Daddy don't go!'
It was awful. I got in the car and cried," he says.
Early-childhood researcher Elisa Klein of the University of Maryland is
sympathetic. ''At some point, you begin to feel incompetent as a parent,"
she says. You may also begin to wonder about your day care. Is this a bad
Assuming you've done a good job of choosing the day care and that your
child has been happy until now, the answer is probably no. But changes
that discombobulate can happen at day care as well as home, and you may
not even know about it, either because it's so subtle a change (a best
buddy is out sick or has been playing with someone else) or because your
toddler doesn't have the language to tell you about it. ''Don't just
wonder. Ask the staff," urges early-childhood educator Jerlean Daniel, a
spokeswoman for the National Association of the Education of Young
Whether your child is 3 months or 3 years old, there are two golden
rules for drop-off:
Always say goodbye. You may think it's easier for her
if you get her involved in an activity and sneak off. Not so, says
early-childhood educator Jane Rosenberg, director of the Pacific Oaks
Children's School at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. The experience of
not knowing where you went will make him more clingy, not less, and not
necessarily only at separations. ''This is about building trust," says
Rosenberg. ''He'll be afraid to get involved because if he turns his eyes
for a minute, you could disappear."
Don't drag it out. It's fine to stay as long as you
need to to get your child comfortable, ''but once you say you're going,
go," says Daniel. ''When a child begs, 'Don't go, don't go,' and you
don't, it makes her more and more frantic: 'I said don't go and she
didn't. Will it work next time, too?"' Better to let her know from the
start what your plan is (''I'll read a story, and then I'll go.") and hold
Rituals make goodbye easier. Klein's daughter Sarah, now 7, had a
meltdown almost every day for a year when she was 3. Then one day, after
they kissed and said goodbye, Sarah counted out loud the five steps it
took for Klein to be out the door. Charmed, Klein turned and waved. ''Five
steps" became their daily routine. When Sarah's father did the drop-off,
they had a different ritual: Sarah would push him out the door. ''It was a
way for her to feel she had control," Klein says.
The more anxious and sensitive a child is, the more concrete coping
skills they need.
The ritual might begin at home, when you check the backpack to make
sure a favorite blankie, stuffed animal, or family photo is there. ''Even
if she never uses it, knowing it's there can be reassurance enough," she
says. Young children don't have a sense of time, but they do understand
sequence: ''After I drop you off, I'm going to my office. I'll come back
to pick you up after afternoon nap." Some parents may think this is too
much talking about something that makes a child sad. ''I've seen kids go
to their cubby and kiss the family photo," says Rosenberg. ''That's a
child who is able to comfort herself. It's a skill that will last a
When day-care drop-off difficulty comes out of the blue, it's likely
fueled by development:
4 to 10 months: By now, a baby can tell the difference
between parents and other primary caregivers, which is why the sudden
aversion to new people is called stranger anxiety. It's also why
consistency is so important. ''Expect the same person to greet your baby
every morning," says Daniel.
With that, why should there be drop-off difficulty? ''It's their way of
registering that they know the difference between you," she says: '''I
like this person, too, but Mom? Dad? You're first on my list."'
11 to 24 months: Just when you thought things had
calmed down, a second apparent wave of stranger anxiety may surface,
making drop-off difficult again. More accurately, it's a newfound
cognitive awareness that he's an independent being. ''Think of it this
way," says Daniel: ''You're climbing a mountain. Without realizing it,
you've out-climbed your guide; you look around and he's not there. You
panic: 'Am I OK on my own?"' Allow for more time in your drop-off routine
so that you don't have to rush when you get there.
2 to 3 years: A child has gone off to day care 100
times with no difficulty. Now, it's a struggle. Attribute it to another
change in cognition, the ability to make comparisons. ''The toddler
realizes that just about everyone else is bigger than he is," says UCLA
pediatrician Harvey Karp. Feeling vulnerable, he's susceptible to anything
that upsets his emotional balance, from a new baby, to Mom and Dad
arguing. The good news is that this is also when they are involved in
magical thinking, so a transitional object can work wonders: ''Whenever
you miss me, you can touch/smell/look at this and it will make you feel
Karp also recommends repeating back to your toddler what he is saying
to you, not in an adult voice but by matching his tone and emotion:
''You're telling me, 'No Mommy! No Mommy! Don't go Mommy, don't go!'
Repeat it eight or 10 times," says Karp. ''Then present your 'but': 'But
you love it at day care, and Mommy will be back after afternoon snack."'
Karp is author of the book and DVD, ''The Happiest Toddler on the Block"
Preschoolers: Unhappiness at separation suddenly may
start to feel more manipulative than genuine: She left something at home
or in the car and can't live without it. Daniel tells parents to think of
it as a child trying to find his place in the world and to have control
over it. Meet her requirements when you can; when you can't, take
something out of your pocket or off your body (a scarf or pin) to leave
with her. You can also go over a checklist together before you leave home:
''Let's see, do we have your blankie?" The more choices she has elsewhere
in her life (''Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue one?"), the
easier drop-off is likely to go.
Daniel's parents have coined a term for what they think his drop-off
difficulty is about: the FOMS, for Fear of Missing Something. They
probably hit the nail on the head.