Separation without Anxiety

By Grace Zell, staff writer for The Attached Family

Grace Zell and her children
Grace Zell and her children

About a year ago, a friend convinced me to do something good for myself and join the local gym. She would leave her two-year-old daughter in the gym’s nursery and enjoy a nice exercise class. Up to this point, I had only left my 18-month-old daughter, Katie, with my mother at our home, or with a trusted babysitter who my daughter warmed up to after a few times with me present. Unfortunately, the babysitter was back at college and my mother lives three hours away, so I figured the gym nursery would be the next best thing to get some “me time.”

I was nervous as I signed up for a gym membership, thinking that this whole enterprise hinged on my daughter being able to tolerate the nursery. The staff of the nursery seemed attentive but not overly warm or concerned about anything other than the safety of their wards. Luckily, on our first day, my friend dropped her daughter off at the same time. Katie was preoccupied with playing with her friend, and I snuck away after telling her that I would return after I was done riding the bike.

Not Yet Ready

After ten minutes, I was paged to the nursery. Katie’s preoccupation with her friend’s presence had worn off, and she noticed that she was alone with a roomful of strange children and adults. She was crying and looking for me at the door. The nursery staff followed a policy of not allowing any child to cry for longer than ten minutes before paging the parent to come, but they advised me to continue leaving her at the nursery while I was exercising — that eventually Katie would be able to stay without crying.

I felt fairly sick about leaving her there again, but I was intent on trying to make it work. I tried to go in with her for five to ten minutes to help her warm up to the place, and I struck up friendly conversations with the staff to show Katie that I felt they were safe and to try to get them to care about our predicament. Invariably, however, I could only spend about ten minutes on the Stairmaster before being paged to return to the nursery. I would always find her crying and waiting by the gate.

In desperation, I consulted a social worker whom I had consulted in the past for guidance about behavioral issues with my son. Her approach had always seemed respectful of a child’s needs and developmental stage, so I was surprised when she suggested that I ask the nursery staff not to page me. She indicated that it wouldn’t hurt Katie at all, and I got the vibe that she felt I was being overprotective and not taking care of my own needs. Other friends said the same thing, and one friend even said that Katie was manipulating me.

The Final Decision to Wait

I half-heartedly tried the nursery one more time, and this time when they paged me, I found Katie shaking as well as crying. She seemed truly hysterical, and I decided to trust my instincts and put the gym membership on hold. Thankfully, my husband and my mother were in agreement with my decision and have always shared my Attachment Parenting style.

I was discouraged at the lack of support for my feelings, and the disapproval I received about not wanting to leave my child crying.

I searched the Internet for some validation that I wasn’t being ridiculous in honoring my daughter’s separation anxiety, and it was then that I found Attachment Parenting International. Up to that point, I truly felt like the only parent who didn’t sleep-train my children or who disagreed with ignoring separation anxiety.

I will admit that I did want to get my needs met; just not at the expense of my daughter’s emotional wellbeing.

A Second Try

Fast forward five months to July: Katie had since turned two years old and was slowly loosening the reins on me. She was happy to stay with trusted people while I went out to do errands, and she was enjoying her father taking over the bedtime routine. I decided to try enrolling her in the summer camp program at our local preschool where gentle separation had been supported in the past with my son. The class had only four children, and I felt that the separation would be healthier with a consistency of children and caregivers, instead of at the gym nursery where the children and staff fluctuated from hour to hour.

On the first day, I instructed the teacher to call me on my cell phone if Katie showed any distress. I waited in the parking lot for the phone to ring, and I was astounded when the class’s two hours went by without me being summoned. I peaked in the window before pick-up time, and I saw Katie smiling and laughing in a rocking toy boat. I got tears of joy in my eyes from her new independence and the relief of having her happily under someone else’s care for the morning.

The remaining weeks of camp continued to be a success, although there was some reticence on Katie’s part upon drop-off. To help with this, I would enter the classroom and chat with the teachers or fill out a form while making sure she was alright. I also continued to remind the staff to call me if she was having a difficult time. With both my children, I wanted bedtime and school to be a positive experience and not one fraught with fear and stress.

With this new experience under our belts, I decided to try the gym nursery again. This time, Katie willingly went in and played while I exercised.

Readiness Comes with Age

I mentioned this success to a child psychologist, and she affirmed that it could have been a developmental stage that had to be reached and that perhaps 18 months had been too young for Katie to negotiate separating from me in an unfamiliar environment. I realized then that I wouldn’t try to toilet train a four-month-old, so why insist that my daughter be able to handle something that she isn’t ready for? She was obviously able to handle more separation once she was ready for it.

It is very satisfying to have your decisions validated by the happy responses of your children. With each success, I am emboldened to listen to my intuition and let the criticism roll off my back — or maybe even try to sway them over to my point of view with my positive example!

22 thoughts on “Separation without Anxiety”

  1. Being in a difficult custody situation where I am required to leave my 13 month old daughter crying with someone she doesn’t know, it brings tears to my eyes to hear someone else say they wouldn’t. So many people say “it doesn’t hurt her,” “she’ll adjust,” “kids are adaptable.” Worse yet, they blame me for making her “used to having you around all the time.” Every once in awhile I need to hear someone else’s voice to remember I’m not crazy in wanting to be sensitive to my daughter’s need for security.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience, Grace. I encountered a similar experience with my son, Daniel. I joined a nearby gym that had an award winning day care center. Some women in my play group use the gym (and day care) and convinced me that Daniel should be able to handle it. After my 3rd visit (which only lasted 10 minutes), I could see in my son’s face and tears that he was not ready. I hugged him and carried him away that morning promising him that we wouldn’t return until he was ready. When I explained to my “friends” that day care would have to wait, I received such criticism and judgement. One mother told me that I “pay too much attention” to my son. It is comforting to know that there are other attachment parenting moms out there that believe their child’s development and happiness are a priority. While I may not use the gym as often as I would like, my husband and I worked out a temporary arrangement so that I can go at least twice a week.

  3. I had a similar experience with my son, he would cry anytime I tried to leave him at the day care at the gym. I hated it. I would tell them to call me if he cried but they would always wait 10 minutes, sometimes I could tell on the video monitor that he was upset so I would just go get him before they called me. I tried this several times at differesnt ages, and would stop trying after one or two times. One of my friends said to just let him cry and I told her that I didn’t believe in that old fashioned bull – I wanted my son to know that his feelings were important to me, I asked her if she would like someone to just ignore her feelings. Well guess what my son is almost three and I am considering putting him in preschool so I decide to test him out at the gym to see how he would do. I showed him where I would be working out, I let him listen to the intercom so he knew I could hear it if he wanted me, and I told him to tell one of the teachers that he wanted his Mommy. I even told him that if they said no to insist. The first time he played about an hour and then I was called in. The worker said that he asked for me and when she said your Mommy is excercising he said No I need my Mommy. He He. I have left him a few times after that and now he doesn’t want to leave.(This play area is super cool) Age can make such a difference. He still has seperation anxiety at times but I always respect his feelings.

  4. Knowing I am not the only one with a child who is not ready for the nursery is encouraging. I keep wondering where I went wrong with my daughter who refuses to be left in childcare. I see other kids perfectly content when left in the nursery, while my 12-month-old daughter becomes hysterical. It also gives me hope that she will be ready with time, and I will eventually be able to do more things on my own.

  5. It’s nice to know there are people who understand me. I am a single stay at home mom. My son is 5 months old. He likes to be held by only me. He will stay with other family members for a short time but then cries. People keep telling me to let him cry, that he is developing an unhealthy attachment to me. I shouldn’t use my baby bjorn. He’s only 5 months old. I don’t want to let him cry it out. Am I wrong?

  6. Thank you for writing this! My 9 month old daughter is just starting to really show some signs of separation anxiety and it’s so hard to navigate your way through all the opinions people offer you.

  7. It’s nice to see that other parents employ the same tactics as myself and my husband. I was indoctrinated to believe that I had to put my baby in a bed by herself or else. If she was screaming, well, she had to get over, or else. I was told that if I didn’t do this, then she would have me manipulated to the point of never being able to go anywhere or doing anything. Most of the comments I have received have been made out of selfish ambition to “get the baby to themselves”. My mother in law actually thought it appropriate to ask to have my newborn daughter for an entire day without me or my husband around (I breastfeed, so it never would have gone over). I’ve been told by her as well that she’s going to be so used to me holding her all of the time that I’ll never get any time to myself, which is basically code for, “I want the baby.” My husband, mother, and myself are the only ones who seem to think that there is nothing wrong with hitching a baby to your hip via a sling and just going along with your day, or just stopping what you are doing to take care of the little one for a few minutes. I just hate when people are willing to let things slide to the detriment of a child due to ignorance and selfishness. Not every child is the same.

  8. I am really thankful to have read this as well. My family has made comments lately that my 6 month old daughter has separation anxiety because she cries when certain people hold her. I really felt more hurt and disappointed when I heard this. I really felt that I was being judged as a parent and that my daughter was being judged as a baby. I didn’t appreciated other people’s negativity. I think one of the hardest parts of being a parent is dealing with other people’s perspectives on how you should parent. I believe strongly that I live my life based on what I believe to be good. I look forward to finding my voice and expressing that while I understand that we all see things differently that I would like to raise my daughter with my own instincts.

  9. At last, I no longer have to feel like the only mother who is uncomfortable leaving my child visibly upset. I to have been given advice by friends who tell me I am just too soft on my son and that it will only get harder for him if I dont leave him crying with a sitter whilst I take some me time. I now feel more confident in facing up to these people and standing up for my parenting beliefs

  10. I’ve just taken my little one out of nursery after a couple of weeks of short visits because we decided that he definitely isn’t ready at 13 months and the constant crying and stress is doing all of us more harm than good – plus the staff couldn’t cope. It’s reassuring to read that it’s likely he’ll eventually be ready at his own pace, we just have to be patient. The nice thing is that, as long as I’m not far away, he’s curious, independent and loves to explore, so I’m not too worried about him being over clingy. But, like Sharon, most friends and family think we’re too soft and our preference for attachment parenting has made him over sensitive. It’s always nice to know we’re not alone.

  11. I have recently been “accused” of Attachment Parenting. Today is my first time looking at information on Attachment Parenting. But reading stories like this one make me realize that I have been unknowingly practicing many Attachment Parenting principles. It seems to me to be common sense not to simply ignore my son’s tears and anguish. I have been truely hurt by some of the negative remarks I’ve received regarding my unwillingness to just “let him cry it out.” I am so glad to have read that I am indeed not alone.

  12. I am finding I am able to “potty train” eailer with attachment parenting. I started holding my baby to go potty on a potty chair as early as 1 month. True I have to remember that she is a baby and won’t be able to truly control everything until about 2 years old. But the more time I am with her, the more I read her signals and the more I catch her showing me that she needs to potty.

  13. Having same issues with the gym nursery and the same gut feeling after this last time of her hysterically crying – so good to hear others share my beliefs 🙂

  14. OMG, Thank you! I’ve had my son, 6mnts, at a daycare for the past 2mnts while I attended college. The daycare worker dropped us because she couldnt handle Paxton, saying he was spoiled, and my parents along with my grandmother all claim that I’ve spoiled him. That “good” babies will lay quietly on the floor and only cry if they’re hungry or soiled. Paxton has SUCH a personality. He’s so funny and loving, I can’t imagen if he were like the other babies with lack of personality and lack of response. I can’t imagen parenting any other way, but with all the mounting pressure I started to doubt myself. I’m so happy I found your post. It re-boost my confidence. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  15. But what do you do when you have to go to work? I follow attachment parenting principles instinctively but I have to leave my 10 month old baby with her father each morning while I go to work. She has just started to cry when I leave. I don’t want to ignore her cries as I have always responded within seconds (and as result she hardly ever cries) but I can’t see how to get past this period of her anxiety. She settles down pretty quickly once I leave but it goes against all my instincts to walk away from her when she is crying.

  16. I realize this is an old post, but I am looking for some input. My 19.5 mo old has been a sensitive high-needs baby since day 1, so the fact we had planned to follow AP philosophy worked out perfectly. She has had the same caregiver for about 7 mo (just 2-3 days per wk for 2-3 hrs ea day). She is very AP friendly, a warm grandmother and former pre-school teacher at a top notch facility, and I drop my LO off at her house where she is the only child being watched. My LO has difficulty with transitions now and then, but has never had separation anxiety until the last month. She now obsesses about my whereabouts once I leave, and can only be distracted for brief periods. She is also crying for short stretches and has been getting harder to console during these bouts. I can’t continue to leave her under these circumstances, but I like going to work. We can’t seem to identify any change or reason for the sudden onset of this anxiety and I feel confident our caregiver is trustworthy and caring for her appropriately. One other confusing detail is when her father watches her 3-4 hrs Saturday mornings at home, she has been asking about me more but she has not been getting upset. Please help!

  17. Dear Kelly,

    Thanks for your question. We encourage you to post your question on the API Forum – Consistent and Loving Care. There are API Leaders ready to answer questions there. The link is provided below. You will need to register on the site in order to post your question. In the upper right corner of the Forum homepage, see the Sign Up link. We have also included a few additional API resources for your reference.

    API Forum – See Consistent and Loving Care forum

    API Support Groups

    Busy Attached Families

    Provide Consistent and Loving Care

    Work and AP

  18. Thank you for this. I tried my son at preschool when he was 2.5 (at the urging of the staff- I wanted to wait until 3) and he just wasn’t ready. I would stay at the school to see if he needed me and he couldn’t go more than 15 minutes without crying for me. The school administrator told me that he would be better off if I just left him and even made quite disparaging remarks about the separation being MY problem and not his, but I persisted in making myself available for him and then abandoning the idea of preschool for the time being. No matter what the admin said, I know my child better than she does and he was not ready. He was always a very verbal child and he would tell me that he was trying very hard but that he missed me too much. If I wasn’t willing to leave my child to cry in the night, why would I leave him to cry during the day?
    I’ve also volunteered in his class and I can tell you that no matter what they tell you, little ones are NOT “fine” once you leave. His teachers were very generous and caring, but still I witnessed the younger ones spontaneously crying while sitting by themselves on many occasions.
    I started my son back at the same school at age four and things are much better, although he still doesn’t want to stay a full day. He’s willng to stay until 2:00, but can’t make it to 3:00. I tried pushing it a few times, but he came back to me one day and said, “Mom, you came to get me too late today and I really missed you.” I said, “Well, honey, you’re older now and I think you can do this.” He was quiet a moment and then said, “I really think you should be sensitive to my feelings.” I thought about this, too, and said, “You’re absolutely right. Next year you’ll be in kindergarten and I won’t be allowed to pick you up early, so we should take advantage of this preschool time when I can. Your feelings are very important to me.”
    And that is why my son and I have such a close relationship.

  19. I needed this so badly today. I am in the almost exact same position and this validation to trust my momma instincts is wonderful. It gives me hope for the future and that this is, of course, another stepping stone in my son’s development. I know this was written years ago but it has helped me tremendously so thank you. 🙂

  20. My daughter was fine separating over the last year when she was 2.5. It was a fun and positive experience for her. But when it got to seperating for preschool at 3.5 she’s been in tears and somewhat detached from the other kids, very different than I saw her in a classroom before. Instead of joining for story time, she sits on the side in a rocking chair. This went on each school day and I was told by the Director tia was a very normal separation experience. It just didn’t fit with what I knew of her. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of it since although she did have anxiety before, it was always positive in that she was exploring. Her independence and she has always said she enjoys her space.

  21. I realise this is a very old thread, but thank you all for making me feel like I’m not alone! I, too am beginning to feel like I’m the only parent of my friends and family who doesn’t think it’s constructive to to CIO or leave my child at day care while he kicks and screams for me hysterically. I feel pressure from the day care workers to just let them tear my 19mo away from me when I leave, but he has been with me every day since birth and I think he needs a much slower adjustment. I see what I perceive as judgements in their faces when they ask me what I would like to do, when I am standing holding him in the morning while he is buried in my shoulder bawling. We tried a slower transition, spending play dates there, letting him connect with the carers but he hasn’t bonded to any of them yet. Other people we know, he has bonded to within minutes of meeting them. I don’t buy that it ‘builds character’ or that they’re ‘fine’ after a few weeks – I think they just learn to hold it all in if their feelings aren’t acknowledged and dealt with appropriately and with love, not just distraction. Ugh, I feel like I have no-one to talk to about it except one friend who has the same AP principles as I do. My husband is even critical of my AP methods, telling me it’s my fault he still wakes up through the night, and he’s jealous that my son gets to breastfeed and he’s denied access to them most of the time. So hard.

  22. Our situation has all the same themes mentioned above, so I won’t reiterate, but I feel compelled to say THANK YOU for this article and for all the comments here. I feel validated and supported…and we all know the relief that brings when faced with this stuff. <3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *