Don’t leave me this way!


A mother asks….

For the past 9 months that my 17 month old son has been going to Family daycare for 2 days a week, he has had approximately 5 really good, happy days. The rest have ranged from whingy/whiny/clingy to full on crying/screaming all day. We are all stumped as to what to do – the only thing that worked so far, was telling him the day before, the morning of and all the way in the car about what was happening that day – and that only worked for 2 days! The next week (which was last week), was his worst week ever! He was in the process of a cutting a molar, but it seems to be more than that. The daycare coordinators suggested we might need professional help to “break” his attachment to me – he is perfectly fine if I am there, even after he has cried all day, he will get down and play and not want to leave, as long as I am there. I don’t know what to do, his daycare mum (who has really tried to help him) is getting stressed out and so are the other kids. I hate that he is crying and upset all day, but I feel that we need to work through this, rather than just quitting work. The only thing I can think of to do now is to go back to just dropping him off for an hour and increasing the length of time. Otherwise, I don’t know what to do! I am still breastfeeding him when he wants it – he is fine without it if we are out and busy, or if he is with someone else (i.e. Dad) but when it is just us at home, he feeds before each nap and whenever he wants it. I don’t know if this is making the issue worse. He is also obsessed with my hair – and over the last few weeks won’t go to bed at night without me sitting next to his cot so he can play with my hair. He also ends up coming to bed with me around 11pm most nights. I’ve probably missed some important information, but I’m just lost. Please help!


Pinky says…..

Your toddler’s separation anxiety is a normal stage, not something you are doing wrong – you sound like a warm, connected, loving mother. Some children simply are naturally more sensitive and  ‘clingy’ (for lack of a better word) – and this is perfectly healthy!

Your baby’s needs for you show that he has a wonderful strong attachment to you – you are his rock, his sunshine and the most important person in his world! Children need a strong attachment to their primary carer to be able to develop relationships with others. Your connection, modeling and loving example are the prototype for future relationships.

This is a big developmental stage for your little one, cutting molars can be very uncomfortable, so please don’t underestimate how much he would like you to be the person soothing him with your cuddles, your smell and your magic mama milk.

It is great that you talked to your child about ‘what is coming next’. This is really helpful for him to anticipate his day and reduce anxiety. Try to put yourself in his place and how awful it could seem to be dropped off and left with a bunch of other people and not know when you will be picked up or what the itinerary is for the day, especially if you have no markers to help you predict the time that this day will be over and you will be reunited with the person you love most of all. Itcan also be helpful to have consistent rituals for when you leave and when you return – practise these at home as you pop in and out of the room, leave him with Daddy or a friend that he knows well for short time periods – taking it slowly as he seems ready to increase separations.

Although your child’s carers are trying to be helpful,  comments that you need professional help to ‘break’ his attachment to you would be a big red flag to me that they don’t value how important this attachment is; that they are ignorant of ‘attachment theory’.  Really, your child’s ‘attachment’ to you is a positive, not something to be ‘broken’.

There is a saying, “the two greatest gifts we can give children are roots and wings.” My take on this is that when we have given children strong roots – ie a strong foundation of attachment to us as parents and the child’s primary carers – and the child’s needs for security have been met, only then can they feel truly safe enough to grow their ‘wings’ and venture forth, knowing they can come back and literally ‘touch base’ whenever their little emotional tanks need a refill.

You sound as though you have a choice re whether to work or not right now so perhaps, rather than rationalise and justify that he will ‘get over it’, it may be better to take some time out and help him regain his confidence then, instead of gradually building up his times at THIS daycare, it may be better to do this with a different carer, especially if there is already a stressful association for him in this situation.

Meanwhile, take heart, many small children who have strong separation anxiety as toddlers, do grow strong ‘wings’ when we meet their needs and help them feel secure. Then, when they are ready, they will soar!

bonding and attachmentchildcarechoosing childcareclingy childcrying at childcarecrying toddlerPinky McKayseparation anxietytoddler cryingunhappy at childcare
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  • Elissa Helberg

    you poor mumma, its heartbreaking all around. Have you considered things like using rescue remedy on babies head, or maybe another more homeopathy based remedy to help him with the teething and anxiety. I had 1 out of 4 who was insanely anxious, at 10 she still is, only gentle parenting has saved us all.

  • Kylie

    “… professional help to ‘break’ his attachment to me… ”


    I’m with you 100% Pinky. This is a red flag.

    I would also suggest that the child is picking up on the attitude/vibes from the carer(s) and that he simply doesn’t feel safe/comfortable with them.

    Kids have a highly tuned sixth sense, so whether it makes sense to you or the carer, how the child feels is real and their reasons (conscious or subconscious) are real.

    I won’t share the details here, but please believe me when I say that some carers should not be working with children. Trust your kids, regardless of how young they are. You have no idea of the damage that can be done to them without you realising. ;(

  • Leah

    I just had to comment. When my first born went off to preschool at 3 years old, he screamed hysterical and isolated himself. I was encouraged to leave. I ignored all my instincts and did. I stood in the car park and listened to him scream for 30 minutes. I had to return. I found him in the fetal position in the corner of the playground hysterical. Each time a cater went near him he increased his screaming. When he saw me, instant relief. Cuddles. Happiness. Clingy-ness .

    I tried again and again a couple of days a week for about 3 weeks, reassured each time by the cater that it was normal and he would stop when I left . He never did. We withdrew him.

    We tried again a year later. We prepared him with the book ” I’ll always come back” and did some visits. We changed preschools. They introduced a “time” place for him to go to when he arrived. He cried a little, but maybe for 5 minutes. He refused to participate in dance for 9 months! But enjoyed preschool but was always a little clingy on my leaving. He danced in 4th term. The teachers cried.

    Moving to “big school” was a huge transition point. We did everything to make it easy. He skipped off happily in his first day. I’m certain the school think I’m an over anxious mum because he didn’t display ANY anxiety!!

    He won the academic award that year.
    This year he was the football captain.

    My message: trust your instincts.

    Thanks for letting me share

    • Pinky McKay

      What a heartwarming story,and what a lucky child you have that you followed your instincts and supported him to feel secure. This is so encouraging for other parents who have sensitive children!

  • Mel

    Hugs to you Mum. What a stressful situation for all of you. As always, I love what Pinky has to say. I understand the importance and perhaps need to work, however it would seem that the current situation is not working and hasn’t been for some time. So it would seem a change is needed which only you can decide upon. I too have an incredibly attached 10 month old velcro baby. I had a child health nurse at 6 months of age tell me that I needed to break that bond. Suffice to say I didn’t go back to her. I am my daughter’s world as tiring as that can be and I am not about to break my daughter’s trust like that. I am currently working on starting my own business so I can work from home and be there for my daughter. Otherwise we will just have to make sacrifices until such time as she is confident enough to be left in the care of others for me to return to work. Good luck with whatever you choose to do for you and your family.

    • Pinky McKay

      Go Mel! All the best with your business – the flexibility is worth the initial hard work of setting up.

  • Shell Howarth

    Hi. My son was exactly the same around the same age e had just started with his family day carer and screamed non stop until 6months later we more him into a centre setting. It was nothing against his family day carer it was just that he didn’t gel with her and she had a different style of “parenting” to what we did. My son was also breast fed. We found within 2 weeks of starting with his new carers he was happy and enjoyed his time in care.

  • Anjali Lipman

    I started my little guy at a Montessori toddler program two half days a week at 18 months (I work at the school while he attends). The first months my kid was like this. His teacher, also a friend, recommended that he stay four or five mornings, not two. Part of the issue at first was that he needed to develop a comfort and attachment to his new caregivers. But even after he did, it was hard for him. At this age, children’s brains become dependent upon a sense of order. They like things to be the same and they don’t do well with change especially when that change comes at the loss of their primary caregiver. I wasn’t ready for him to do five days, but when he was two I found that it might benefit him so I switched. He was much calmer about going to school after that. It was part of his routine rather than something that happened every five days. So that might be something to look at. I am a firm believer in attachment, my son is very strongly attached, and I would only feel comfortable with caregivers who understood that attachment and sought to help them make attachments with themselves, understanding it is a transition. Good luck Mama! My son is in his second year of the program now, and while he hates leaving me (“I don’t want to go to school”) and he still doesn’t love transitions, he kisses me good bye without a tear and has a great day 🙂

  • Veronica

    I agree with your comments. I’m from Spain, and it’s also difficult to find here places that are respectful with the kids. I had to search for something special, as I didn’t wanted to leave my baby crying until he gets used to it. My son’s daycare plan for an adaptation period and they estimate this can take up to one month (sometimes more, sometimes less). During this period, a caregiver stays with the baby until baby feels confident in this new place and with new people. They do suggest that adaptation is easier with the dad, nanny or even grandparents, rather than with mom because of the strong attachment (usually takes longer with mom, but they have no problem with mom doing the adaptation period) In my case, dad did it, and results were great! Adaptation lasted 2 weeks. My son loves his daycare. Good luck for this mom, hope she finds a place that makes the process more “attachment friendly”

  • steph

    Definately trust your instincts. I have had a horrible experience with my first. We sent him from about 8 months until 14months. Each time he would be clinging to the car door frame, clinging to the fence he was hysterical. Every time they would convince me that he settles down once i leave. Towards the end it was so bad.
    Anyway i was hurried out the door as usual got to the car, realised my keys were left inside so i headed back inside the childcare where i saw the manager yep the lady incharge with my son on her hip screaming into his ear yelling “she is not coming back for you! Just shut up, shut up already”
    Well i grabbed him and never set foot in there again.
    We have been to another childcare and a preschool. Ive informed them of the previous experience which probably made them 10 times more nurturing towards my boy but we have not had a problem. He took a little convincing to go to the one after (he was 2 by the time he was put in so he had about 10 months with me and his baby brother was going too) but he settled in quick instead of crying its “bye mum you can go now” he is 3 and a half now and is in preschool but i would strongly advise to go with your instincts .

    • Rhiannon

      Oh reading this breaks my heart. Your poor baby 🙁

  • Emily

    Something basic which might help a little of your son is ok with your husband but not so attached is has he tried dropping him off. My son had a stage like this every time I dropped him off. But when my husband dropped him off he wasn’t fazed.

  • Ruth

    Poor mums and bubba it’s really son has been very similar and struggled with daycare for quite a while. One of approaches my daycare took was that as I was leaving I would make sure one of the carers was able to have him. I would ask that person to keep him safe for me until I came back from work. The carer would then say that they would keep him safe all day, whilst still acknowledging that it’s hard to have mummy leave. We also read a couple of books: owl babies and another one called llama llama misses mumma. They really helped him have words for his distress. Wishing you all the best

  • Melissa

    We have exactly the same issue. Our little man is 15. Months and won’t go to anyone. He needs to play with my hair or his at feed times or when feeling upset. He has been doing this now since he was 7 months old. I stay home with him as it is too stressful for everyone if I’m away, I do go to a community exercise class once a week for 45 min which has a lovely lady doing the babysitting but as soon as we get there, my little man starts crying. I try explaining that I will be back and we get there early to try and settle him but it never works. The Carer will cuddle him for the whole time and nurses him to sleep. It can be really heart breaking sometimes and I’m very worried about having to go back to work with how he will be feeling and behaving.