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!