While dropping off a child at daycare is quick and painless for many parents, others face a daily ordeal of tears and separation anxiety. Working parents struggling with the drop-off may arrive at the office late and stressed out.
The tripwire -- the fear of being apart from a parent -- is common among "babies, toddlers and even some veteran preschoolers," says Heidi Murkoff, author of the "What to Expect" books for parents, including "What to Expect the Toddler Years" (Workman Publishing, 1994). A child may "cling to your neck with superhuman baby strength or attach themselves to your leg with strong, sticky fingers," she says.
Parents can take steps to help make the process easier for both their children and themselves. Here are six do's and don'ts:
1. Don't drop and run.
1. Don't drop and run.When children are weepy at drop-off, parents may be tempted to sneak out. This is a no-no, says Harvey Karp, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" (Bantam, 2005). "It is always better to announce that you are leaving," he says. Slipping out can make children feel like they're being abandoned, he says.
Stay until your child is settled or happily involved with friends or a classroom activity, but no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, says Linda Mason, chairman and founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a daycare provider based in Watertown, Mass.
2. No boomerangs.
2. No boomerangs.Don't double back after the drop-off, says Ms. Murkoff. You don't want your child to think, "If I cry harder, she will stay longer," she adds.
If you're the one with the separation anxiety? Phone the caregiver when you get to work, Ms. Mason says. "You can reassure yourself that your child is doing fine," says Ms. Mason.
3. Develop a routine.
3. Develop a routine.Create a "bridge." This transition can help your child shift gears from the morning with you to the school day, says Ms. Mason. You might talk about what your child will do at school that day, get the teacher involved or create a soothing daily ritual, Ms. Mason says.
Kim Hoeflinger, 29, a special education teacher from Hightstown, N.J., says establishing a routine helped her daughter, Mackenzie, 3, adapt to a new daycare center. Every morning, Mrs. Hoeflinger's husband, Tyson Hoeflinger, 33, goes through a sequence at school that includes visiting Mackenzie's cubby, reading a story, showing her on the clock when he will return, and ending with high and low fives. After two months of the ritual, "the separation anxiety was gone," Mrs. Hoeflinger says.
Lawyer Jackie Deane, 46, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says she adapted a ritual from the children's book, "The Kissing Hand" by Audrey Penn (Tanglewood Press Inc., 2006) for daughter Jesse, 7. Just as the story's mother raccoon did every school-day morning for her child, Ms. Deane would leave kisses in Jesse's hand before dropping her off. Jesse came to like the routine and would say each morning how many kisses she wanted, Ms. Deane says.
What routine works best will vary from child to child, but the key is to be consistent, says Ms. Murkoff.
Leaving a teddy bear or "comfort object" with your child can be helpful. Remind your child about it when you say goodbye, says Dr. Karp.
If the item is small, like a bracelet or trinket, your child can keep it "in his pocket and touch it whenever he is missing you," he explains. If such items are not allowed in the classroom, your child can store them in his cubby, Ms. Murkoff says.
4. Be positive.
4. Be positive."Kids, even really little ones, have incredibly keen radar -- they'll pick up all kinds of signals from their parents," says Ms. Murkoff. Parents' attitudes can influence their children's, so if an adult is feeling sad or anxious about drop-off, little ones may sense that uneasiness, Ms. Mason says.
Get to know the teachers and other children at the daycare center, Ms. Mason suggests. If you treat the center like your own neighborhood or community, your youngster will get the message that "you value the people your child is with," she says.
5. Don't get too worked up over tears. Sometimes, a child's waterworks are just "protest crying," Dr. Karp says. "It is nothing to worry about if your child recovers in two to three minutes, he says.
"Kids know how to turn on the guilt," Ms. Murkoff says. If they seem happy when you come for pickup, you can rest easy when you're at work.
Such was the case for Ms. Deane with her daughter. "After a while, we realized that she was having a great day, and it was just the drop-off that was hard," Ms. Deane explains.
6. Enlist help.
6. Enlist help.Ask a teacher to get your child involved in an activity or have the teacher hold her while you're leaving.
When her daughter was in daycare, Ms. Deane would hand Jesse to a teacher "who would hug and hold her" or distract her with something else to do, Ms. Deane says. While the strategy didn't always prevent Jesse from crying, "she would be fine in a couple of minutes," Ms. Deane says.
If the morning good-byes don't get any easier, ask your spouse to take over -- if just for a while, Ms. Murkoff says. "Typically, [children] are more dramatic with the parent who's more easily manipulated, whose buttons are more easily pushed," she explains.