Back to School Blues :: Toddler Separation Anxiety

First Days of School

It’s that time of year again when our little loves are heading off to school. Whether this will be your child’s first experience away from you or one of many, it’s not always an easy transition. The good news is that there are things we can do to help our kids–and ourselves–with this pending change in routine.

In my family, my older child had a very easy adjustment to preschool. In fact, she couldn’t wait to see her teachers and friends every morning. With my younger one, I knew based on her personality that it wouldn’t be so smooth. By 6 months old, she had perfected her side-eye and continued to practice the look each time she met a new person. She drove babysitters away with her unrelenting screams. And due to the pandemic, we delayed her preschool entry until a week before her 2nd birthday. I braced myself as we prepared to start school.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Babies and toddlers often show signs of separation anxiety when they are physically separated from a familiar adult, usually in the form of crying and clinging. Babies often experience heightened separation anxiety as they learn object permanence, or when they start to understand that their favorite grown-ups continue to exist even when they are out of sight. This can occur as early as 4 months but usually happens closer to 9 months of age. Kids tend to outgrow separation anxiety by around 3 years old, or once they have a better understanding of time in addition to their own routine.

Although separation anxiety is usually a normal part of development, supporting a child through this stage is not fun. We don’t want our kids to be uncomfortable or upset, and of course, we’re already navigating our own feelings about sending our kid to a new place.

What Can Help?

Every family has different preferences and levels of flexibility. Here are a few things that worked for us, and please share your tips in the comments below.

For your child:

  1. A transitional object. Commonly referred to as a “lovey,” my child brought a stuffed doll between home and school each day. Her Abby doll (from Sesame Street) provided a sense of comfort in her new environment. It also made it a lot easier to get my child into the car each morning.
  2. Family photos. Many preschool teachers will ask you to send in family photos. They may even have a place in the classroom for each child to display pictures. Photos are great because they provide a connection between what’s known and what’s new, and they’re a perfect conversation starter. If your child’s teacher doesn’t ask for photos, feel free to let them know you packed a few in the lunchbox.
  3. Gradual time increase. If it works for your family’s schedule, consider starting out with a shorter day. The first week of preschool I picked my child up before lunch, the next week after nap, and finally at the end of the day. It was not the most convenient option, but maintaining her regular sleep schedule that first week was worth it.
  4. A quick goodbye. Don’t drag it out. Bring your child to their new caregiver, tell your little love when you’ll be back, and leave. Keep it short and simple. If your school has specific policies due to the pandemic, of course follow them, but whenever possible hand your child off to the same person each day.

For the grown-ups:

  1. Open communication. I let my daughter’s teachers know about her personality and preferences before her first day, and they assured me they would meet her needs. Sure enough, I received photo updates and texts to let me know how she was doing each day (the honest perspective, not the rose-colored one).
  2. Pediatrician consult. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, either physically or socially, always talk to your pediatrician. Your school or school district may also be a resource, depending on your child’s age. I described my daughter’s behaviors to our pediatrician, and although he didn’t have any immediate concerns, he did tell me a few things to keep an eye on over the next six months. If your child would benefit from additional support services, starting early is always the most effective.

How Did It Go?

My daughter’s first two weeks of school were really hard. The first day she cried at drop-off, but quickly settled down after I left. She preferred to be by herself that day and didn’t do much of what the other kids were doing. Over the next week, our mornings got even worse. She started saying “no school” as soon as she woke up in the morning and was pretty much mad at me all day. But, by the end of the first week, she started showing interest in participating alongside the other kids. She developed a sweet relationship with her classroom teacher and a few other staff members at the preschool. By the end of week 2, as long as she saw someone familiar when we first arrived at school, she was ok.

After the second week of school, we were at home enjoying a leisurely Saturday morning. My daughter “packed” a pretend backpack and told me, “Bye mama, going to school.” I’m not going to lie and tell you that she loved every school day from then on, but she did fine, learned a lot, and made friends too. Additionally, the experience helped her outside of school; she has since become much more adaptable to new people and new places. My daughter would still rather meet a new dog than a new person any day, but she’s also made some genuine, lasting friendships with other kids.

Did your child experience separation anxiety? How did you support your child with their transition to school?

Maya lives in New Orleans with her husband, two daughters, and their beloved fur baby. She has 15 years of experience working in early childhood education, including roles in schools, local nonprofits, and state government. Maya currently works as a curriculum developer, where she gets to focus on one of her top interests, which is teaching reading. Her other top interests include her girls (of course), podcasts and audiobooks, anything outdoors in warm weather, and experimenting with new recipes.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here