When Ella and her mom arrived for the first day of their art class for three-year-olds, Ella seemed like a quiet, shy little girl. The other children worked and played together while their parents were away, while Ella sat in her mother’s lap, quietly avoiding the other children.
On their third day in the group, I gently suggested her mom could take an hour for herself while Ella was with us; I was confident Ella would do well.
Nervous about leaving Ella alone, particularly in light of her apparent shyness, her mother decided to say goodbye and wait outside the room where she could hear how Ella was doing.
Though Ella had never before been away from her family, she began to interact with the other children, and turned out to be anything but shy. She appeared confident, focused and self-directed; with a little encouragement she was easily able to ask for what she needed and play with the other children. Soon enough, Ella’s mother was dropping her off and taking some much-needed time for herself during class.
Sending your little one into another’s care for the first time is a monumental experience. This first separation can bring up nervousness, doubt, mistrust, and grief for even the most even-keeled parents.
The process can be quite trying, but can also provide an opportunity for growth where you can examine your feelings and reaffirm your love to your child. Your child has an opportunity to master separating from you in a secure and confident way that keeps your attachment strong. In this article, we’ll explore some ways you can help your child make this transition with confidence and ease.
What is Attachment?
Attachment is the bond between a child and a principal caregiver, formed over the period between birth and age three. You can think of attachment as a template for relationships, forming the set of expectations a child will carry into adulthood about close relationships. This template can prove to be a huge help, or a hurdle, toward developing close, loving relationships in adulthood.
In the early stages of human brain development, infants and young children lack the capacity to conceive of the motives and complexity of the world around them. If an infant cries and no one responds, the infant experiences powerlessness. Over time, this is internalized as the message: The world is a harsh place; I cannot trust the world to be a place where my needs will be met. When an infant cries and a caregiver responds lovingly and consistently, the baby gets quite a different message: I have the power to get someone to care for me. The child internalizes this type of consistent loving care into a more global view: The world is a safe place where I will be taken care of.
There is tremendous power and resiliency in a worldview like the latter. Imagine how differently these two babies might cope with adversity in relationships, loss, health challenges, financial struggles, and all the rest.
To give an example, Annette was four years old when her father was killed during the Holocaust. She fondly remembers him as a strong, reliable, honorable man who loved her dearly and set an example of living in his power and loving his family. To this day, though she struggles with the wounds of her experiences and loss, her memories of her relationship with her father give her strength and comfort and help remind her of how to love and take care of herself and others.
Developing a secure bond with caregivers in early life helps a child to develop the resiliency to weather life’s challenges with relative confidence and ease. To build a secure attachment children need consistent, loving, responsive care from all of their primary caregivers, especially during times of transition.
This section discusses some ways in which you can support your child’s attachment and help ease the transition to a new childcare arrangement.
Time the beginning of your new childcare arrangement to meet your child’s developmental needs. There are stages during infancy and early childhood where it is relatively easy for your child to be away from you, and other periods where it is quite difficult. Between seven or eight months and twelve to fifteen months, your child may develop separation anxiety that may make a first time separation quite difficult. This is because your child is beginning to understand that you exist even when you are not present. Knowing you are out there but not knowing where, when, or whether you’ll return can cause anxiety for babies during this time. When possible, it’s best to begin a new caregiver arrangement before or after this period.
Choose a caregiver or caregivers you trust. From birth to age three, your child’s developing brain is learning to recognize and read faces and emotions. Your child looks to you for cues about whether a new caregiver is a safe, trusted person. In order to feel secure in a new caregiver arrangement, your child (under age three) needs to see that you feel good about the people who are caring for him/her. For referrals and a free class on your childcare options and how to choose a childcare arrangement, visit Bananas (5232 Claremont Ave, Oakland, CA, bananasinc.org).
Let your child know what to expect in advance. Your words will help your child prepare. Don’t skip this explanation because you think your baby is too young to understand. Verbal comprehension develops before speech, and these conversations get through even to babies who don’t talk yet. Even if your child can’t understand all the words, your tone and confidence during the transition will send a strong message of support. For older children, talking about the change also creates an opportunity for children to voice their fears or feelings about the arrangement and begin to process them.
Create a special goodbye routine and use it everyday. Having a consistent goodbye routine is critical to your child’s sense of security. Your child needs to learn that you are predictable to trust that you will come back.
Always get your child’s attention and say goodbye before you leave. Do this even if your child doesn’t seem interested in you, is absorbed in something else, or doesn’t seem to need you. Often, the children who act like they do not to need their parents are the ones who need them the most. Some children ignore or pretend not to need their parents as a “test” to try and find out if their parents “love them enough” to say goodbye.
When you say goodbye, leave right away. Your child needs to learn to trust you, so telling him/her what you are going to do and following through are important. Babies and young children are egocentric, conceiving of everything around them as if they caused it. If you sometimes stay after saying goodbye, your child might believe that something he/she did made you stay and may become fixated on doing the right thing to try to make you stay. You need to leave when you say goodbye to send your child the message that he/she doesn’t have control over when you leave, so that he/she can feel secure and be free to enjoy the day, rather than feeling preoccupied with trying to control something that has nothing to do with him/her.
As much as possible, keep things familiar. You might consider asking a familiar person, such as a grandparent or friend, to care for your child the first time you are away. If your child will be cared for in your home, leave some reminders of you around the house – your shoes, an unwashed T-shirt, photos, movies, or anything else that will help remind your little one of you. Lots of children love to dress up in your clothes and play pretend!
If the child will be cared for outside of your home, visit the place together at least once and talk about the new arrangement. If this is your first time separating from your child, you should plan to visit together before the new arrangement begins and stay with the child in the new space for at least an hour or two. Your visit together gives your child a chance to explore and orient to the new space while feeling safe with you there as a “home base.”
Make sure your child has any special items, toys, or lovies. These include any items to which your child is attached, and work best if they can be carried throughout the day. You can begin to encourage your child to start forming attachments to a special toy or lovie between three and six months of age.
Make a waterproof album of photos of your family your child can carry. Your childcare provider(s) can pull this album out to help your child feel secure by providing a reminder of your love and connection if your child misses you or in an emergency.
Give your child something to be excited about in the new arrangement. Figure out what your child might enjoy about the new arrangement (a trip to a favorite spot, new friends, new toys, etc.) and help him/her get excited about it. It’s important to normalize your child’s feelings as you do. You might try saying something like, “It’s okay if you miss me. If you do, tell Grandpa and he’ll give you a hug and look at some pictures of our family with you.” Don’t be concerned if your child doesn’t react as positively as you’d hoped. It’s important for children to be able to express feelings and fears and it is a good sign if your child shows these feelings to you. A child will be able to process and move through emotions more effectively if you are able to listen, or be present, without trying to talk feelings away or by putting a positive spin on the situation. As you do this consistently, your confidence in your child’s ability to make the transition will come across and instill a sense of security even if your child seems quite anxious or upset.
Expect some tears, fears, and “clinginess”; but don’t be surprised if your child takes the separation better than you do. While you are getting ready to separate for the first time or anytime you’re starting with a new childcare arrangement thereafter, it’s perfectly normal for children with a healthy, secure attachment to appear “clingy,” sad, or nervous. If you’ve done what you can to support them to make this transition, they will be able to move on from their sadness shortly after you leave. Regardless of how easily or well children handle transition, separating can be tremendously trying for parents; full of anxiety, grief, and other emotions. Memories from your own childhood may even emerge. Be gentle with yourself and find support as you begin to say goodbye to your little one.
During the first few days, ask your childcare provider(s) to call or arrange a time to talk to share information and reassure you that your child is transitioning well. This will provide an opportunity to make changes in the routine and communicate about important occurrences during the day.
Be present when you see your child for the first time at the end of the day. As you travel to be reunited with your child, take the time to unwind and let go of the stresses of the day. At the end of a long day, both you and your child may feel anxious, upset, or tired. Take some deep breaths and show up to your reunion with love. Your child might greet you with a smile, or a withdrawn, angry, or rejecting look. All of these reactions are normal and a sign that your child loves you. Be ready to hug them, show your love, and listen to how their day went.
Ultimately, your child will do well in this separation and the ones that follow because of your love, understanding and recognition of your child’s needs (predictability, unconditional love and acceptance, a space to express feelings without judgment or someone trying to “fix” things) and your efforts to provide support. Likewise, it’s important to find ways to meet your own needs during the separation. You might talk with someone about your feelings about the transition, reflect on your own experiences with childcare and separating from your parents, or find support for looking back on your own childhood experiences (see sample resource listing at the end of this article).
Healing and Strengthening Attachments when Challenges Arise
Children need reliable, responsive care from a loving caregiver and a consistent goodbye routine in order to feel secure. This regularity helps your child — new to the world and learning what to expect — understand he/she is loved, will be cared for, and that you will come back. But what can you do if this transition doesn’t go ideally or you suspect that your attachment has been impacted?
Many factors can interrupt the formation of a strong, secure relationship between parent and child, including unforeseen events like divorce or death, premature birth, children’s unmet needs (i.e. predictability or unconditional acceptance), abandonment, abuse, and neglect.
When these or other factors affect a child’s developing attachment during this sensitive period from birth to age three, it’s important to know healing is possible. We are surrounded by community resources to support parents in strengthening attachments and treating attachment trauma (see sample resource listing below).
510-568-0381 (Childcare Referral Hotline)
Childcare referral service for parents in Alameda County, free parent classes, resources and information for parents and childcare professionals
Hand in Hand Parenting
Parent classes and ongoing parent support groups on “Parenting through Connection” professional development workshops, parenting workshops on tantrums and difficult behavior, and support for healing from attachment trauma
Virginia Keeler-Wolf, MFT
Family Attachment & Adoption Center East Bay
1425 Leimert Blvd, Suite 302-A
Oakland CA 94602
510-339-9363 Fax: (510) 531-3394
Attachment Therapist, specializing in attachment trauma and adoption
Lindsay K. Germain is a postpartum doula with a passion for supporting and empowering parents with evidence-based information and nourishing meals. She founded (Re)birthing Collective, served as President of BirthWays, and was Director of Education for the PLACE for Sustainable Living in Oakland. She is a Parenting by Connection educator and a member of LGBTQ Perinatal Wellness Associates of the Bay Area.
She studied environment and psychology at University of Michigan and MIT, completing doula trainings at Natural Resources, Cornerstone Doula Trainings, and Awakenings Midwifery.