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Making It Work

Thwarting Separation Anxiety

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 1, January-February 2003, p. 26

"Making It Work" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help mothers who wish to combine breastfeeding and working. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


My husband and I work flexable schedules, so that we need a friend of mine to care for the baby for only about 20 hours a week. My daughter is now 12 months old, and lately she gets very upset when it is time for me to go to work. She never did this before-she would always just wave to me as I left. But now leaving is a horrid scene with my daughter crying and wailing for me, and me wanting to cry along with her. My husband is the one who is with her when I leave, and then he takes her to my friend later in the day. He says that she only cries for a few moments and then is happy with him, but it is still rough. How can I help the separation time go easier for all of us?


When my daughter, Emily, was little she also hated my leaving her. I found that she was much happier if she was the one doing the leaving. My husband and I arranged to get up half an hour earlier so that we could have our breakfast with Emily before leaving for work without everything being a rush. Then, when we were ready to leave, my husband took Emily out and left me behind. Emily was happy to go with her father and say goodbye to me. In the park outside our building they met Ying-je, our baby sitter. Emily would play on the park equipment and be happy to wave goodbye to my husband. On rainy days, Ying-je would come up to our apartment rather than wait in the park. She would then take Emily out before we had to leave for work. Because it was Emily leaving us rather than us leaving her, we found that she was much happier.

I now have a similar problem with my youngest child. Although I am staying with her, she gets upset when her father and older siblings all leave together in the morning. Often, she will scream and cry as they leave. I've found that taking her to the window so that she can watch her brothers and sister board the school bus and wave goodbye helps to calm her down.

Sarah Hung
Hong Kong


I can certainly identify with your problem. Both my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter and my two-and-a-half-year-old son had times when they would suddenly become clingy after previously being just fine. Every morning would bring tears and anguish, and I would spend the whole day worrying.

What helped me the most was to realize that it was the process of separation, not being away from each other, that was so hard for my children. Knowing that it was just a 10-minute time period of the actual leaving rather than an eight-hour day of being away helped immensely. (I should add that if your daughter is miserable for the entire eight hours you're apart, it probably means you have the wrong caregiver.)

A few things that helped my children:

  1. Make sure you and the caregiver overlap by a few minutes. Try not to arrange your schedule so that your husband or any other caregiver is arriving right when you need to leave. Use this time to discuss plans for the day, any recent events in your child's life, or anything else.
  2. Once you actually leave, try to make that part as brief as possible.
  3. It's easy to get caught up in just a few more hugs and a few more kisses and one more breastfeeding session. I found it never helped, and sometimes it made things worse.
  4. Always let your child know you are leaving. I accidentally left once without saying good-bye to my son and he was clingy and hysterical about my leaving for a week.
  5. Have the caregiver do something special with your daughter just as you leave. This doesn't need to be anything fancy. One babysitter I had would pick my son up next to the light switch and let him turn it off and on for 10 minutes as I left. His tears would dry as soon as she mentioned it. While you can make suggestions, ideally your husband should come up with what special thing he wants to do with your daughter.

This too shall pass. My daughter almost never looks back as I leave anymore, and occasionally I long for the days when she missed me so much.

Leslie Hayes
Santa Fe NM USA


I think that the hardest part about being a working mother is the stress of departure. Our key to thwarting separation anxiety is a light-hearted farewell and entertainment. My daughter is 12 months old and stays at home with her daddy while I work four 10-hour days. Then he works in the evening. She sleeps in with daddy in the morning, but I come home at lunch to nurse and then have to leave again. Although I feel sad to leave, I don't show it. I kiss her, wave bye-bye briefly, and then I am out the door. In the meantime, animated daddy kicks in. He holds her while I say good-bye, starts a tour of the house showing her all her favorite things, says her favorite words, and carries her to let her know she is safe. She rarely cries when I leave.

Karen Menetrey
Santa Fe NM USA


It is tough to have to leave with the sound of your baby crying ringing in your ears. My solution with my son was to say good-bye to my son, Sam, at his preschool, but then hide out of his range of vision. I could hear him crying from there, and would simply wait until he stopped. I started doing this because I couldn't quite believe that he did stop as soon as he realized I had really gone. Once I could hear the birds singing instead of Sam crying, I was able to leave, knowing that he was all right. And it really did only take a minute for him to stop crying.

When Daddy was looking after Sam at home and I was leaving for work, I noticed that if Daddy took Sam out before I left, if only to buy bread at the store on the corner, it was easier for everyone. I would always tell him that I would be going out and that I would be back in the evening so he wouldn't get a shock and think I'd disappeared while he was out. His going out with daddy on a little trip seemed to make it easier for him.

Kay Denney
Ivry-sur-Seine France


Managing change can be difficult for little people (and big people, too!). A child's cry just tears at a mother's heart, despite the reassurance of a husband or caretaker.

When my daughter had a hard time with my leaving (and sometimes that meant even leaving the room), I began to play a version of peek-a-boo with her. We'd start with my covering my eyes and playing peek-a-boo. After a bit of this, I would very briefly go behind something, anywhere just out of sight, and come back-"Peek-a-boo" or "Here I am!" I'd cry. We played this game repeatedly. As time went on, I'd increase the length of time I'd be gone from literally a second to five or 10 seconds and eventually longer. Once we managed that change successfully, I would go around the corner into another room. Eventually, I went out the front door and promptly came back in. Now, maybe that just gave me something to do while she grew better able to handle my coming and going, but at the time, I felt like I was helping to cement the idea in her mind that mommy always comes back.

Mary Wagner-Davis
Roseville CA USA


Leaving a young child is hard, even under the best of circumstances, but it is even harder if the child is crying. With my children, different things worked at different times. One thing that worked well was to leave when my child was still asleep. While we can't always change our work schedule, we might be able to change baby's schedule, and this is just what we did. We changed when we would put our toddler down to sleep from a normal bedtime of about 8 pm to about 10 pm so she woke up later. She would wake up smiling to a dad who was also happy because he was able to sleep in a bit longer each morning. I was also happier with this arrangement because I spent more waking hours with my children, even if they were late evening hours.

Another idea that worked well for us was a ritual. With my youngest daughter, if she woke before I left in the morning, she would help to make my morning drink of herbal tea or juice. Then, she would carry it carefully to the car for me, and kiss me good-bye there. I think this helped her to have some control over my leaving. She would also push the button to open the garage and shut it again once I left. I think any activity the child can do every day when mommy (or daddy) leaves can help. For instance, a friend's child would bring his daddy's shoes to him each morning and help him put the shoes on, while each evening, the child would help daddy take his shoes off and put them in the closet. Another friend's child would simply close mommy's car door each morning.

I think what helped me the most was knowing my children would only have a problem with me leaving for a short time. Now, at ages seven and four, my girls are fine with me leaving, happily saying good-bye.

Joylyn Fowler
Garden Grove CA USA

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