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Parenting Q & A: My Child Cries When I Drop Him Off At Daycare

Q:  I’ve just started working outside of the home after being a sahm (stay at home mom) with my three-year-old his whole life.  It’s been two weeks and he cries every time I leave him.  I have to work.  Please don’t give me the “helpful” advice to quit work and continue to be a sahm.  My mother thinks that’s what I should do, but it’s just not an option.  

My heart breaks when I have to leave him.  I want him to be happy like the other children at the daycare seem to be.  What can I tell him to make him see daycare as a fun place that he’s excited to go to each morning?

Jen, Massachusetts, USA

A:  Sweet mama, my heart hurts for you and you son.  I know this isn’t easy.  I worked outside of the home for a few years after being a stay-at-home mom for 11 years, so I understand this transition very well.  And don’t worry, my advice to you isn’t to quit your job and return to being a sahm. The transition is difficult for mom and kiddos no matter their age. Some children take it worse than others, but all children can adjust with some help.

Read on for my best tips for how to stop the tears at daycare drop off.

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How to Help My Child Stop Crying At Daycare Drop Off

What To Do When Your Child Cries at Daycare Drop Off

Banish the Working Mom Guilt

First, I encourage you to be confident in your belief that you are doing the right thing by returning to the workforce.  With your son being upset at daycare and your mother suggesting you should continue to stay home, you may be carrying a ton of working mom guilt.

This guilt can affect your attitude and actions in the presence of your son and cause him to feel unsure, as well.  This may be as simple as your subconscious feelings about returning to work affecting your son.

You know why it’s important for you to return to work and I’m certain it has everything to do with making your son’s life better in the long run.

Talk to Your Daycare Provider to Get the Whole Picture

What does his care provider say about how long he cries after you leave?  Is he miserable most of the day or does the crying stop once he’s been redirected to the activities of the day?

I worked as a preschool teacher with 2-3 year olds and I know what it looks like from the inside when a child cries when mommy leaves. In 95% of the cases the upset child has stopped crying within 10 minutes of being left at daycare. Something distracts them, like a friend, a game, or a beloved toy and they stop crying and never look back.

If your daycare provider has a video monitoring system (and a good provider will) you can see for yourself how everything unfolds after you leave.

Give Him More Time to Adjust

At three years old your son is able to understand that you will return after some time. However, it’s likely he is simply slow to warm or introverted. In addition, like most securely attached children, he would prefer to be with his mommy than with anyone else.

It’s important to confidently assure him that you feel okay about leaving him at daycare and you know he’s in good hands. Remind him that you’ll return later and that, in the meantime, he gets to play with his friends, eat fun snacks, do crafts, and play outside.

What If It’s More Than a Slow Adjustment?

Your son has been home with you his whole life.  Has he ever been in a daycare or preschool setting?  If not, the busyness and distractions of a daycare setting might be unsettling to him.

On the other hand, does he have any sensory issues?  This might also cause a daycare environment to be overwhelming. Again, talk to your daycare provider for more information.

As a preschool teacher, I could tell the difference between a child who was shy or overwhelmed in the first weeks of preschool and one who was unusually distraught. The latter, as it turned out, had special needs that were brought to light in part because of their reaction to being left at preschool.

During the time I worked as a preschool teacher, out of approximately 100 children only one had such special needs that he needed to withdraw from our preschool to attend a school more equipped to deal with his needs. Even my own son with Asperger’s was able to work out a plan that helped make preschool a positive experience for him.

Is Your Son Shy or Introverted?

If either of the above are true for your son (and no, shyness and introversion aren’t the same thing), but you want to introduce him to a setting with other children more slowly, consider a part-time preschool/sitter or nanny scenario.  He can get the education environment/socialization from the preschool, but he doesn’t have to spend all day there.  Afterward he can come back to the comfort of his home.

Is This Daycare the Right One for Your Son?

What does your mommy intuition tell you about this daycare? I can’t tell you if it’s the right place for your child, of course. Listen to yourself on this one. Keep in mind that just because he’s sad right now it doesn’t mean this is the wrong place for your child.

  • Does your son feel ignored in the daycare setting?
  • Can he articulate what he’s sad about?

Other Great Tips for Helping Your Child Adjust to Daycare

If your son simply misses you and is distraught at the idea of you being gone all day, there are a few things you can try:

  • Read Llama, Llama Misses Mama with him.  This tells a great story about a little llama whose mother left him at school while she went to work.  He was sad, but in the end he realized that he could have fun at school and that Mama Llama always comes back.  This helped my youngest when I took a part-time internship when he was young and had to be away from my boys.
  • Give him a special, small token to put in his pocket, so he can feel connected to you when you are gone.  I used small plastic butterflies like these with my youngest son when I went back to work.  He kept one and I kept one.  Even now that I work from home and my youngest is 12, I still keep my butterfly in my home office and smile every time I come across it.

Give it time.  If changing childcare settings isn’t an option or the book and token ideas don’t seem to help, keep in mind that your son has just had a major change to his routine and to his whole life in general.  Keep reassuring him confidently, listen to what he has to say about why he’s sad at daycare, and continue to show him each day you always come back for him.  In time, he will settle into his new routine.


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