Do babies feel abandoned at daycare?

Table of Contents
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    If you are preparing to return to work soon after becoming a mom, you may be struggling with all the emotions, decisions, and difficult challenges that come with the end of maternity leave. Along with finding a caregiver, rearranging schedules, and preparing backup plans, you may be feeling that age-old feeling that every mama who has ever had to leave her kid, even to go hunt down food or something, has felt: Will, my baby, have feelings of abandonment when I return to work?

    The short answer to that question is, thankfully, no. Your baby will not feel abandoned by you when you return to work. Mostly because they are a baby who has no idea what work is, but also because you're a good mom who loves her baby no matter what. Your little one will still be provided with consistent, loving care. Read on for more about making your return to work easier on both of you.

    Allow yourself to feel all the feelings

    First things first: Especially if this is your first baby, you must take time to acknowledge all of the emotions you are having about returning to work. Talk to friends who have been through it, talk to your partner about how you might need some extra support and time to get through the transition, schedule an appointment with your therapist to make sure you're checking in with your mental health, or journal your feelings — whatever you do, acknowledge those emotions as normal, natural, and even healthy.

    You're not doing anything wrong if you are dreading the first day back to work, just like you're not a bad mom if you're delighted at the thought of heading back into the office. Both emotions are valid and very normal.

    Reframe your work

    It might sound silly, considering your baby is only an infant right now (presuming you are like most American women who go back to work within weeks of giving birth), but setting the tone for how you talk about work now might make a difference in how your child views you working.

    If your child's first introduction to your work is hearing you apologize for going, groaning about how awful it is to leave him, or grumbling about your schedule, odds are that your little one will start to internalize your work as a "bad" thing too. Even if your current job isn't exactly filling your soul, being conscious of how you frame leaving for work with your little one from an early age could help both of you view it for what it truly is: a normal part of your routine that makes the rest of your life possible, too.

    Separation Anxiety

    Tearful, tantrum-filled goodbyes are common during a child's earliest years. Around the first birthday, many kids develop separation anxiety, getting upset when a parent tries to leave them with someone else.

    Though separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood development, it can be unsettling. However, understanding what your child is going through and having a few coping strategies ready can help both of you get through it.

    About Separation Anxiety

    Babies adapt pretty well to other caregivers. Of course, parents probably feel more anxiety about being separated than infants do! But, as long as their needs are being met, most babies younger than 6 months adjust easily to other people.

    Between 4-7 months of age, babies develop a sense of "object permanence." They realize that things and people exist even when they're out of sight. Babies learn that when they can't see mom or dad, that means they've gone away. They don't understand the concept of time, so they don't know mom will come back and can become upset by her absence. Whether mom is in the kitchen, in the next bedroom, or at the office, it's all the same to the baby, who might cry until mom is nearby again. Kids between 8 months and 1 year old grow into more independent toddlers yet are even more uncertain about being separated from a parent. This is when separation anxiety develops, and children may become agitated when a parent tries to leave.

    Whether you need to go into the next room for just a few seconds, leave your child with a sitter for the evening, or drop off your child at daycare, your child might now react by crying, clinging to you, and resisting attention from others. The timing of separation anxiety can vary. Some kids might go through it later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age. Some never experience it. And for others, certain life stresses can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated from a parent: a new childcare situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home.

    How Long Does It Last?

    How long separation anxiety lasts can vary, depending on the child and how a parent responds. In some cases, depending on a child's temperament, separation anxiety can last from infancy through the elementary school years.


    Separation anxiety that affects an older child's normal activities can signify a deeper anxiety disorder. If separation anxiety appears out of the blue in an older child, there might be another problem, like bullying or abuse. Separation anxiety differs from the normal feelings older kids have when they don't want a parent to leave (which can usually be overcome if a child is distracted). And kids do understand the effect this has on parents. If you run back into the room every time your child cries or cancel your plans, your child will continue to use this tactic to avoid separation.

    What You Might Feel

    Separation anxiety might have you feeling a variety of emotions. It can be nice to think that your child is finally as attached to you as you are to them. But you're also likely to feel guilty about taking time out for yourself, leaving your child with a caregiver, or going to work. And you may start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of attention your child seems to need from you.

    Keep in mind that your little one's unwillingness to leave you is a good sign that healthy attachments have developed between the two of you. Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be comfort enough while you're gone. This also gives kids a chance to develop coping skills and a little independence.

    Making Goodbyes Easier

    These tips can help ease kids and parents through this difficult period:

    • Timing is everything. Try not to start daycare or childcare with an unfamiliar person when your child is between 8 months and 1 year when separation anxiety is first likely to appear. Also, try not to leave when your child is tired, hungry, or restless. If at all possible, schedule your departures for after naps and mealtimes.
    • Practice. Practice being apart from each other, and introduce new people and places slowly. If you plan to leave your child with a relative or a new babysitter, invite that person over in advance so they can spend time together while you're in the room. If your child is starting at a new daycare centre or preschool, make a few visits there together before a full-time schedule begins. Practice leaving your child with a caregiver for short periods so that they can get used to being away from you.
    • Be calm and consistent. Create an exit ritual during which you say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye. Stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure them that you'll be back — and explain when you'll return using concepts kids will understand (such as after lunch). Give your full attention when you say goodbye, and when you say you're leaving, mean it; coming back will only make things worse.
    • Follow through on promises. It's important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is critical — this is how your child will develop the confidence that they can make it through the time apart.

    It's Only Temporary

    Remember, this phase will pass. However, if your child has never been cared for by anyone but you, is naturally shy or has other stresses, separation anxiety may be worse than it is for other kids.

    Also, trust your instincts. For example, suppose your child refuses to go to a certain babysitter or daycare centre or shows other signs of tension, such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite. In that case, there could be a problem with the childcare situation.

    Discuss it with your doctor if intense separation anxiety lasts into preschool, elementary school, or beyond and interferes with daily activities. It could be a sign of a rare but more serious condition known as a separation anxiety disorder. Kids with this disorder fear being lost from their family members and are often convinced that something bad will happen. Talk with your doctor if your child has signs of this, including:

    • panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath) or panic attacks before a parent leaves
    • nightmares about separation
    • fear of sleeping alone (although this is also common in kids who don't have separation anxiety)
    • excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or going places without a parent


    Babies mourn when left alone for long periods. The lack of touch and attention may result in a life-long sense of unworthiness and sadness. The unspoken message when the parent drops the child off is, "Your needs are not important. You don't matter." Children make their conclusions based on their experiences; abandoned babies learn to believe, "I must not be worthy of love if no one loves me." (Could this be one reason that prescriptions for mood stabilizers have risen 4000% in the last 10 years?)


    Many children become nasty and rebellious in their attempt to achieve a sense of power and win precious attention drops. They don't care what others think and have not been trained to share or care or respect others' feelings. As a result, small children are often left in the care of older siblings who resent the loss of freedom and resort to cruelty to get their younger siblings to cooperate.

    What Can You Do?

    You can choose to take responsibility for them:

    • Stay home for at least the first 6 months of the child's life, setting the foundation for his future mental and physical health.
    • Smile—a lot! Happy mothers, whether they work or not, have more well-adjusted children.
    • Try to find part-time work so that you are gone no more than four hours a day.
    • Work at home. Can you do freelance work or start a computer-based business?
    • When you do have time with the kids, enjoy them! Shut the phone off between 5-8 p.m. Cherish your time with them. Show interest in the things they care about. Tell them that they, not work, are your priority in life.
    • Lower your material standards. You won't have the fanciest home or brand-name clothing, but you will, hopefully, have saner children.
    • If you work, don't go off again in the early evening to classes or social events. Wait until the children are asleep. They need your presence to feel loved.
    • Get your husband involved. Women are far happier, even if they are working if their husbands are true partners who help with the chores and child-rearing.

    Here are other tips to make toddlers daycare drop-off makes easier:

    Bring something familiar

    A reminder of the home will make those first few trips to daycare a little easier and provide comfort on difficult days, anything that smells like home for babies. That might be a lovely blanket or mom or dad's T-shirt or another clothing item. A laminated family portrait that an older child can hold onto can help too.

    Create a goodbye ritual

    Teachers recommend families create a consistent goodbye ritual to create a fuss-free drop-off. That might mean giving a high-five, saying, "I love you," or a kiss on both cheeks — whatever feels natural to the parent and child. Make sure you do the same routine each time so your child knows what to expect. This daily sendoff helps set a limit for yourself too, so you won't be tempted to linger at the door, making the goodbye harder for you both.

    Talk it through


    Even the youngest babies will benefit from parents talking through what this new thing called daycare will be like. For example, you can say, "Starting tomorrow, we're going to drop you off at so-and-so's, and there are going to be other babies there, and you're going to have lunch and play with these toys, and then after nap time and snack, I'm going to come to pick you up."

    The baby is picking up on the cadence and the emotional tone, and they're going to get a sense of reassurance. It gives them a sense of predictability and that everything's going to be OK.

    Repeat the story once daycare starts for continued reassurance. Reading a picture book about going to daycare is another option, as is sharing a picture of the teacher or classroom.

    Try a gradual start

    If possible, let your child ease into daycare by starting him off with a part-time schedule.

    The ideal transition into daycare is gradual, so maybe you're going with them for an hour one day, and the next day, you'll leave them there for 20 minutes to play while you get a coffee.

    Many daycare providers will recommend a similar gradual start, beginning with either a couple of half days or starting on a Thursday rather than Monday, so the child or baby doesn't immediately plunge into a five-day-a-week, full-time schedule.

    There is no substitute for a mothers' love! Forget quality v. quantity. Children need soothing when they are in distress, not at a scheduled time.

    Who will take the time and effort to instil positive character traits in our children, teach them self-restraint, teach them to share, stand up for their rights, deal with intense emotions, plan for the future and find non-violent solutions to problems? Who will protect them from abusers in schools and neighbourhoods? Not the babysitter!

    Suppose you're still feeling conflicted about returning to work and are convinced that deep down, you're doing your baby a disservice by letting someone else care for them part of their waking hours. In that case, it may be helpful to remember the evidence: There is simply no evidence that children whose mothers work are harmed in any way, shape, or form. On the contrary, the evidence we do have points the other way, suggesting that children of mothers who work are more financially stable, become more successful in their own lives and are equally as happy as kids of stay-at-home moms.

    The bottom line is that kids need to feel loved and that love comes in different forms — whether or not you're the one staring directly into your kid's eyeballs for 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, love has become a rare commodity. May we all do our best to give ourselves and our children the respect, appreciation, and support we all need.

    Between 4-7 months of age, babies develop a sense of "object permanence." They're realizing that things and people exist even when they're out of sight. Babies learn that when they can't see mom or dad, that means they've gone away.

    Regarding cognitive development, studies have found negative effects, no significant links, and positive daycare effects. Research has shown that daycare hinders the quality of parent-child relations, does not hinder it, that the adverse effects are small and transitory, or intermittent.

    No, it's a normal concern, but don't worry. Your baby's not going to forget you. You should realize, though, that she will—and should—bond with other people.

    Scroll to Top