Using Body Language to Soothe Separation Anxiety in Babies and Toddlers – Rose Hart-Landsberg
" Infants and toddlers need longer transitions than adults do. For a successful transition it’s best to make it clear to your child through body language that you’re not planning on leaving them immediately. Most daycares and preschools allow parents to stay with their kids for some combination of the first few sessions or at least the first minutes of each session. This allows your child time to acclimate to the new surroundings and people without the stress of wondering if and when you will disappear."
Imagine that for your entire life you’ve only known a handful of people. Two in particular have been responsible for over 90% of your care including food, shelter, emotional support, and general wellbeing no matter where you go. Imagine that these two people are also the only two people in the world that understand you when you communicate. Now imagine those two people bring you to a fun new play space, there are others your age to bond with, exciting activities to try, everything’s looking great until your caregivers kiss you goodbye and leave.
Imagine the feeling of panic.
Who will feed you, or even notice when you’re hungry? Who will hug and comfort you if you get hurt? Who will make sure your bathroom needs are met? Who will help you figure out how to interact with all these new people and things? This is what a baby or toddler feels during the transition to new childcare or educational settings and it can be pretty scary.
The thing about babies and young children is that even though they can’t talk, they’re still master communicators. Anyone who has spent time around an angry baby for example, one who may have had a toy taken away, be hungry and waiting for food, has a painful diaper rash etc. knows that babies communicate anger with clear facial expressions, body movement, vocalizations and tears. It’s pretty similar to when adults get angry. There’s usually yelling, shaking of fists, crying, scrunched eyebrows, and the like. Adults also have ways of communicating nonverbally (not just anger) and this is how adults bond with their babies.
One type of communication that was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic is facial expressions. Babies can read facial expressions from about 5 months old so a friendly adult face that’s half covered by a mask may be harder for a baby to read. Many childcare providers found ways to remain safe and solve this issue by using masks with clear windows. This era specific conundrum illustrates the role that facial expressions play in early years childcare dynamics. Most of the time, adults don’t even realize they’re communicating but every time you smile at a baby or give a sympathetic frown, or giggle when they do something silly you’re engaging in what is essentially, a non-verbal conversation.
Another important means of communication between infants and parents or other adult caregivers is touch. This can manifest as a gentle hand on the back or head of the baby, a hug to the chest, a gentle back or leg rub, or even a tickle when appropriate. These types of touch communicate to a baby that someone is there, someone is caring for them, aware of their feelings and needs. This helps baby feel safe and cared for. Even pulling a child to you and feeling their diaper for wetness is a reassuring though sometimes distracting type of touch. You are communicating that you are aware of their elimination and cleanliness needs and are taking charge of care needs in that area.
Now back to the previously outlined scenario: You’ve arrived with your baby at a brand new day care. The room is bright and fun, the staff is friendly, the toys are engaging and your infant or toddler is happy to be there. Then you give your little one a kiss, head for the door, and that’s when the waterworks start. Why is your child so upset at being left in such a fun environment?
First let’s talk about transitions. Infants and toddlers need longer transitions than adults do. For a successful transition it’s best to make it clear to your child through body language that you’re not planning on leaving them immediately. Most daycares and preschools allow parents to stay with their kids for some combination of the first few sessions or at least the first minutes of each session. This allows your child time to acclimate to the new surroundings and people without the stress of wondering if and when you will disappear. Studies have shown that kids who have a present and affectionate parental figure to return to in new environments wander further with more confidence than those who don’t. Giving your child that extra time is vital in creating a smooth transition, however, there are some nuanced behaviors to practice during this time.
Your child has relied on you for everything up until this point and part of the newness of a daycare or school is that other adults and children will be taking over some of the roles that you as a parent have previously monopolized. It’s important to communicate to your child that you want them to branch out and interact with these new people and since this is a complex idea to communicate to a preverbal child there are some conscious behaviors you can use.
It’s always a good idea to chat with your child’s new teachers. Your child looks to you to vet new people and decide how to feel about them. If they watch you chat in a friendly, open manner with a new adult, they will get the idea that this person is safe and friendly and therefore ok for them to interact with as well. Conversely, if you react negatively, for example pulling your child into your lap when someone new approaches, that will signal to your child that you find this person to be unsafe and they will learn to stay away.
One of the hardest things about facilitating a transition into a new childcare setting is that infants and toddlers are often used to their parents also being playmates. When your child discovers something new, their first impulse will often be to show it to you and this is where a tricky dynamic comes into play. You don’t want your child to feel that you are not accessible to them, you want to acknowledge their overtures and reinforce that you are “there” for them, you feel positive about the space and the toy but that in this context you are no longer there as a playmate. This nuance is often hard for parents. The concept of being accessible and loving, but boring, is a change for both parties. At first this dynamic may annoy your child, they’re used to initiating play and having you reciprocate but through repetition they learn that in this particular space and situation their parent is there for reassurance but not for play.
Once you have gone through some gentle, slow transitions, it may be time to leave your little one alone in the new space. For many babies and toddlers, this will be quick and painless. Some will cry momentarily but soon become immersed in the exciting friends and toys around them. For some kids, this step will be harder. Ultimately, each child is just a person and we are all different. Some babies and toddlers will react with extreme and sudden tears. They want to play with their new friends and toys, but they don’t feel ready to do that without a parent nearby to check in with. It’s important to strike a balance between acknowledging and honoring your child’s feelings (which, when put in context, are quite valid) and communicating through tone, demeanor, facial expressions and body language that you do not share your child’s fear. You want to make it clear that you understand and honor their fear but that you feel confident in the safety and wellbeing of your child in the space.
Often, it’s hard to know what to do in a situation where your child screams when you try to walk away. As part of a gradual plan that began with you sitting nearby for anywhere between 20 minutes to every morning for a week, you may want to rip the band aid off and continue to walk away as they cry, knowing that the childcare providers you have chosen are there to comfort and distract. If you react by running back to your little one when they scream, it communicates that you share their distress and it also may reinforce the behavior because it’s gotten them what they want. It’s a delicate process reading your child honestly to gauge how upset they really are vs. how upset they’re acting and trying to remember that to a brand-new human being, a transition to new childcare really can feel deeply alarming.
When it gets hard, it may help to know that working through these adjustments from a young age will build a strong foundation of trust between you and your baby or toddler as well as cultivate a healthy capacity for growth that will serve you both throughout the early years of childcare and beyond.
Rose Hart-Landsberg helps produce the Informed Pregnancy Podcast hosted by Dr. Elliot Berlin, DC and serves as managing editor of the new Informed Pregnancy Blog. She also spearheads podcast and blog sponsor partnerships and helps with various related content and copy writing for The Informed Pregnancy Project and Berlin Wellness Group. In her free time she enjoys shaping narrative in all forms but especially scripted television, makeup artistry, and is currently learning Turkish.