Separation anxiety is a real emotion they feel and their wails and trauma grips your heart. It is the normal response of a happily secure toddler to their mom or dad.
Your little one will learn very soon that you do come back and get them later but right now, they don't understand the idea of returning. In essence, they're watching their life giver and main caregiver abandon them albeit temporarily.
My twins alternate who is saddest to see me leave. One week it's Zeke crying his eyes out and the next week Hunter is the one who's upset while Zeke is happily playing.
How can you make this transition easier? (For them and for you?)
Dr. Laura Markham has some great ideas on the website www.ahaparenting.com.
Here's a list of my favorites, and check with your pediatrician for more hints on making separation anxiety hurt less.
1. Help your child develop a special bond with the new caregiver. The babysitter or preschool teacher doesn't "replace" you; so it's not that your child will ever get used to making do without you. However at least they're more easily comforted by their new friend.
2. Spend a little time yourself at the new location. Play for 10 minutes at the preschool before you dash out the door, but the minute he or she gets busy with something, take a backseat to the teacher or activity and then scoot out.
3. Start with short separations. Try 15-30 minutes, then come right back when your toddler stops crying. That will help them learn that it's a quick return on your part.
4. Develop a parting routine: always read a quick story, or hug them, or say "I'll be back soon;" Stick to the routine every day so your toddler will know what to expect.
5. Try leaving a cozy object like a favorite stuffed animal or something of yours like a scarf. Don't be surprised if the child throws it down when you leave and they get occupied.
6. Try not to sneak out. It will make the separation anxiety worse in the end. Just say "I know you don't want me to leave, but I'll be back soon. I'll wave goodbye from the door. I love you, have fun!" It may take weeks for the idea to sink in; but hide your distress and show that everything is fine.
7. Discuss ahead how your caregiver can help distract your toddler. Most preschool teachers are very adept at this since they do it every day.
8. Don't be late to pick up your toddler. It just makes things harder in the future and you set up a long-term feeling that you don't always keep your promises.
9. Put together a "Lots of People Love Me" book to comfort your toddler later: parents, grandparents, caregiver, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Let the caregiver read it to your child too with you there.
No one can say for sure how long it will take your child to pass through this tender phase. It does pass, and your child will understand soon that mommy and daddy love them and will come back!