How to choose the right nursery

A nursery teacher reading children a book

You’ve already made the main decisions – to go back to work and to go for a nursery over another form of childcare. Now just comes the small matter of finding the right nursery for your child

There are many excellent nurseries in the UK which is one reason why it’s such a popular form of childcare, and it’s one of the more affordable options, too. Another good thing about nurseries is that, unlike with nannies and childminders, they don’t get sick, unless a contagious virus sweeps through the nursery and the place has to shut – a very rare occurrence, but it does happen.

The popularity of nurseries, and the simple fact that there are a lot of kids with working parents out there, means you need to get ahead of the game if you possibly can and be clear in your own mind about what you’re looking for.

How early do I need to start looking for a nursery?

As soon as possible really. When you’re pregnant, and in the newborn days, the prospect of handing your baby over for someone else to look after, is probably the last thing you want to contemplate. If you’re intending to return to work, though, you’ll need to think about it fairly soon.

In some areas, nursery places are in huge demand and parents have their child’s name down virtually from conception. It’s worth asking around other parents to find out what the situation is locally. In some very in-demand areas, particularly London, nurseries charge a hefty fee to keep the place open for you – some even charge a daily or monthly fee until you take up the place. So it’s worth having a think about how long you can pay that for and how late in the day you could leave it without it being ‘too late’. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Finding a nursery place early is especially important if you’re planning to go back to work before your baby turns two, as places for under-twos are the most limited. The sooner you look into childcare, the easier it will be to find the right nursery for your child.

Where should I look for nursery recommendations?

Your local authority will have a list of the nurseries in your area. Once you’ve had a look at what’s on offer, a good place to start is to ask around other parents and see what they recommend. Personal recommendations can be a mixed bag and you might find that the nursery which one parent says was awful for their child, another parent cannot praise highly enough. Such are the varieties of experience and the different needs of individuals. So ask specific questions, decide whose opinion you value and use your judgement – if several parents say similar things about a nursery then you should probably take their word for it.

Remember – nurseries are all Ofsted-regulated, so you can visit the Ofsted site and read the latest inspection report on any nursery.

What should I watch out for when looking round nurseries?

Asking for recommendations and reading testimonies and reviews online is all very well. But nothing beats visiting the place in person – that way you can really get a feel for it.

If you have time, it’s even worth visiting nurseries where you’re not planning to send your child. You never know, you might discover you really like what you see and sense that it could be the right place, or it might just confirm in your mind that you’re right to go for something different. Here are a few things to think about on your visit:

What questions should I ask on a nursery visit?

Asking questions will not only give you the information you need but will also give you clues about how much the staff know, how enthusiastic they are about the nursery and how they communicate with parents. These are some questions you might want to raise:

  • Are there potty-training requirements (some nurseries have these for children over two)?
  • What is the child-to-staff ratio?
  • Is there a place for children to nap?
  • Do the children get taken out?
  • Is there a daily routine? What is it?
  • How much time do the children spend outside?
  • What activities do the children do?
  • Do babies and toddlers mix at all?
  • What about discipline? How would staff respond, for example, if your child were bitten by another child? Or if your child were the biter?
  • Do staff lead play or adopt a hands-off approach?
  • Where do the children eat? How long do mealtimes last?
  • Ask staff: Do you enjoy working here? Unhappy staff can have a negative effect on the children.
  • And anything else you might think of. There are no silly questions.

Trust your judgement

Keep your eyes open and ask yourself things like:

  • Are the rooms clean and airy?
  • Does the place get plenty of light?
  • How do the children seem to you? Are they content and stimulated? Or do they look a bit bored or miserable?
  • Do they feel safe and comfortable with the staff? Remember, children will cry sometimes so don’t be put off by a child having a bit of a sob – what’s important is how the staff deal with a child that’s crying.
    It’s also worth watching how the staff interact:
  • Do staff seem to be treated with respect by their seniors?
  • Are they working together collaboratively?
  • Do they seem to be happy and enjoy working there?

Also think about whether you like the set-up. Some people prefer a setting that is a dedicated nursery space (rather than a church hall or similar where the toys and materials are put away again each night), while others don’t mind. Some parents want lots of outdoor space, or even a forest school, but that might not bother you so much. Do you want your child to have meals cooked on site or would you prefer them to take a packed lunch?

Trust your instincts when it comes to weighing up the atmosphere. Do you like the general vibe and think this is somewhere you’d be happy to leave your child for several hours per day? If you think so, that’s great, but if you have a bad feeling about a nursery, even if it has an excellent Ofsted report, you should probably avoid it.

Don’t worry – you’ll find the right nursery for your child eventually, and if you’re not finding anywhere you’re happy with, it might be worth considering whether you'd prefer another childcare option, such as a childminder or nanny.