Settling your child in at nursery

Nursery teacher and child

If you're returning to work and your baby or toddler is starting at nursery, you’ll want to start the settling-in process early doors, so that by the time you go back to work, you’re confident that your child is happy, and you can relax and get on with your working day. Here’s how to make sure it all goes swimmingly (or at least skew the odds in your favour).

How to prepare your child for nursery

Once you’ve chosen a nursery and have set a start date, help your child look forward to going by telling her about all the fun she’ll have there (and try not to focus on the fact that you returning to work is the catalyst). The prospect of making friends and doing fun things should help to distract her from the anguish of being left by you. Don’t raise her expectations too much, as that risks disappointment, but do play up the positives, talking about all the lovely toys they have, the nice painting and other activities she can do, and so on.

Before she starts, contact the staff and ask about things like naps and meal-times. Mirroring the nursery’s routine at home in the run-up to starting will help your child adjust. So if they always have milk when they wake up from naps, introduce this at home. It’s just one more thing that will feel familiar to her when she's there.

On the subject of which, lots of nurseries encourage children to take in a familiar object from home. One Mumsnetter recommends: “Ask about taking in her own sleeping bag/cuddle blanket to help your baby feel at home.” And even if you don’t want to go that far, taking in a favourite toy should help. Just make sure it is properly named and the staff are aware of whose it is. The last thing you need is a night’s lost sleep because ‘Smelly Rabbit’ isn’t available at bedtime. Family photos are also a good way to help her feel secure, and lots of nurseries encourage that, too.

What is a ‘settling-in period' at nursery?

Most nurseries have a very gradual settling-in process – in fact some are so *gradual * you really need to be prepared to be on hand for the first few weeks as the early sessions can be very short. The first time, you might only leave your child for an hour, then, if that goes ok, an hour-and-a-half, gradually building up to half days and full days.

This gives your child a chance to settle in slowly, but it can be disruptive for you, so you'll need to plan your return to work accordingly or ask for a phased return yourself. After all, it’s not just children that benefit from taking things one step at a time.

What do you do if your child doesn’t settle at nursery?

First and foremost, don't stress out about it and immediately reconsider your decision to send them to nursery at all. There might be tears at first but, eventually, even the most delicate children settle – and it usually only takes a few weeks.

“My daughter was 11 months when she started nursery. She was still breastfed, hardly ate solids, had separation anxiety, would only fall asleep with nursing or in a moving buggy, and co-slept in my bed. We settled her in very gently.”

If you have lots of tears when you go, hard as it is, believe us the thing to do is get out of there. A bright and breezy kiss, hand her to her key worker (avoiding any thrashing limbs), cheerful “Bye darling, Mummy will be back later” and exit pronto. Once you’ve gone she will more than likely calm down. The stress of knowing you’re about to go is much worse than the reality of you simply having gone.

If you’re worried, give the nursery a quick ring to check she settled when you get to work.

“When you drop your child off at the nursery, have about five minutes chatting with carers, then say goodbyes casually, like nothing is wrong, hand the child to the carer to cuddle, then leave and don’t look back. The howling, if any, should stop after a few minutes. The carers will call you if it goes on for too long. When I pick up, I always peep through the door (out of my daughter's sight) to make sure she isn't crying."

Settling in at nursery – Mumsnetters’ and nursery workers’ dos and don'ts

Don't sneak out

“I've found it easier to hand over my son after a brief chat with the nursery staff about how he is that day, with a big smile and kiss for my son (even when I feel like crying), say 'Bye bye, see you later,’ then walk out, quickly, and don't look back.”

Be upbeat and hide your own anxiety

“Big kiss and flamboyant goodbye, have a lovely time etc, quick getaway, then collapse in a nervous heap in the car!”

Give the nursery staff all the help you can to settle your baby

“Tell the nursery exactly what your baby likes and dislikes, how you settle her, everything you can about her, no matter how trivial. It will give them a much better idea of her personality and this may help them calm her quicker.”

Adjust your baby to nursery food gradually

“Ask nursery staff to introduce a little of the nursery food alongside stuff brought from home. I had one baby who was fed baby food jars at home so I used to mix it with some cooked fresh veg at nursery to get them used to the taste.”

How to cope with leaving your baby at nursery

It’s not just babies and toddlers that find the transition to nursery tough. Most mums find it a bit of a wrench and if you get into the car and collapse in tears you won’t be the first. (You probably won’t even be the first that day.)

The first time you leave them, you’ll probably feel like you’ve left your right arm somewhere, but this will get easier and (whisper it) you will very likely soon start to enjoy the time to yourself. Who’d ever have thought you’d regard work as ‘relaxation time’, eh?

Most mums describe three stages to adjustment:

1. Horror
“Had to leave my son crying this morning. It's broken my heart. I went back in after an hour to see how he was getting on – he was fast asleep in a cot, they said he cried for a while then fell asleep. I have this horrible image of him crying himself to sleep because his mum wasn't there.”

2. Stiffening of upper lip
“It is all very well doing attachment/instinctive/caveman parenting when they are tiny, but you cannot do it and go back to work. You just can't. So training may be contrary to the spirit of what you've done so far, but unless you're up for eternal SAHM-dom you're going to do it. My daughter did two weeks of wailing (including food/milk refusal, carers having to come and fetch me from the car park etc), a week of three-minutes-of-tears, a week of mild-whimper and subsequently greeted the staff with smiles holding her arms out for a cuddle. So long as you like and trust the staff, you'll get through it and, more importantly, so will they.”

3. Gay abandon
“She now falls on the toys without a backward glance and I skulk off unnoticed…”