Starting nursery is the beginning of a new and exciting stage in your child’s life. But it’s also the end of an era so feelings of sadness and anxiety are inevitable.
When you’ve been by your child’s side every waking moment from the second they were born – holding them, guiding them, comforting them, playing with them – it’s hardly surprising that watching them disappear into a room of virtual strangers is enough to fill even the most confident parent with questions and doubts.
What if he cries inconsolably when you leave him? How is she going to cope without you? What if the other children are mean? What if the staff forget to give him his dummy at nap time? What if she cries and nobody cuddles her?
While these anxieties are completely natural, it’s also worth remembering that children are far more resilient than they appear. In fact, there’s a good chance your little one is coping better with the transition than you are.
Then, of course, there’s the question of them coping a little too well.
What if he doesn’t bat an eyelid when you leave him? What if she prefers her key carer to you? What if he’s happy all day at nursery but cranky when he gets home?
As setting up a webcam to spy on your little darling isn’t an option, we asked Beverley Hallett, manager of Head Start Nursery and Preschool, Lewisham, to give us a sneak peek into what really happens at nursery when mummy and daddy aren’t there and offer her top tips from the front line.
What if my child is inconsolable when I leave?
“Children usually cry because you are leaving and not because they are unhappy about being at nursery,” explains Beverley. “In the majority of cases, once the ‘goodbye’ part is over, a child will quickly settle into an activity or cuddle with a member of staff.”
To ensure the goodbye is as painless as possible (for your toddler and you), Beverley recommends the following tips:
1. “Choose a nursery that offers parents a lengthy settling-in period so your child can build up a connection and relationship with their key carer in the security of your presence before you leave them.”
2. “If your toddler is having trouble settling in, arrive early and factor in time to comfort and reassure them before you leave. Stay and play with them, help them to settle with their key worker, even have breakfast with them – but keep this separate to the ‘goodbye’ itself.”
3. “Make the actual ‘goodbye’ quick, firm and reassuring with no long, drawn-out returns for “just one more kiss or cuddle from mum”. Once you have said goodbye – you really need to leave.”
4. “Always say goodbye and reiterate that you will see them later. Be specific in a way that your child will understand – for example, after lunch, after tea, after story time – then leave.”
5. “Never just sneak out because you think your child is playing happily and is distracted and you don’t want to upset them. To the child, to suddenly look up and mummy is no longer there, feels like abandonment.”
6. “Children need the reassurance of a familiar, consistent, goodbye routine – whether that be a kiss, waving through the window or taking them to play in the block area. This signal will help them to cope with the transition from being in mum’s care to being in nursery care.”
The routine of saying goodbye and reassuring them that mum or dad will return is essential when supporting a child to settle into an unfamiliar environment.
What if my child cries during the day - and I’m not there?
“Emotional moments will inevitably crop up, especially in the situations those child associates with mum, such as waking from a nap or at meal times or also if another child gets too far inside their physical comfort zone and they feel threatened. But remember the nursery staff will always be there to step in and comfort your child,” says Beverley.
“A good nursery will contact you if your child cries for an extended period of time and cannot be comforted. In this instance they should agree to extend the settling-in period,” she adds.
“Most people who work with children do it because they love children and are genuinely concerned if a child is unhappy. If they tell you your toddler has been fine all day, the chances are they have.”
What if my child doesn’t cry?
While it might not compare to the pain of seeing your child distressed, it can be pretty disconcerting when all the other toddlers are clinging onto their mums for dear life while yours runs off merrily without so much as a by-your-leave. But does this really mean your child doesn’t care about you?
Beverley explains that conversely this is a positive sign: “This just shows what a great job a parent has done of building their child’s emotional confidence and security, enabling them to attach emotionally to other adults outside their immediate family.”
Why is my child a devil at home and an angel at nursery?
Don’t be surprised if the nursery tells you your child has been as sweet as pie all day only for you to be faced with an evening of tears and tantrums the moment you get them home.
“Remember that your child will probably feel tired at the end of the day,” explains Beverley. “Playing and exploring a new environment is hard work. They might like some quiet time when they get home so don’t bombard them with too many questions, however tempting.”