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  • Rosie Alexander

What to do when a child finds settling in at Nursery hard

It can be a very upsetting time when your child seems genuinely distraught when dropped off at nursery. The journey there may go so well, is even good as you walk hand in hand through the door, but as soon as you try to hand your child over to a member of staff, they wrap themselves around your legs and start to howl. No matter how many times a staff member reassures you that your child is fine once you’ve left or advises you to persevere, explaining that these are just teething problems, the separation anxiety your child is feeling is bound to cause you to question your decisions and the nursery’s suitability.

It’s easier said than done, but as a parent, it’s so important that you do not panic or let guilty feelings creep in. Number one, you have chosen a calm, safe, welcoming and loving environment for your child. Number two, it’s extremely unlikely that your child is unhappy or that staff aren’t doing their job properly.

It is only natural that your child initially prefers to be with you. You are the most important person in their life, and they have learned to rely on you for support. It may be a few weeks or even a few months before they run in happily at drop-off but that’s fine, because everyone’s different: maybe your child just needs a little more time to adjust.

In the meantime, if you and your child are going through a difficult settling-in period, there are positive steps you can take to ensure you have a happy, confident child at drop-off – one adjustment may make all the difference:

  • Talk about what’s going to happen before you arrive each day at nursery. Say, “When we get to nursery, I am going to kiss you and say goodbye, then I am hoping you will be able to walk inside and play with your friends.” If children know the sequence of events beforehand, they are much more relaxed.

  • Stick to the same schedule each day: if possible, keep drop-off and pick-up times consistent, for example after snack time, after outside time, before lunch. This builds up trust and lets your child realise that someone is always coming back for them. Always explain the time you’ll be back beforehand.

  • Hand some control to a toddler – perhaps let them choose which hat and coat they want to wear, whether they want to take in something to show everyone.

  • Let your child bring in a familiar toy or stuffed animal, which could act as a distraction or be of comfort.

  • Try not to linger or go back after saying goodbye. Also, don’t sneak out when they’re not looking, or they will learn not to trust you.

  • Read story books about starting nursery, for example: Maisie goes to Nursery, by Lucy Cousins, or My First Day at Nursery, by Becky Edwards. Try to use the word “nursery” in conversation a lot and point out the building as you drive by, so it’s a concept that becomes natural and familiar.

  • Never reprimand or bribe when they start to protest.

  • When you pick up, make sure you say how proud you are of them, acknowledging that although they found going in hard, they coped well and had a happy time.

  • Talk about nursery on non-nursery days. For example, point out new abilities your child has picked up at nursery: “I particularly like the way you walk in and hang up your own bag on your peg.”

  • Display at home any artwork they have completed at nursery.

  • Make sure you look confident when you leave your child at nursery. Children can sense any anxiety you may have about putting them in someone else’s care. It’s so easy to feel guilty that you’re not with your child all the time but remember sending a child to a nursery has a positive influence on their future: your child will get lots of stimulation and social interaction there, which is great for their development; they’ll also have lots of fun and make many new friends. Reassure yourself by talking to the staff at the end of each day – never feel you are being a burden: staff need to work with parents, so they understand a child well. Have a chat with friends and colleagues too: chances are, they’ll have had a child who also found settling in at nursery difficult at first, and who suddenly, without warning, couldn’t wait to go!

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