I recently wrote an article about how to choose a nursery school that suits your children. I’m confident that we have a great nursery for our kids to attend.
However, both my kids have found it difficult to settle in when they first started at nursery.
I’ve only recently settled my youngest in to nursery and it reminded me of how hard it can be, so I thought I’d do a quick article with some suggestions on how to make starting nursery school a little bit easier.
If your child struggles
My eldest, L, started nursery just after her first birthday and I’ll never forget leaving her for the first time as she banged on the door and screamed “mummy no go, please mummy”. Just the thought of it is still enough to bring tears to my eyes and I spent my first week back at work crying in the car-park feeling like the worst mum ever.
I used to phone the staff as soon as I got to work and I was always reassured that she had stopped crying as soon as I left and was perfectly happy.
My baby, J, has only started nursery in the last month. During his settling in sessions he cried the entire time he was there – the worst being three hours, despite the staff’s best efforts to soothe him. It broke my heart and I was panicking about what I’d do when I was back at work.
He’s been going regularly for two weeks now and he’s so much better. He only cries occasionally when he gets tired and even manages the drop-off without tears.
I know how distressing it is to see your precious babies upset when they’re starting nursery school, so just a word of encouragement that it does get better! It takes some little ones longer than others, but our nursery reassured me that they have never yet encountered a little one who doesn’t settle within a month.
Give your child a little piece of home
My eldest has a stuffed elephant that was a baby present when she was born. It has gone with her to nursery every day since she first started there. The vast majority of the time now it just stays in her bag, but when she was younger and was tired or scared or upset, she would cuddle the elephant and it was something familiar to hold on to.
J has been more of a challenge – he wasn’t especially attached to any of his many toys. I therefore created an attachment for him!
J is used to being with me and it was a shock to him when I left him at nursery, so I slept with his cuddly bunny for a week so that it would smell like me and then sent it to nursery. The staff reported that he held it to the side of his face and that it calmed him.
He’s taken that bunny every day since and sleeps with it at night.
If your child has a favourite toy, comforter or blanket then send it to nursery with him. If not, try sleeping with or carrying a soft toy or comforter inside your shirt for a few nights so that it carries your scent and is something familiar for your little one to hold on to.
It’s also worth investing in a second identical toy/comforter/blanket and rotating them on a regular basis, both so that you can occasionally wash your child’s favourite toy and so that you have a back up in case one gets lost. I wish I had done this – I live in fear of the elephant or bunny going missing!
Give the staff as much information as you can
The more the staff know and understand about your child, the easier it is for them to help your little one feel safe.
Favourite activities, favourite songs, music, usual routine… many nurseries will give you a questionnaire to fill out to help them get to know your child, but if they don’t then volunteer as much information as you can and consider writing down some key points to help the staff understand your child.
I filled in our nursery’s questionnaire before J’s settling in sessions, but there wasn’t a question about what I do when he is upset. I didn’t mention anything to them, as I didn’t want to come across as a neurotic mother, but after his third settling in when he’d cried the whole time I spoke to his key worker.
I explained that I sing or hum ‘Hallelujah’ (the Jeff Buckley version) when J is upset and it calms him down. I have no idea why this works, except that I sang it all the time when pregnant and when he was a tiny baby and he seems to have latched on to it as something familiar and comforting.
His key-worker laughed a bit and said she can’t really sing, but when I came back to pick J up she said they’d all hummed ‘Hallelujah’ together and he’d stopped crying!
I had been embarrassed about telling them something so personal, but that little nugget of information about J helped him to feel safe and comforted.
Whatever you do to calm your baby when he’s upset, share it with the nursery. You might feel a bit silly but a good nursery will try to use your methods to help your little one to settle in.
Tell your child that you’re leaving and when you’ll be back
I know when your baby is upset and you’re dreading leaving her, it’s easy to fall in to the trap of waiting until she’s playing and distracted and then sneaking out.
The problem with this, is that your little one turns around and suddenly realises that you’ve left. This can leave them feeling scared, anxious and abandoned – they may not want to take their eyes off you again at the next drop-off in case you disappear.
Think about if you were having breakfast with your partner and you took a plate through to the kitchen and came back to find they’d left the house. How would you feel? It’s the same for your baby – they want to know that you’re leaving. In the short term it may be harder, but it gives them security to know that you say goodbye and with time they will learn that you always come back.
Equally, don’t distress you both by having long, drawn out goodbyes. A simple “Bye J, I love you. I’ll be back in a couple of hours” and a kiss and wave is sufficient, don’t spend ages saying goodbye and then not leaving!
Babies and toddlers are very sensitive to how you feel, so if you’re upset by leaving them, try to keep it together until you’re out in the car to avoid them mimicking your distress.
Essentially, don’t be like the mum in the video below!
It gets easier
L settled quite quickly in to nursery, but it took J a few weeks. However, his daily reports now are of him playing and interacting with his friends and the staff. He has formed an attachment with his key-worker and he seems happy – I get lots of photos and videos of him smiling, laughing and playing.
It’s hard to know that your child is upset, but give it time and things will get easier.
L loves nursery – she now asks when she can go back during holidays – and I can already see that J will end up the same way. I think it’s been good for L, she’s learned a lot and made plenty of friends. I want that for J too.
There’s no right or wrong with childcare, so find what works best for your family and trust your instincts. We’ve struck a balance with me working part-time so I still have time with the kids each day and I don’t regret sending them to nursery, but I still find it hard. I miss them and I miss my time with them, but I feel a lot better now that they are both settled and happy at nursery.
I hope that you’ve found these thoughts on starting nursery school helpful, let me know if you have any other ideas to help children settle in, or if you have any questions then leave me a comment below!
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