Starting childcare, whether that’s a nursery, childminder or nanny, is an exciting time for you and your child, but it can also be quite a daunting process, especially if this is your first child or your first-time using childcare. Settings are very varied so it’s hard to know what to expect these tips should help with the settling in process, wherever you choose to place your little one.
Hopefully you have had the chance to visit the setting and look around as part of your research into different options. Many parents report choosing a setting based on having visited and got a good feeling about the place. If you’re new to the area, or for whatever reason haven’t managed to look around the setting, it’s a good idea to arrange to do so. An open-door policy, whereby parents can come to look around without an appointment, is common place in many nurseries and demonstrates a confidence in their setting. Other nurseries might require an appointment though so it’s best to phone ahead and check.
When you look around take your child with you so that they can see their new nursery too, even very young children can benefit from this. Make sure to ask any extra questions you have thought of to set your mind at ease before your child begins at nursery.
If you’re using a childminder or nanny then visits are still possible and usually encouraged. Having your nanny come to play a few times before you have to leave the children solely in her care gives the nanny a chance to get orientated with your house, and a chance for the children to get to know them a little.
Transition is a significant concept in Early Years Education, and most nursery and childminder settings will seek to do all they can to help your child through the transition period. “Settling in” sessions and “stay and plays” are considered good practice, allowing the child to visit with their parent and without to give them a chance to get used to the setting.
In nursery settings every child should have a named key person (and a back up arrangement if the key person is on annual leave or off sick) Make sure you meet the key person before starting nursery. The key person should be present for your child’s settling in sessions so that they can get to know each other and build up a relationship.
The idea of visits is to give your child (and yourself!) something more concrete to imagine as you look forward to starting childcare. Much of the anxiety around childcare is fear of the unknown, so spending time in the setting, or with the nanny, beforehand will give your child some clear expectations to focus on.
Talking about nursery and reading stories about going to nursery is a great way to build more concrete expectations of what nursery will be like. Try to keep it light-hearted and part of everyday conversation. Ask your childminder or nanny to supply you with some photos, or ask to take some on your visits and spend some time looking through them together.
For older children, build into conversation that feeling nervous is totally normal, and reassure them that everyone feels a little anxious, even teachers! Be sure to offer space for your child to express their worries in their own words, and talk them through rather than shutting them down with “You’ll be fine!” or similar.
There is plenty of practical preparation that goes along with starting nursery, or a childminder and the more involved your child feels the more positive they are likely to feel about starting nursery.
If your child’s nursery has a uniform then take them along to pick it up, and have them try it on a few times to get used to it. Definitely make sure you label absolutely everything with your child’s name including bottles, coats, cups, dummies, comfort toys, even shoes. Stickers that can go through the dishwasher or washing machine are great. Use your child’s first and last names. Of course, to you it’s easy to recognise your child’s shoes but in a room of sleeping children it’s easy for staff to get muddled!
As for comfort toys, check the shop or ebay for some back ups if you don’t already have them! Again, lots of children have similar toys and some seem to get ‘lost in transit’ by being dropped on the way to the car or thrown out of the buggy on the way home.
If your child will be taking a packed lunch to nursery or the childminder’s then let them to pick out a new lunch box and water bottle, it’s a good idea to practice with the lunchbox; allowing your child to open, use and close the lunchbox independently will give you a good idea of how to prepare food so that they can access it independently. Of course, nursery staff will help your little one with their lunch but having a few trial runs will mean that your child is less likely to be overwhelmed by an entirely new situation.
Check with your child’s nursery what they are expecting you to supply as there is huge variation between settings on this. Some settings include nappies, wipes, suncream and even formula milk within the price whereas others will ask you to bring these items in.
If you’re using a nanny then make sure you give them a very thorough tour of the house showing them things like electricity trip switches, water stop cocks, first aid items, extra toilet rolls and bin bags!
Get into a nursery routine
Working with parents and following children’s usual routines is the usual expectation of childcare providers, but practically often childcare begins early, and sometimes finishes late. If you’ve been on maternity leave or had time off work it can be easy to slip into a routine of late nights and lie-ins and going back to work can be a hard transition for adults, let alone little ones. Give your family a few weeks to adjust to a new schedule by winding back bedtime by 15 minutes every few days until you’re where you need to be. Think too about whether your children will be having breakfast at home or in the setting, and get into a routine that reflects this.
Minimise other transitions
Transition is a part of life, but do your best to minimise transition and change just before starting childcare. As you seek to settle your child into childcare, it is not the time to be moving rooms, swapping beds, or weaning from the breast or dummy if it can be avoided! Starting childcare is a big enough transition in and of itself, and keeping everything else as settled as possible will help your child to take it in their stride.
Understand separation anxiety
Separation anxiety is a normal stage of psychological development. It usually shows that the child is emotionally healthy and has a very secure attachment to their primary caregiver. Separation anxiety can manifest in many ways and isn't always obvious in older children. The classic example is a baby that cries whenever their parent leaves the room or moves away for even a short time.
Separation anxiety shows that a baby has a secure attachment to their parent, and understands that the parent is a separate entity but also understands how much they need them to feel safe and secure.
So why is it a problem? In many ways, it's not. Separation anxiety doesn't mean that anything is ‘wrong' with the child, usually quite the opposite! We should expect some level of separation anxiety in most children.
Unfortunately, our culture does not yet see this as normal, healthy infant behaviour and many are keen to discourage it. Often this behaviour is described in negative terms as "clingy" and this perception can lead many parents to feel that there is something wrong with their child. Much of the research into secure attachment took place in the 1960s, but it has yet to filter down into common parenting information.
Settings can help by having clear systems for working in partnership with parents. Take advantage of visits and settling in sessions to provide as much information as you about what the child’s favourite book is, how they settle to sleep, what they like to eat and so on. With all this information in mind, staff can help to meet the child's needs in an individual way.
The key person system should be an integral part of an Early Years setting. As a child exhibiting separation anxiety has a secure attachment to their primary caregiver, and secure attachment promotes secure attachment, it is very likely that in time they will form a special bond to their key person too.
If your child does struggle with separation anxiety it’s generally best to say goodbye, rather than sneak out, and to tell your child what you will do together later. This means they will have something positive to look forward to doing with you later on. By giving children experiences of saying goodbye then having happy reunions, they are learning an important life lesson.
Enjoy the process
Most importantly, do try to enjoy the process! Welcoming others into your child’s life is a lovely time and beginning childcare is an important milestone. As much as it can cause anxiety, try and embrace the whole process and view it positively; this makes it more likely that your child will too.