Settling in at nursery by Dr Natalie Cheatle, Parent Space

Many if not most young children find separating from their parent at nursery or school difficult in the beginning at least some of the time.  This is completely normal, especially when you consider the following:

Young children do not understand the concept of time and don’t really know how long they are going to be left.  They only learn this once they have had numerous experiences of an event. They are used to relying on primary carers to meet (and often anticipate) their needs, which means they may find the prospect of fending for themselves very daunting at first. The new environment/routine takes a while to become familiar.

Nurseries are often quite structured (which helps children settle more quickly) but this in itself is obviously different to most of their previous experiences.



  • Read some stories about nursery (for example “Going to Nursery” by Catherine Anholt & Laurence Anholt) with your child well before they begin, to start familiarising them with the concept.
  • Find out as much as you can about the structure of your child’s day at nursery so that you can talk them through it in advance and remind them of all the fun things they will do.
  • Some children like to have the whole day mapped out for them and discussed each morning. Nurseries are usually structured enough to allow for this: e.g. coat-on-peg, free-play, story-time, snack-time, outdoor play, songs, home-time.
  • Remind them of the teachers/children and the environment so that they can re-familiarise themselves before going in.
  • Acknowledge that separating is difficult but tell them that they will be OK, and that you (or another carer) will always come back for them at home-time.  Tell them how you will be spending your time if they ask.
  • Think about keeping something small and familiar from home on their peg that they can go to if they are missing you.  Even children who don’t have a favourite toy/object respond well to this idea.
  • Never leave them without saying goodbye, even if they are engrossed in playing, let them know quietly and calmly (but confidently) that you are going and will be back at home-time (or tell them who will collect them and when they will see you).
  • Make sure you are on-time for collection, this is a time of high anxiety for most children.
  • If your child was upset when you left, talk about it with them later in the day, reminding them that they were OK and that you came back and will again next time.

Even children who have been well settled at nursery for some time can suddenly become unsettled and require extra support to get back on track.

Many of the following can cause temporary set-backs and require revisiting the strategies above:

  • A break from attending nursery (holidays, half-terms, or even weekends for some children!).
  • Familiar / favourite children/teacher not being there.
  • Changes in the environment (e.g. moving to a new room at nursery, new equipment).
  • Changes in the family (new baby, divorce, au-pair, nanny, parent returning to work, moving house, illness or death).
  • Finally, good nursery staff are very experienced in helping children (and parents) with the settling process.  Do let them guide you, whilst also sharing with them your child’s specific preferences.  If, despite this and the strategies above, you still find it difficult to confidently leave your child, double check that you are truly happy with the nursery setting you have chosen.
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1 Response

  1. We had a rocky time settling my little girl in but as we started when she was only 7 months old at nearly a year of age she is now well settled in and enjoys nursery. It was such a relief when she started to actually wave good-bye as we dropped her off, instead of the water works which started around 9/10 months and was incredibly heart breaking to deal with. Time is such a wonderful thing.

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