Settle your child into nursery and how to handle the separation anxiety

As a Montessori teacher, I have assisted parents and children during the process of settling into a new nursery. When I provide baby and toddler classes, one of the primary concerns that often arises is how to help a child adjust to nursery life.

Here are my tips:

Sending your child to a nursery may mark their first separation from you. How does your child handle this separation?

At birth, your baby doesn’t realize that they are a separate individual. As you attend to all of their needs and they are unable to move away from you, they perceive you as one unified entity.

However, as they begin to crawl and explore independently, they start to understand that you don’t always accompany them. For instance, if they get stuck under a table while you are at the other end of the room, they will notice that you don’t immediately respond to their needs.

Gradually, they come to comprehend that you are a distinct person, leading to a sense of separation anxiety, often occurring around the eighth month of life.

Of course, this anxiety can manifest earlier or later, generally coinciding with when your baby starts to actively move around. At this point, your child “realizes” that you go somewhere when you’re not with them, especially if you step a few paces away, such as when you answer the door or take a shower.

When your child cannot see you, they don’t know your whereabouts or whether you will return. Allowing your child to follow you everywhere can help them feel secure throughout the house with you. They will come to understand that when you go to the toilet, you will eventually return, although they won’t know exactly when. Around the age of 16 months, your child might begin to grasp the concept of time, recognizing that you haven’t disappeared but will eventually come back.

Don’t underestimate the stress caused by separation. Studies have indicated that when a child is distressed due to a parent’s absence, the same areas of the brain are activated as when they experience physical pain.

Separation anxiety typically starts around the eighth month and can persist until a child is five years old. Some older children might still feel apprehensive about leaving their parents, and this behavior is entirely normal, having served as a survival mechanism throughout human history.

The Childcare question:

Certain studies have revealed that cortisol levels, the stress hormone, are notably high in children under the age of five who attend nurseries. These studies have demonstrated that even children who appear fine (without crying, engaged in play, etc.) still exhibit elevated cortisol levels. Therefore, as parents, we must be highly attentive when selecting childcare options.

So, what are your options?

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The optimal age for a baby to go to nursery

Consider the most suitable age for your child to begin nursery. Knowing that children typically go through an anxious stage around the eighth month, introducing them to a childminder or nursery setting before this stage can significantly ease the transition.

If you opt for an earlier nursery start, the staff, often referred to as key workers, can become a part of your child’s extended family. If this isn’t feasible, at the very least, once you’ve chosen your childcare arrangement, you can request to visit and become acquainted with the setting before the onset of separation anxiety.

If you don’t require daycare services, consider enrolling your child after the separation anxiety period, around 18 months of age. Your child requires warm, one-on-one attention, so ensure you meet with the nanny, childminder, or key worker to confirm their ability to comfort your child, not only when upset but also during play. The nanny or childminder option is likely the best choice after a family member but may not be the most economical or straightforward one.

If you must choose a nursery, inquire about staff turnover and directly ask the staff members how long they’ve been working there. Additionally, investigate the role of the key worker and observe how the staff interacts with your child for at least 30 minutes. Step back and watch from a distance during your visits, doing so on several occasions and at different times.

Children under the age of three do not require an educational environment or a plethora of stimulating activities. What they need, if they attend nursery, is a “second” family – a warm caregiver who genuinely enjoys caring for them. While nurseries and governments emphasize the importance of social interactions, your child’s social development typically begins between the ages of two and three. Initially, children often play alongside each other without substantial interaction, and friendships tend to develop later. Moreover, your child is social with you and their siblings, which differs from a group of 20 children in a nursery when you’re not present.

The nursery settling-in period

Parents, both mothers and fathers, serve as a secure base for their children. You may have observed that in a new environment, your child begins by exploring and then returns to you for reassurance. They may also observe their surroundings from the safety of your lap.

The same applies to the nursery. Your child needs to discover this new place with your presence to feel safe. Consequently, the settling-in period should not be rushed. You should take as much time as necessary for you and your child to feel comfortable in the nursery.

When you are in the room with your child, encourage them to explore and interact with the staff. Try to stay in the background and avoid hurrying your child. Initially, they may remain on your lap, and in subsequent visits, they might play at your feet. Gradually, they will venture out and explore the room.

Remember that your child has no concept of time. A traditional settling-in period that involves progressively longer separations (one hour, then two, then half a day, and finally a full day) has little meaning to them. What matters is how you handle the separation, not the duration of time apart. Nevertheless, it’s beneficial if your child understands the nursery’s routine before starting. So, try to be present during lunch, nappy changes, and other key moments.

In my opinion, the most effective way to ensure a smooth start for your child at nursery is to leave them when they are comfortable with the staff and the environment, and when they are happy to engage and play independently. Additionally, it’s important to always say goodbye. Avoid sneaking out, as your child needs to be aware that you have left. Use a cheerful tone to bid farewell, reassuring your child that there is nothing to worry about.

Earlier in this article, I referenced the book “What Every Parent Needs to Know” by Margot Sunderland. It’s an excellent resource for gaining a deeper understanding of your child’s development. The book draws on brain studies to help us comprehend our child’s emotions and behavior, providing practical parenting insights.

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.