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

As a Montessori teacher, I helped parents and children during the time of settling in a new nursery. When I give baby and toddler classes, it’s one of the main questions and worries: how to help my child to settle in a nursery?

Here are my tips:

Going to a nursery might be the first separation from your child. How does your child handle separation?

At birth, your baby doesn’t realize that he is a separate person. As you respond to all his needs and as he is not able to move away from you, he feels that you are one and unique person altogether.

When he starts to crawl and move away from you of his own will, he realizes that you don’t always follow. What if he gets stuck in a complicated situation, like getting stuck under the table? If you are at the other end of the room, your child will realize that you don’t respond straight away to his needs.

Step by step, he will realize that you are a different person. This causes great anxiety. This is what is called separation anxiety, or anxiety of the 8th month.

Of course, it could happen before 8 months or after, roughly when your baby starts to move actively! At that point, your child “understands” that you’re going somewhere when you are not with him, especially if you’re a few steps away, for example when you answer at the door or when you’re in the shower.

When you are out of her sight, your child doesn’t know where you are and if you will come back. Let your child follow you everywhere as it will help her to feel secure everywhere in the house with you. She will then know that, when you go to the toilet, you will come back at some point. At an early stage, she doesn’t know when. Around 16 months old, your child might start to acquire the concept of time. Now when you go somewhere, she will know that you didn’t disappear. Now she knows that you will eventually come back.

Don’t underestimate the stress caused by separation. Studies have shown that when a child is suffering because of the absence of a parent, the same parts of the brain are activated as when she is feeling physical pain.

Separation anxiety starts around 8 months and can last until your child is 5 years old. Some grown-up children might still feel anxious to leave their parents. It’s normal behaviour that helped humans to survive until today.

The Childcare question

Some studies have shown that the level of cortisol – the hormone of stress – was very high in children under 5 in nurseries. The studies have shown that even children who appear to be fine (no crying, playing in the nursery, …) have a high level of cortisol. Therefore, as parents, we have to be very attentive to our children when we choose a childcare option.

So, what are your options?

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The best age for a baby to go to nursery

Consider what is the best age to send your child to a nursery. Knowing that a baby goes through an anxious stage around 8 months of age, settling in your child with a childminder or in a nursery before he reaches that stage will ease the process tremendously.

If a baby starts nursery earlier, his key workers will become part of his family. When it might not be an option, to the very least, once you have chosen your childcare setting, you could ask to visit and settle in in advance of that separation anxiety stage.

If you don’t need to send your child to daycare, consider sending him after the end of the separation anxiety period, around 18 months of age.

Your child needs warm one-to-one attention so meet the nanny/childminder/key worker and make sure she is able to comfort your child. Not only when he is upset but also when your child plays. He will need a caregiver to interact with him too. The nanny/childminder option is probably the best option after a relative but not the cheapest or easiest.

If you need to choose a nursery, ask about the turnover of the staff. Ask the staff members directly for how long they have been working there.

Ask about the key worker role, observe the staff interacting with your child for at least 30 minutes. Step back and observe in the background. Visit the nursery a few times and at different moments.

A child under 3 years old doesn’t need an educational environment or plenty of stimulating activities. What he needs, if you need him to be in a nursery, is a “second” family, a warm career who will be genuinely happy to look after him.

And yes, nurseries and governments promote a need for social interactions. You child may love to meet new people but the social stage really starts between 2 to 3 years and a first, children will play along with each other without real interactions and then some friendship may develop. And of course, your child is social with you and her siblings which is not the same as a bunch of 20 kids in a nursery when you are not around.

The nursery settling in period

Parents, mum, and dad, are a safe base for their child.

You probably have observed that, when you are in a new environment, your child will start to explore then come back to you. Your child might also observe the environment from the safety of your laps.

It’s the same in the nursery. Your child has to discover that new place with you. She has to feel safe while you are there. Therefore, the settle-in period shouldn’t be rushed. You should be able to take as long as you and your child need to feel comfortable in the nursery.

When you are with her in the room, let her explore and interact with the staff. Try to be in the background but don’t rush your child. She might stay on your laps for the first time. She might play at your feet the second time. Step by step, she will eventually explore the room.

Remember that your child has no concept of time. A classic settle-in period – leave her for one hour, then two, then half day, then one full day – has no meaning for her. It’s the way you handle the separation that matters, not the length of time you are separated from each other. But it’s good if she has an understanding of the routine of the nursery before she starts. So try to be with her for lunch, nappy change, and at all the key moments.

For me, the best way to ensure a good start for your child in a nursery is to leave her when she is comfortable with the staff and the environment, and when she is happy to interact and play away from you.

Another point is to always say goodbye. Don’t sneak out, your child needs to know that you have gone away. Use a cheering tone to say goodbye, so your child is assured that there is nothing to be worried about.

I referred to the book “What every parent needs to know” from Margot Sunderland earlier in this article. It’s a great resource if you want to learn more about your child’s development. It is based on brain studies, and how it helps us understand our child’s feelings and behaviour. It’s a very practical parenting book.


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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.