How to prepare yourself and your child for childcare

Handing your child over to a relative, friend or childminder for the first time may feel like the toughest challenge yet, but stay calm, says childcare expert Julia Perry.

7 min read

How to prepare yourself and your child for childcare

Handing your child over to a relative, friend or childminder for the first time may feel like the toughest challenge yet, but stay calm, says childcare expert Julia Perry.

7 min read

Leaving your child for the first time

You may be returning to work after maternity leave. You may be away for the night with friends or need a few hours of a babysitter’s time. You may be sending your child for their first sleepover. Whatever your reasons, leaving your child in the hands of someone else isn’t always easy.

How to choose a childcare solution

Nursery, childminder, babysitter, grandparents, friend, whatever type of childcare you need, make sure you do your research. Word of mouth for babysitters, open days for nurseries and trial sessions for childminders will all help you feel confident in your decision. But even if you’re signed up at one of the best nurseries near you (popular places often have waiting lists so put down your baby’s name as early as you can), this next stage can still feel hard. How do you prepare your little one - and yourself - for the start of this next journey?

What is the best age for your baby to start childcare?

This is something you may not have much control over, as you may have to go back to work once your maternity leave has finished. Many babies start childcare at one year, though this can coincide with a period when separation anxiety is at its height. Consider a small setting, such as a childminder, or perhaps your baby’s relatives can care for them, rather than a large nursery to start with. By the age of around two, many will begin nursery. Children can often start a half day at their school nursery at three and this helps prepare them for a move to ‘big school’ at four. By this age, they are used to playing with others and making friends and curious about all the equipment and facilities they will be using.

How to prepare your child for nursery

It’s hard to know how your child will behave when you take them to nursery for the first time. While some love it right from the first day, others can find being apart from their parents more difficult to get used to. As heart-breaking as this might seem to you at the time, remind yourself it won’t take long for them to settle into a new routine. Nursery helps them learn to socialise (and share!) with others, make new friends, play with different toys and enjoy fun activities.

One of the best ways to prepare your baby for nursery is to choose one that offers settling-in sessions. This means you can explore the environment with your child, and they can have fun knowing that mum or dad is there too.

These sessions are also a good way for you to understand the timetable and activities your child will be enjoying at nursery. You’ll be able to see the resources and equipment your little one will enjoy and understand the nap times and what food is served. This will help you when you ask them how their day was and you can both chat about nursery, who they met, what they like doing and so on.

When to start getting your child ready for childcare

Start preparing your child well before they are due to go to their first day of childcare. First, try to find opportunities for your child to play with lots of other children, as this is what they will experience in their childcare setting. This is especially important if yours is an only child. Arrange play dates with children of a similar age and visit drop-in toddler groups to make sure your child knows how to cope with being around other kids, taking turns and sharing.

Next, create situations at home that will be similar to childcare. Children will be expected to help with small tasks such as tidying up and giving out snacks, so give your little one jobs to do at home that will prepare them.

What to take along for your child’s first day

Check well in advance for information on uniform or specific clothes your child needs to wear. Usually, nurseries will also ask for a change of clothes (and shoes) and a painting top along with wipes, spare nappies if necessary, any specific food requirements and a named water bottle. Often nurseries will have their own bags that the children personalise with their name and get into the routine of hanging on their own peg. If you can get hold of these in advance, show your child their special bag and explain it can only be used when they are big enough to start nursery. This will create excitement for the first day.

Will your child need to be potty trained before starting nursery?

Many toddlers start spending more time at nursery from the age of two, which often coincides with potty training. Don’t worry if your child isn’t dry – speak to your child’s keyworker and explain the stage your child is at and the method you are using. Nursery teachers are trained to help.

Tips on settling your child into nursery

You may decide to book your child in several sessions per week, as this can help your child adjust to life at nursery. A week feels like a long time to a toddler, so going for just one session a week can make it difficult for your little one to settle into a new routine.

Children take their cue from you, so when you arrive for the first time, stay relaxed. Look as if it’s a fun thing, not something you are anxious about. Even if your child becomes fussy or upset, have a big smile on your face and calm them down. This will show your little one that they have nothing to be concerned about.

Your language is as important as body language, so speak about nursery in a very positive way and make it an adventure. Use the various activities to distract your child and help them start to engage with their surroundings.

How long will it take a child to get used to childcare?

Every child is different, so while some will sail into the childminder’s house or the nursery without so much as a backward glance, others may be clingy and tearful. If it’s the latter, being firm will pay dividends. Give a big smile, a kiss and a hug, and then leave without looking backwards. If you keep popping back to see how your child is doing, it can make them more unsettled and less able to get involved in activities. You can have a little cry after you have left them!

Build a good relationship with your child’s keyworker and ask them to contact you after you leave to let you know how quickly they settle. It may take a few sessions, but as many nursery teachers will confirm, the tears shed for parents quickly dry once the door closes and the fun games begin!

How can I help my toddler enjoy every day at nursery?

One of the most important things you can do is to be well prepared for drop-offs and pick-ups. Nothing upsets a child so much as being the last one left at nursery, waiting for a parent who is running late. In the mornings, make sure you have everything organised so that breakfast, the journey and the drop-off are as stress-free as possible. That way, both you and your child will arrive feeling calm.

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