Development FAQ: 24+ months – Starting Nursery

How can I get my 2.3-year-old son to stay without me at nursery?

I am about to have my second child by C-section in two weeks. I have been trying to get my 2.3-year-old son to go to a playschool to help him socialise with other kids and to give me some breathing space. I thought he would be settled by now, but I’m afraid I’ve made a pigs ear of things and am starting to panic and getting myself very worked up.

Initially I took my son with me to have a look at the school and we both took to it and its staff straight away. I have afternoons booked for him from 12:30 to 6pm. I don’t intend leaving him there the full time but even 2 or 3 hours would be great.

My brother called in to the school while he was minding my son to pass on a message for me, and when he was asked if he would like to leave him for a little while, he did. My husband and I were not pleased with him doing this, but he went back after 15 minutes. Unfortunately my son had missed him and was crying when he returned.

I have gone to the school on several occasions with my son. I tried sitting with him, telling him I’m just going to the toilet and will be back in a minute, not saying anything and slipping out of the room. I just seem to be causing him and myself to get very upset.

When he’s there he does enjoy himself, he even forgets to keep checking if I’m there or not. But the moment he realises I’m gone he panics.

I’m at the end of my tether and am starting to question whether I am doing the right thing by sending him there. We live in a large new estate; I don’t have any friends or family around, but I desperately want my son to be happy and make friends.

He never seems to have any problems talking or mixing with people in general and he never kicks up a fuss when he goes to stay with nannies or friends of mine.

I really would appreciate any advice you can give me. I’ve spoken to the staff in the school and they’ve tried to reassure me that the kids who were crying last week, having been left, are settled in now. Am I just being too soft?

A child of your son’s age needs to be introduced to the idea of being at nursery without you, gradually. Despite the rather unfortunate start he has had, it does not mean that he won’t eventually settle in enough to be left for several hours. It is always upsetting to see a child cry and be distressed when he realizes he has been left which is why you must always tell him you are going and not just slip away. He will become anxious and untrusting if he thinks you are suddenly going to disappear. It far better to cope with the inevitable tears on the parting by helping him to learn how to cope with the separation. Many children find the actual moment of saying goodbye very hard but learn to trust, you will return and begin to settle in and enjoy themselves as they become more familiar with the surroundings and staff.

Begin by taking your son back and staying together for about half an hour. Do this, if you can, before your baby is born. Try to visit at least every other day, at different times in the afternoon so he becomes familiar with the different activities held throughout the time. Talk to him about what you have seem when you come home and try to find one or two simple books about pre-school: “Spot Goes to School “ by Eric Hill is just one example of the many you can find.

Once he has been several times with you, talk to him about how the other children are there on their own. Tell him that you are going to take him to school, stay with him for a short while and then go out for 15-20 minutes. The actual length of time will mean nothing to him but he must know that you are going to leave him. Assure him you will come back. Give him something small such as a special key ring which belongs to you and tell him he is going to keep it safe for you, in his pocket, until you return.

Your attitude is very important; although inside you may not feel like it, you must remain smiling and positive about the whole experience as he will quickly pick up any signs of you being upset. Make a point of talking to a member of staff and telling her in front of your son that you are going to leave him and that he is keeping something safe for you. This will help the staff more when they are with him should he be upset. Remember they are used to settling children in and will know the best approach with the different ways children do react to their parents leaving.

Settle him into an activity and then tell him “ I am leaving now but I will be back in 15 minutes”. He may cry straight away. Make sure there is a member of staff he is familiar nearby with who will take him from you. Say goodbye, kiss him and leave. The longer you prolong the parting the harder it will be for both of you. It is hard enough to walk away from your own child but if you really want him to become settled and happy at preschool you must. Try not to wait outside and listen. It would be better to go for a short walk and if you really feel upset wondering how he is coping, ring the school after 10 minutes and see how he is. The majority of children who cry when first left do quite quickly calm down and begin to join in again. He may be a little subdued for a while but the staff will help him.

When you return after 20 minutes or so try not to swamp him and ask “did you miss me?” Ask him has he had fun and what has he been doing. Ask the staff as well to reassure yourself. Once you have left him for the first time you will need to lengthen the time you leave him and lessen the amount of time you spend settling him. As with most things with small children it is better that you do this gradually rather than expecting him to adjust to longer separations straight away.

Try to always say the same things when you leave and keep letting him look after something of yours. Dealt with sensitivity there is no reason why your son should not begin to look forward to his times at pre-school.