Settling a Reluctant 3 Year Old in at Nursery

My 3 year old son has just started going to nursery. It hasn’t been an easy transition for either of us. I know I won’t be alone with this, which is why today I am sharing my experiences of settling a reluctant 3 year old in a nursery. 

A few years back, my daughter rocked up for her nursery settling in session, at the same age as my son is now, and ran off to explore her new surroundings without a backward glance. She was eager to get back there and remained very happy to go every single time. Ah, that was so easy.

This time round it’s been painful. It’s made me feel ill, made my stomach churn, and I know that whatever I feel, my boy has felt tenfold.

I think the biggest problem is that settling a reluctant child into nursery goes against every instinct you have. From the moment that your little one was placed in your arms you’ve done everything possible to protect them and always hold them tightly when they are distressed. It’s what we do. When they are frightened we reassure, when they are hurting we cuddle.

So to walk away from them when they are sobbing and screaming ‘don’t leave me mummy’ at the top of their little lungs as you abandon them to a group of virtual strangers in unfamiliar surroundings is tough-going. For both of you. The guilt weighs heavily and doubts about whether you’re doing the right thing swirl around your head day and night.

Settling a Reluctant 3 Year Old in at Nursery

To Make Things Worse….

And then there’s that extra step on the guilt-trip, the advice and opinions you receive. Often well-meaning, but pretty much useless nonetheless. Just so we’re clear, mothers going through this do not need to hear…

That’s you that is, cuddling him too much making him a mummy’s boy.

Maybe it’s because your elder child went to more classes/had more play dates when they were little. 

Ah, well he is only little, he just wants his mum all the way through to He’s a big boy now, you have left it quite late to take him which is probably why he’s unsettled. 

Who knew that these things would only serve to make us feel even worse about the whole thing, hey?

Then there is that gnawing doubt. Are they ready? Is it too soon? Am I being selfish putting them through this? Is this going to knock their confidence?

Here’s where I found that you really need to place your trust in the nursery staff. I always say trust your instincts when it comes to parenting, but as I’ve already said, this one is totally messing with your natural instincts, so shelve them for a moment.

The staff will have seen this time and time again and they’ll see how they do for the whole session. Ask them whether they think he really is ready after a couple of times and focus on that. Trust what they say. And if for some reason you don’t feel you can trust their advice, maybe it’s not the right nursery?

I knew he wasn’t ready when I wrote back in July, but I felt he was now, and the staff confirmed that, too.

The Situation Now…

It does get easier.

My boy started going, for two school days a week, at the start of January, so we’re now only a month or so in and I’ve already seen huge improvements.

The first few drop-offs were kicking and screaming affairs, where he had to be peeled off me. It then got worse as he started getting really worked up on the days that he wasn’t going, thinking about the prospect of having to go. He was miserable and it was awful to see.

I told myself we’d keep going until the end of the month and then reassess.

I’m relieved to say that there’s been progress, so I’m happy that he will settle there now and that he is ready. He’s still crying when I leave him and protesting as we’re getting ready in the morning, something I’d obviously prefer for him not to have to go through, but it’s so much better than the first few times.

We can talk about nursery in between sessions now quite happily, without him having a meltdown about it. I am now happy that after he’s been dropped and been sad to see me depart, he settles, plays and joins in with activities.

He has connected with a few members of staff and has made some friends, so I am confident that he is adjusting. I’m sure he would still rather stay with me, and that may always be the case, but we are getting there.

I think it’s good for him to gain a little independence from me in this way and start adjusting to new surroundings whilst building his own friendships. I see it as a forward step for him and he does positively glow when he’s tried something new there or the staff are telling me how brilliant he’s been.

My Tips For Settling A Reluctant Child Into Nursery

Here are a few tips to help little ones to settle in, that have definitely helped us:

  • Talk about their favourite toys and activities there. Try to get excited, pretend to be envious, whatever it takes!
  • Explain exactly when you will be collecting them. My son’s key-worker has a chart that she goes through with him each morning, detailing how the day will break down, with key activities such as snack and lunchtime, with mummy arriving just after story-time so that he can check back on it throughout the day and reassure himself all is going to plan and I will be returning for him.
  • Get them involved in choosing a bag, lunch box or their outfits. Anything at all that they are taking in with them from home that will help them with familiarity and to get excited about going. As they’re settling, they may then be enthused by the idea of taking in new things to show their friends or their teachers.
  • Help them to connect with the staff. Communicate any issues to their key-worker. If something’s making them uncomfortable about their day, ensure that their key-worker knows about it, even if there’s nothing that they can actually do about it. It also shows your little one that you are listening to their concerns and relaying them, rather than ignoring and marginalising them.
  • Keep informed about what they’ve been doing each day. Ask my boy and he’ll tell me nothing, but prompt him with a few reminders about what he did and he becomes so much more animated. The staff write a little sheet each day of what he’s been up to, as well as there being a programme that I can log into from my PC to check on his progress and activities. It all serves to get some chat going.
  • Bribery. I cannot recommend this option enough. Seriously. On one of the earlier mornings, our boy was hysterical until the husband mentioned the possibility of a new Star Wars toy. Now I’m not saying that he was suddenly eager to go, but it gave him pause to think and he calmed down a bit. The promise of a new toy or gift on nursery days has seen us through these early weeks, though I will warn you that this can become quite expensive….!

By doing all of the above, along with plenty of cuddles, attention and reassurance on the days that my son’s at home with me, he is now going off to nursery twice a week without meltdowns.

I think for me, I am reassured that he is ready to go there and that he will gain from the experience. He is clearly becoming more comfortable with his surroundings and routines, and I have accepted that he may not be a child that ever skips happily there, though it’s still early days so we will see.

As long as I know he’s content once I’ve gone and that he comes home chatting away and smiling, then we’re doing OK I think. I’ll take that.

What have your experiences been of settling children into nursery? Any top tips you’d like to share?

Update: A few years on – if you are reading this desperately searching for help around this, I just want to reassure you that it does get better. You have read about our experiences, and I am happy to report that my son is now a very confident child who loves school. He adjusted gradually to nursery, with all of the tips above and made some good friends, friends he still has now. His confidence has blossomed over time and he is now a happy and confident school boy. 

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22 thoughts on “Settling a Reluctant 3 Year Old in at Nursery”

  1. Sending big hugs! It’s so hard isn’t it….My eldest sobbed and screamed every day for a good few months when she started nursery but over time it got easier and the tears stopped….Now she loved school!
    I’m glad things are improving now x

  2. Love the bribery tactic – been there done that! When my twins went to nursery my son settled in straight away but my daughter became awfully quiet and didn’t want to mix in. Luckily even at that young age she was crazy about books so the teachers found she was perfectly happy if they put her on a little sofa with lots of books to look at. Soon a couple of other children would join her every day, all happily looking and sharing books with her.

  3. Ahh bless him, it’s really tough leaving them but you both sound like you’re making really good progress. Z was just like this and, one time, he locked us both in the bathroom and said “we not go nursery”. He laughs when I tell him now about it. And urgh to the unhelpful advice. Some people need to just zip it don’t they? Or more preferably, stay far far away x

  4. Oh Jocelyn I can’t believe people said those things to you! So unhelpful! As if you aren’t questioning yourself enough anyway without anyone else throwing their oar in. Grrr. We struggled with Monkey too and did many of these great tips. In particular I found telling him what he would be doing and getting excited about that days activity worked and still does on days he wanted to go. In truth though it was age that helped Monkey settle, after the summer holidays he just took to it in a different way than he had previously and being 3 1/2ish seemed to suddenly make a world of difference! Glad he is settling even if it is still hard work. It can only get better! Xx

    1. It’s amazing the things people say, isn’t it?! Yes, I think they can just hit a stage where they are ready for it. Little Man couldn’t have gone in September, whereas now he is ready x

  5. It’s positive he’s getting there gradually. Hopefully it’ll all click into place soon enough and he’ll be looking forward to it.

    Thankfully we had it easy, but then N had been at day nursery since 12 months old, then nursery school as well, before school. So he’s always been used to starting at new places. I think your tips are definitely the way to go.

    1. My girl didn’t go until she was three yet took to it so easily, so I think different personalities come into play, too. Glad N’s always been OK, it does make it easier for them and for you.

  6. Oh gosh. I would not cope very well in this situation, I’m so glad that Freddie ran off into Nursery much like Boo did and I have a feeling Noah may follow. He loves the school run!

    I guess the thing that helped Fred get into it was talking about it a lot, I’d constantly explain that he’s going for a little while to play with some new toys and mummy will pick him up and take him home and we’d have lunch together. I saw so many children crying as their parents left them and it made my heart lunge as I don’t think I could’ve done it, I’m so with you on the going against natural instincts – I’m so glad he’s settled in now and enjoying it more, that’s exciting 🙂

    1. It’s so much better when they just run in, so much better! Ah yes, we talked and talked about it, too, and of course walked passed it daily when taking Boo to school, but when crunch time came to leave him, he was not happy at all! He’s definitely getting used to it now, though, which is reassuring and lovely to see x

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  9. Thank you so much for sharing this Jocelyn, I’m feeling much more calm about tomorrow’s pre-school drop off. I’m taking on board your advice about getting excited about his day and I’ve lined up a treat for him when he finishes the week on Friday! Wish me luck

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