Well, there’s no simple answer to that one. For some parents, the right age for children to start nursery is determined by when they need or want to return to work after parental leave. For others, the right age comes much later, and is based on helping your child socialise and further develop before starting formal education. Whatever you decide, having your son or daughter start nursery can be a scary prospect for both parent and child, so let us reassure you, and give some general information and guidance.

There has been an incredible rise in the number of babies that are less than 1 year old being in nursery, and a large part of this is driven by women feeling the pressure to return to work sooner. With the advent of part-time work, freelance work, contract work and flexitime, the monetary and career pressure to return to work is undeniable. But then, many parents are made to feel guilty if they return to work earlier in the child’s life and enrol them into nursery, it can feel like a no win situation. But, it may give you some comfort to know that a government funded study in 2010 found that 30% of the children researched started in some kind of EYFS care outside the family home before their second birthday. Another 31% began between the ages of 2 and 3, and 27% when over 3, and just 3% starting over the age of 4. Whatever your circumstances are, there are options out there for you.

What are the options?

For babies 0 – 1

It varies from nursery to nursery, some offer care for babies ‘from birth’ but the youngest age that babies generally start nursery is around 3 months. Shine Childcare have looked after quite a number of babies from around six weeks old. If your child will be starting at nursery at this age then you should choose your nursery carefully. As every parent knows, between the ages of birth and 1 year, babies need an almost unlimited amount of care and attention, so you’ll want to make sure that they’re getting as much personal care as possible. At Tiny Tree, our staff to baby ratio is at least one member of staff to three babies. In addition to this, all children are assigned a key person to ensure that parents have a clear line of contact with their child and all issues can be encountered and dealt with as swiftly as possible.

When you visit a nursery and are considering entering your child at this age, check what provisions are in place for them. Is there a dedicated space for babies away from older children? Is the setting quite loud and busy (which may be perfect for older children but not for such young children), or is it calm and peaceful? Is it a setting which your little one could be put down for a nap in? Although the amount of sleep your little one needs changes substantially over the first year of their life, usually, they will be asleep for more than half the day. As such, a quiet and soothing space is vital when you’re considering a nursery for a child of this age. If you’re looking for more guidance on what the average sleep time is for children of this age, you can find a handy table, here.

You should also check what health provisions are put in place, some nurseries will automatically send a child home if they are sick more than once in a day, others may wait longer working on a case by case basis. Policies regarding medicines also differ, some, with your written consent, may be willing to administer a single dose of medicine in a day; but others may not be willing to do this. Make sure you have checked the nursery’s policy and that you’re comfortable with before enrolling your little one. Don’t be worried that all nurseries are the same if you’re not happy with the first one you visit, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Attitudes and policies vary from nursery to nursery – there will be something out there that you’re comfortable with.

Between 1 and 2

30% of children start nursery between these ages, and there is still a great debate about whether or not this is too young. The debate is intense, and previous generations of parents are sometimes more sceptical of entering children under the age of two into nursery. However, the pressure to return to work when your child reaches this age is increasing. In 1981, less than a quarter of women returned to work a year after giving birth. By 2001, it was up to 67% and now 76% of mothers have returned to work when their child is aged between 12 and 18 months old. Concerns are raised by data which suggests there could be modest affects upon later behaviours such as increased aggression and disobedience. However, this often overlooks the academic, group and language skills are enhanced by entering children into nursery care at this age. Much of the research is conflicting and even some of the most respected figures in child development acknowledge the contradicting and overlapping results out there.

When viewing a nursery for a child of this age, you should take the emerging personality of your little one into consideration. If your son or daughter self-entertains and is extroverted, if they enjoy interacting with new people, then a larger nursery may be the best option. Equally, if your child is more shy and wary of meeting new people (of any age, other children included) then a smaller nursery might be a wiser choice. Depending on the amount of attention they need you should consider what the staff to children ratio is. The more children each key worker is responsible for, the less individual time and attention your child is guaranteed to receive. At this age children interact with more outside objects, so when you view nurseries consider what toys and objects your child will want to play with. It might be that they’re fascinated with objects of a certain colour or shape, make sure to consider how their environment will shape the experience they have a nursery. Fundamentally look at the skill and knowledge of the practitioners. This will vary from setting to setting. The induction process you go through as a parent should be detailed and involve providing the nursery with a great deal of information about you as parents and your child’s preferences. The nursery should also be offering settling in sessions to see how your child gets along in the new environment. This can often give big clues about how easily your child will be able to settle in.

At this age, if your child is experiencing some difficulty settling in, having a talisman of home can make the transition easier. For children of this age, this might be a larger item such as a blanket or teddy. Whatever you choose to do, be aware that this item is likely to get dirty and may be damaged by your child or others, so make sure it’s easy to clean and easy to repair.

Between 2 and 3

More children start nursery when in this age bracket than in any other, they’re busy and more independent, often pushing their own opinions by testing their boundaries (and your patience). They’re generally able to eat using a fork and a spoon and use 2-4 word phrases, and often they’ll be showing more interest in other children. All of these are great signs that your little one is ready to start nursery, and from a later academic point of view, starting nursery at this age could help with their long term academic development! One particular government funded study has shown that children who began nursery under the age of three performed better when they went into school.

If your little one is still nervous about starting nursery, never fear, this is perfectly normal and not cause for concern. As with 1 to 2 year olds a familiar object from home can make all the difference. Given the increase in age and understanding, this can be a smaller object such as additional button sewn into a jacket which they can touch and then feel connected to home.

3 and above

More than two thirds of children begin nursery before their third birthday, but this isn’t to say that children must necessarily begin nursery before this age, or begin it at all. From the school term after your child’s 3rd birthday, they are eligible for at least 10 hours of free preschool childcare each week. The entitlement lasts for up to 6 terms before the child reaches compulsory school age, at which point they must go to school. Whilst most local authorities will allow your son or daughter to attend school starting the term during which they turn 5, they don’t legally have to attend until the beginning of the term after their 5th birthday.

If your child has been more emotionally dependent upon you, then waiting until after their third birthday may be the best choice. By this stage they will generally be more independent and curious, so the adjustment to nursery life may be easier. There is a study that shows that children who start nursery under the age of two after spending all of their time in parental care exhibit higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) for up to 5 months after they start nursery, even if they show no outward symptoms of stress.

Is there an obvious answer?

In the end, no, there isn’t. Entering your child into nursery can be challenging no matter what age you choose to do it at, if you choose to do it at all. Whatever age they begin nursery at will come with its own advantages and disadvantages; but it’s important to remember that these usually balance out. Whatever you decide to do, there are a number of options out there and you should always ask questions; a good nursery will be happy to answer them. If you want to find out more about Shine Childcare and our nurseries, don’t hesitate to get in touch, we can’t wait to hear from you.