Handing over a child to someone else who will care for them for the first time can be one of the most difficult experiences a parent ever has to handle. A good understanding of attachment theory for all nursery practitioners is beneficial to help staff understand not just what is happening for the child but also for the parent/carer.

Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and distance (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment style refers to the internal model we draw upon to predict how relationships will function. They influence the way we relate to important people in our lives and allow us to understand when we are safe and when we need to be fearful or anxious. The quality of our attachments that we form in our early relationships with caretakers can have a serious impact on our feelings of insecurity, anxiety, fear, avoidance, and satisfaction in our closest relationships throughout our lives (Ainsworth, 1973).

Where children have built strong attachments to their parent or carer, this produces feelings of safety and security. Where parents/carers have struggled to build a strong attachment with their child, this fosters difficult and more negative behaviours in the child who may avoid building a relationship with their carer as they have not been able to predict what might happen. They may appear disinterested or ambivalent towards their parent/carer or may at times exhibit both strong attachment and ambivalent patterns of behaviour (disorganised). Building a strong attachment happens with consistent, predictable care and attention. Not ‘perfect parenting’ but good enough parenting that supports the child to understand, I am here for you.

When the child arrives in your setting or home for their first settle, you will quickly be able to determine what type of relationship the child has with their parent. According to Bowlby, infants have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or threatened (Prior & Glaser, 2006), when they meet the new carer for the first time and are being left alone, they are going to be distressed naturally. By thinking about how they respond to:

  • Stranger Anxiety – response to arrival of a stranger.
  • Separation Anxiety – distress level when separated from carer, degree of comfort needed on return.
  • Social Referencing – degree that child looks at carer to check how they should respond to something new (secure base).

You will be in a position to identify which children and families are going to need more support to settle and which will settle in more easily.

Where children feel safe and secure they can explore their environment, learn and live to their full potential. Whilst children are building their bond with the new carer, they are using their parental relationship as an indicator of what might happen. By working with the parent/s or carers to let them know what you are seeing and how you can help will mean that the distress the child is feeling will be reduced quicker.

A distressed child who is anxious about being left in the nursery will begin to show signs of stress. They may fall into the more traditional picture of expressing that stress externally by crying or letting the carer know they are unhappy but you also need to monitor those children who are very quiet and withdrawn. We know that these children can often be as distressed but struggle to let you know and so you think they are fine. Being under stress means the brain is releasing cortisol into the blood stream and getting the body ready to protect itself, this is an unpleasant feeling (think of the butterflies you get before an interview) and will be upsetting the child further. We know that children under stress have less of an ability to learn or participate in activities and they are more likely to be on guard in their environment rather than in tune with their carer.

Predictability in the environment is key to settling children in quickly, even those with more challenging attachment behaviours. Thinking about the tone of voice of the staff – soft, quieter tones are more calming than excitable and loud. When preparing for your settling sessions, ensure that the same member of staff is available, where possible. Talking to the child about what you are doing, what is going to happen and when they are going to be collected (no matter how young) is also good practice. Think about introducing a visual timetable where children can move an indicator to the next part of the day helps children feel calmer about what is happening next.

Recognising the important role that parents/carers have even before they arrive at the nursery is also critical for effective settling in. Talk to the parent/s about their feelings of leaving their child, how anxious do they seem? Unconscious communications are powerful when it comes to anxiety and if the parents are worked up before they leave the child, they are inadvertently saying there is something to be scared of here. Adults also exhibit attachment behaviours when they are under stress. Take the time to talk to the parents before they leave the building, make sure that you share how you will keep in touch and share information about their child especially in the early days. This will be useful in helping them remain calmer and have confidence in the care you will be offering their child.

Most children with a regular pattern of attendance and who are well in themselves will usually settle well within a maximum of three to four weeks. If you have children who are showing signs of intense distress after this time, it is worth reviewing the environment you are creating. Pay particular attention to transition, meal and snack times including pick up and collection. How do you create that sense of emotional calm at these sticky points of the day? Keep a regular check-in with the parents on how they are feeling and where difficulties are arising with settling in, try to find out what else might be going on for the family. Remember: predictable, calm patterns of behaviour are the key. The child may be not settling in because of other things that are happening in their little lives.


About the author

Dr Sonya Wallbank is the Managing Director of Capellas Nurseries and after school clubs. Sonya is a Chartered Psychologist by background and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Sonya is also a registered member of the Health and Care Professional Council (HCPC) and Chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD). She has worked in the UK, USA and Australia training a range of staff to utilise her model within their work. Her most recent NHS position was Director of Children and Families. She has trained a range of staff in the NHS, Department of Health, Local Authorities, private organisations, hospices and charities. As a keen writer, Sonya has published in both professional journals and books and has a number of ongoing blogs.

Capellas use a specific model of care and education with its roots in Child Psychology theory. If you would like to learn more go to www.capellas.co.uk


  • Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
  • Prior, V., & Glaser, D. (2006). Understanding attachment and attachment disorders: Theory, evidence and practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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