Are you coming to the end of maternity leave and feeling anxious about putting your little one into childcare so you can go back to work?
Today I met with our local nursery manager Rachel, as this was my exact situation a few weeks ago. I noticed lots of other mums were feeling the same as me, where we have had our children during the pandemic and are now facing the end of maternity leave and having to consider the options of who will look after our children when we return to work.
I'm a mum of 2. My first born is now 5 and went to nursery in normal circumstances and I have to admit, I was lucky. The first day, she wandered in and didn't look back. She was more than happy to be left there and very intrigued with the new surroundings, which made it very easy for me.
My second born, Ava is now 1 after spending most of her life in lockdowns and she started nursery a few weeks ago. Ava has struggled with extreme separation anxiety since 9 months old. She wasn't happy to go to anyone else and was even really needy with me in our own home. The idea of leaving her in a new environment with people she did not know was very daunting. I knew that I desperately needed some time for myself, a few hours without someone hanging off my body or crying whenever I had to go somewhere for just a moment like the toilet. However, when I took her to nursery and handed her over to her keyworker and saw her crying, I would get this incredible sense of mum guilt: how could I possibly look forward to some alone time when she seemed so sad?
I think as much as us mums can share our own experiences and give each other comfort, sometimes its nice to get that insight from a childcare professional and just get a better idea of what is really going on once we hand our precious little ones over to their keyworkers.
So thank you Rachel for meeting with me.
Rachel: happy to help
Gemma: so my first question is what are the changes you've had to make to the nursery since the pandemic began and are these still in place?
Rachel: when coronavirus started, this was a minefield for everyone. It was scary in lots of ways. The first change was that we had to close the nursery, something we had never done. Then when we reopened the nursery, we just started with opening one (out of the group of nurseries in our area) for the keyworker children.
Some staff from each nursery worked throughout the lockdown so the children and parents knew at least some of the caregivers and they had that consistency. The children had their own bubbles. We decided not to open the baby room because the babies we had once had, were older and not babies anymore. We had missed a big portion of their lives and they were doing things we had not seen them do before. Some were now walking or talking - we needed to get to know the children again.
The return of the children didn't happen all at once either, it was fairly staggered depending on when parents were comfortable to leave their children at nursery again.
The main changes we had to make were environmental. There has been a lot more cleaning, all the touchpoints and high contact areas. Staff have had to stay in bubbles, even during breaks.
Risk assessments changed and we had to go with government guidance which was constantly changing. It was helpful when more staff were double jabbed, but most staff are young and still waiting on their second jab.
We are lucky to have different entrances to the building too so we could use a different door for different age group children. The most difficult part was not allowing parents in the building.
Gemma: I was going to say that was hard for me. How does a typical settling in session work now?
Rachel: we do this as flexibly as we can and try to work around the families. Each child's need is different.
We begin with a prestart, which is where we get to know your baby's routine as best as possible. Ideally this is still being done over the phone whereas before parents could come in. If parents really are keen to visit, the prestart can be done in the garden but its a half hour timeframe limit.
Gemma: I felt lucky I already knew you and trusted you from having Lucy here, it must be hard for new parents.
Rachel: I always tell parents to go with your gut; make sure you get the right feeling about the nursery. Make sure you can say how you're feeling and the staff will always be truthful in everything that is happening at nursery.
Each child is different and what works for one, may not for another and we will adapt if a child isn't settling well.
We have 3 or 4 settling in visits before start date, which is how it has always been.
A parent can now attend the first visit for half hour. Some parents come in and some don't, it's their personal preference.
Parents are also now allowed to come in and collect children, whereas during lockdowns they could only come to the front door.
It's nice to let the children see the parents and nursery staff talking; it brings them comfort.
Gemma: how are lockdown babies coping when they start nursery?
Rachel: they have done much better than expected.
Most children had already been in nursery and these ones were fine.
There were few new children for a while. Parents were not keen on them starting or they were working at home and keeping their babies with them.
We didn't really know what challenges were going to present themselves with the new babies. Some were happy and robust. Some were unsettled and there were a few tears. They needed more one to one with an adult, but time helps them settle.
Gemma - I noticed that with Ava. After a few weeks something switched and now she's fine, its amazing.
Rachel: on the most part they have been relatively settled.
Most are intrigued by things, they look at these other little people wondering who they are. After a while children find their feet and learn the routines. They have done really well considering the circumstances.
Gemma: are you finding a difference in parents too? Do they seem more anxious than before?
Rachel: Yes. First time parents are anxious anyway, but now there is a whole different environment and process. I couldn't imagine leaving my child with someone and not being allowed in the building. Parents have handled it well.
We use tapestry more, which is an online tool showing what the children do each day. We also take an iPad to the door to show pictures and videos of their child's day. This is a relief for them to see their little ones happy.
We have to build relationships and there are some anxieties we haven't seen before.
Everything we do is centred around the children, but their families are important too and making them comfortable is also our job. We will provide reassurance. This may take longer than normal but we will do everything we can to support them.
Gemma: my mum says I am different with Ava compared to Lucy. My attachment is so much stronger with Ava because I've never left her side. Even leaving her overnight with someone still worries me.
Rachel: makes sense. It's different circumstances they've been brought up in. You've got to be understanding to do this job, especially working with children.
Gemma: are you finding a difference in the lockdown babies immune systems compared to those born before the pandemic?
Rachel: absolutely. During the colder months you expect a runny nose or cough, but obviously this is being treated differently because of covid. The main difference we are seeing is worryingly high temperatures. In the past we would get 38/39 degrees but lately we are sending children home with temperatures 39 and over.
These children are being exposed to germs for the first time, they are picking up everything so quickly and now people are travelling they are bringing things back from other countries. We are seeing illnesses we haven't seen for a while as well as the typical ones
Gemma: the babies seem to be struggling more too. I remember Ava's first week, she got a cough and you said 8 children were off at the same time, some of which were hospitalised.
Rachel: yes, we expect runny noses but its not 1 or 2 children, its the whole group and some were really poorly and in hospital. There have been a lot of chest infections which has been so sad to see and it's taken whole groups out of attendance. We are cleaning so often, we are wiping away the germs they would usually be exposed to. They are spending time with other babies they have not been around before. Thankfully they are making recoveries and hopefully they will now build up their immunity.
Gemma: for parents that are first time parents - what is a typical routine for a new baby starting at the nursery?
Rachel: this is centred around food: breakfast from 8am, snack at 10am, lunch at 12pm and a little tea at 3.30pm. The rest of the time is flexible and individual.
Some babies are not eating yet and having a bottle instead at certain times.
Younger babies tend to stick to their own routine: food and naps when needed and the older babies fit into the nursery routine: eat at set times and nap after lunch.
The older children have quiet time if younger babies are sleeping.
Obviously during lockdown our routines have been different, we've been trying to work or home school or enjoy our maternity leave so some routines are different.
You let us know what times your child would get hungry/tired and what your baby does and we can recognise these signs at nursery.
This is why the prestart is so important and we understand your child's needs.
Gemma: sounds like they've settled in better than expected this year. Hopefully this is reassuring to those new mum and dads reading.
Thanks to Rachel for speaking with us today.