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BLOG: Crying when settling in - what's normal?

All babies and young children cry. Some cry more than others, and some cry more in particular situations, like settling into a childcare setting. 

Each child is different and will experience new situations differently, but it is fair to say that the transition to childcare is a major event in their lives. Some will have never been with anyone other than their parents or carers, some will have rarely left their home, and some will have never been in a large group. All this can make an unfamiliar situation with new people a strange and even frightening experience for a young child. 

Crying is babies and young children’s way of telling us how they feel. Because they cannot yet talk or only talk very little, crying is their way of telling us that they feel sad, scared, overwhelmed or unwell, and need comforting. Crying is actually a good sign in children facing stress. They are being assertive in expressing what they feel, and they are, to some extent, trusting you with their feelings.

A gentle settling in period

Becoming comfortable in a new situation takes time. As each baby and young child is different, a flexible approach to settling in is important. The aim is to gradually introduce the baby or young child to the different people and children, and situations of the childcare setting. At first, this might be in their home or at childcare with their parent(s) and then gradually moving to more time in the childcare setting without the parent(s). 

A good goodbye

It may feel tempting for the parent(s) to sneak out when the baby or young child is unaware to avoid a crying outburst. But this takes away from them the opportunity for saying goodbye. A short and confident goodbye, instead of a long, drawn-out and emotional one helps the baby or young child feel that they are safe and ok and begin to grasp that their parent(s) will return. 

Recognising and naming their feelings

Some children, despite a gradual and lengthy settling in period, continue to cry in childcare. It is important to think about why this might be. This is not easy. Being with a distressed baby or young child who can’t settle can be a very stressful experience for the adult. And when we are stressed it is more difficult to reflect on what might be happening. At times we become too focused on stopping the crying that we can’t think of anything else. Research has shown that responding quickly and appropriately to a child’s cry reduces the amount they will cry later on. But what is ‘appropriately’? By focusing too much on stopping the crying, we miss the opportunity of showing them that we understand how they feel and that it is ok to feel that way. 

So, it might be that you take a minute to recognise what they are feeling and put it into words for them. For example, “Mummy just left, and this makes you very sad. This place feels very strange and unfamiliar. But it will be ok. Mummy will come back later, and I’ll be here with you and play with you when you are ready.” They may not understand all the words, but they’ll understand the feeling behind the words and feel they are with someone who understands and is interested in them. They will slowly begin to trust you, feel comforted by you and become interested in exploring the world of the childcare setting with you. 

Getting to know each other

It takes us all time to get to know a person, and this is the same for a baby or young child. Each day you'll know more about what they like and dislike, what makes them feel safe and comforted, and what they find frightening and unpleasant. And they will be getting to know you, your voice, what you do and feel comforted by you.

Uncertainty and worries during the pandemic

Sometimes a baby or young child who has already settled in suddenly begins to find it difficult again. This can be normal. Many situations can affect children - if they’ve been unwell, if they haven’t slept enough, if their parent(s) are stressed or worried, or if there is a change in their lives. Recently, the pandemic has created great changes and uncertainty in all our lives, and impacted parents and carers, and young children. This can have repercussions for a child’s settling in, and they may need more time and support. 

Remember - if you have any ongoing or particular concerns about a child, talk to their parents about getting help from their GP or health visitor.

Join our network for early years practitioners!

For more tips and resources on settling in and many other topics, join our network! Early Years in Mind is a free online network for early years practitioners, developed by mental health experts at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. It shares practical and clinical knowledge on supporting the mental health of babies, young children and their families.

About the author

Alejandra Perez is an adult psychoanalyst of The Institute of Psychoanalysis and a Parent-Infant Psychotherapist in the Early Years Programme of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. She has done research on attachment and the impact of COVID-19 on the experience of pregnancy and early parenthood. She is Programme Director of the MSc in Early Child Development and Clinical Applications at University College London and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, where she has taught psychoanalysis and led parent-infant observation seminars since 2008.

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