Children in a nursery

When Can You Put Your Baby Into Nursery?

When is the best age to put your child into nursery? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. Instead, you have to consider a number of important factors including research evidence, the official government advice and, most importantly, your family circumstances together with the individual needs and development of your child.

If you are considering hiring a nanny, click through to our article on Nannies – the pros and cons.

When is your child nursery-ready? The situation in the UK

According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) 2010 figures, 76% of mothers return to work in some capacity within 12-18 months of having a child – back in 1981 this figure was around 24%. In 2019, DWP statistics showed that 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children were in work in the UK.

However, the UK government only provides funding for childcare for children between three and four years of age (currently, all children aged three to four receive 15 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks – while some children are eligible for 30 hours per week**). What is clear from these two facts is that in the UK it would be difficult to say that there is a right or wrong answer to the question of when to put a child or baby into day nursery.

When to send a baby to nursery – what does the research say?

Scientists, psychologists and childcare experts offer a wide range of conflicting evidence and opinions on this topic, and many question whether there is enough evidence to provide a satisfactory answer.

Unfortunately, this means that if you want clear direction, you will be left disappointed. Instead, you will have to navigate the evidence, the headlines and the widely differing opinions on the subject and then form your own opinion.

There is some evidence that suggests placing under twos in full-time nursery care (9am to 5pm) may have an adverse emotional and behavioural impact over the longer term. However, this impact is thought to be only minor and may be counterbalanced by some positive impact on the development of linguistic and cognitive skills. Various studies by the US’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) showed that while nursery care for very young children could have an adverse impact, if the childcare is of good quality it can have a positive effect, especially if the home environment is challenging. NICHD suggest that the effect of the childcare experience on a child can only be evaluated by distinguishing several key aspects: the quality of the care, the amount of time spent in child care, and the type of care received.*

There is also the issue of stress. One Cambridge University study, carried out in in 2005 by the faculty of Social and Political Sciences, found that young children who started nursery exhibited higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol during the first days of childcare and that these were still elevated above normal levels several months later, even if the children seemed outwardly settled into their nursery routine.

Perhaps more than anything, the conflicting evidence points towards the importance of managing the situation well yourself. By taking a holistic approach and providing a secure and positive home environment, you will provide your children with the security and tools they need to make the transition into childcare that little bit easier. By extension, such a holistic approach also underlines the importance of finding a good nursery for your child – the quality of care given to your child is of primary importance, whether it is in the home or nursery setting.

With this in mind, our article on Finding a Day Nursery, may be of interest to you.

Children in a school classroom

Does nursery help your child to prepare for school?

One advantage of nursery care is that it may help your child better prepare for the social and educational challenges of school, but only if it is quality care and the benefits will largely hinge on the child’s whole environment, not the childcare alone.

Professor Kathy Sylva, Honorary Research Fellow and Professor of Educational Psychology at Oxford University has spent many years researching the impact of nursery care on emotional self-regulation and socialisation. She has found both positive and negative outcomes, and has furthermore found that these often depend on the quality of the child’s home and daycare environment. She has also found that nursery-educated children may be better at interacting with teachers and may feel more confident going to the toilet and washing their hands – but all the research would indicate there is no single one-size-fits-all answer to the question.

When is right for the parents?

Although the child’s best interests take paramount consideration, you must also consider what works best for you as a parent. There is likely to be little advantage to keeping your child at home if you are regularly stressed, distracted and overworked. By achieving some respite from your child in order to get on with other tasks – whether domestic or professional – you are likely to be able to give your child greater quality interactions at those times when you are caring for them.


The age at which you put your baby or child into a nursery setting is a complex and challenging decision. This means that there is no easy answer to the question posed at the outset of this article; it is a personal choice and will depend on when you need to return to work, the flexibility of your employment and the personality and needs of your child.

Further Reading



* Early child care and early child development: Major findings of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care 2006:

**Gov.UK – Get Childcare: step by step