Module 2-Module 02: Caring For Children

The central importance of care and caring

An integral part of caring for children’s development is caring about them as individuals. It is vital that children should feel confident that the key adults in their lives care about them and what happens to them. This vital and positive message is communicated to children through the care routines of a day or session in early years settings or in your work as a nanny in a family home, or a child-minder in your own home.

‘Care’ and ‘education’ are equally important

Unfortunately, the development of the early year’s services in the UK occurred within a split system that has undervalued ‘care’ in favour of ‘education’. The consequence has been that many commentators feel able to talk in a dismissive way about services or early years practitioners who ‘just care’ for children. Such settings are contrasted with ‘educational’ settings or ‘educational’ activities as the more valuable sources of learning. I have yet to hear anybody talk about ‘just education’. The many exciting developments in early years services have not addressed that basic division to create a coherent early years system.

Of course, the care–education split makes no sense whatsoever when children’s development and well being are considered as a whole. Children certainly do not distinguish between ‘educational’ and ‘care’ activities as a source of learning. You will find many examples in this chapter and others to highlight how children are ready and keen to learn from all sources.

Any early years setting, whatever its name, should combine a positive outlook on and good quality in care routines with a wide range of opportunities for children to learn, some of which will be in the form of ‘educational’ activities. Children need to be and feel cared for, which creates a healthy state and positive psychological frame of mind to allow them to benefit from all the opportunities to learn within their day.

Why care matters so much

Caring for children’s health and well being is just as important as providing specific activities that stretch them in other areas of their development such as communication or the growth of ideas. You support children’s emotional and social development as well as creating opportunities to learn through meaningful routines:

  • Respectful, physical care through which you treat a baby, toddler or child as an individual, shows children that they are welcome to your time and skills in caring for them.
  • Caring supports children’s whole development when it is part of your personal relationship with a child. Children can feel affirmed as an individual. They should never feel like baby number three in a routine of changing, nor child number five at the meal table.
  • You can show your pleasure as children grow in the skills of self-reliance and begin to share in their own care.
  • You show through your words and actions that you value the caring time. You are not rushing through a nappy change or a meal because you or your colleagues regard this as ‘lost time’.
  • An enjoyable conversation over lunch or tea or an unhurried and affectionate nappy changing time can support children’s skills of communication.
  • Involvement in tidying up or laying the table not only boosts children’s sense of self-worth but can be an ideal opportunity to add to their powers of memory, of understanding a sequence or practical early number work.

Children need touch

Babies and children need physical contact. It is a vital channel for warm communication and is also reassuring when children are upset, scared or ill. Close physical contact is essential while children need help with the routines of physical care and some disabled children will need help well into middle childhood or beyond.

There are differences between families in the amount and kind of physical affection shown to children. Some of these differences may be about this particular family and the way that the parents were raised. Sometimes, there may be a broader cultural tradition about appropriate personal space (how close you sit or stand to another person) and touch. Early years practitioners need to be sensitive to what children have learned so far in their family. But young children usually like to be close, to make physical contact and be able to access such contact when they want.

Children should, of course, be treated with respect and not used as comfort objects, either by adults or by older children. You may need to step in if some children are treating a younger or much smaller child like a doll or a prop in a game. Equally, it is not acceptable for practitioners responsible for rather exhausting older groups to appear in the baby room for a bit of peace and a baby to cuddle because it makes them feel better as adults.

Sources of concerns about physical contact

Concern about the minority (and most people do not abuse children) has sometimes led to restrictive rules about contact and witnessing procedures in care routines (when two practitioners must be present). Some of these rules, including ‘no-touch’ practices, are unworkable for younger children and give some very bizarre messages to slightly older ones.

Excessive concern about ‘what might people think’ will lead to poor practice in which early years practitioners behave in a distant way to children. Far from solving child protection concerns, this approach can be emotionally cold to children, who wonder what they have done that is so wrong that adults do not want them close.

Learning about appropriate touch

Young children are in the process of learning about gentle and appropriate physical contact. They cannot experience respectful contact if early years practitioners keep their distance. In fact, the children could be put at risk because they have a less strong foundation for judging intrusive or inappropriate contact. If children have been deprived of safe and happy closeness, then they are even more at risk because they are desperate for affection from anyone who offers.

Early years settings and schools are usually even more sensitive or uneasy about practice for male practitioners. Again, the problem has arisen with excessive concern about the prevalence of child abuse and also a myth that men are more likely to be abusers than women. Most identified sex abusers are men but most men are not abusers of any kind. So, this perspective is not only untrue but also raises serious equal opportunities issues. It is important that children have positive and affectionate male role models for the healthy development of girls as well as boys.

Within a friendly early year setting you can help children learn about appropriate touch, for instance:

  • One child feels squashed by another and wants some more space.
  • Another child likes to be asked to hold hands and does not want her hand simply grabbed by her friend.
  • Male and female practitioners can set a good example of friendly and respectful physical contact and give children the direct experience of how a safe adult behaves.
  • Female practitioners often find that a very young child may pat a breast or slip a hand down the front of a blouse. Just remove the hand gently and place it somewhere less intimate.

It would be a matter for concern if children persist in intimate touching once you have said a kind ‘No’. Also, you need to be alert to possible problems if a child seems unnerved by physical closeness. Be aware that it may be the result of a bad experience.

Promoting self-reliance through routines and sharing care

The value of care routines

Predictable routines in the day can be a source of security to children; they start to understand what happens when and how one event follows another. Predictable routines do not have to be inflexible and certainly, the routine should never feel more important than the children themselves. A regular pattern creates a rhythm to the day that can be very reassuring to young children who have little understanding yet of time in an adult framework. Babies, toddlers and young children to come to understand mealtime, clean up time, rest or quiet time and lively play time.

Good practice for the physical care of children

Within predictable routines, with some flexibility, you can offer children respectful and appropriate physical care, that is part of friendly communication and a warm personal relationship with a child.

These are the key themes of good practice in every early year setting:

  • Let a child know that you are about to start a care routine.
  • It is disrespectful to children, and sometimes makes them scared or uneasy, if you appear without warning, start to move them about and do not give them time to adjust.
  • Adults need to be alert to children’s preferences for their personal care and these wishes may be expressed through words, facial expressions or a child’s whole body language.
  • Wherever possible you should follow or at least be flexible to the child’s wishes.
  • All children should be enabled to partake in their own care as much as possible and you need to be alert to promoting children’s skills of self-reliance.
  • Care routines should not be rushed and children should be treated as individuals who deserve time and attention.
  • Good practice in physical care routines helps children to understand respectful touch. They are then more likely to treat others with care and to be wary if someone treats them roughly or with disrespect.
  • Early years practitioners need to work in partnership with children’s parents so that children are not handled in very different ways. Some families will also have cultural or religious reasons for preferring particular ways of meeting children’s physical needs.

Sharing their care with children

Part of growing up is that children steadily learn to take care of themselves. They are able to help in and then take responsibility for physical care routines such as feeding, dressing and toileting themselves. Children also learn broad life skills over a period of time. All these skills of self-reliance support their move towards independence.

Supporting and encouraging children

Very young children, especially babies, need a great deal of physical care because they cannot look after themselves. But if you observe babies and toddlers, you will realise that even babies want to use their physical skills. Young children are keen to feel competent and they often show by gestures and phrases like ‘I do it’ that they want to feel active and not passive in a care routine. Children who are continually discouraged, prevented from taking part or criticised for their failings will give up in the end, probably only to be further criticised by thoughtless adults for being ‘lazy’.

In this area of children’s learning, the word independence can be misleading if it is used to mean that children should manage without help or encouragement on acquiring this skill. During childhood, the move towards independence is a steady process, as children become able to take on their own care and make their own decisions. Young children can be relatively independent in some areas of their care and still very dependent on others.

An alternative is to understand and observe how young children practise the skills of self-reliance within daily routines and become able to share in their own care.

By the time children reach their third birthday they can take an active part in much of their own physical care. They can usually:

  • manage a great deal of their own toileting and hygiene
  • feed themselves, handle drinks and make choices about food
  • dress and undress, sometimes with help, and express preferences about what they will wear
  • take appropriate responsibility, so long as adults allow, for instance in tidying up, serving out food and running simple messages
  • make choices about activities and plan a bit ahead with the support of a patient adult.
  • Adult attention to children’s skills of self-reliance can be an effective way to promote other areas of their development, for instance:
  • Children can be a trusted and enthusiastic helper in early years setting or their own family home. The feeling of value and importance boosts their sense of self-worth.
  • Ordinary daily routines offer children practice in recalling steps in a simple sequence or to notice that something has been forgotten. Thinking skills, communication and making choices can be involved.
  • When adults value children’s growing self-reliance, the children are supported in a positive disposition to learn. They have direct experience that they can learn (‘I can do it’) and if they forget or become confused, they can ask for help.

Young children need to feel positive about being more self-reliant and adult behaviour is key.

Children are motivated to persevere and practise when you are generous with your encouragement or thanks. For instance, ‘well done, you got your mittens on’ or ‘you’ve found the book, thank you!’

  • Be patient and give children time. It is better for a child who wants to button up her coat to be allowed to do it, rather than an adult insisting on ‘helping’. You can step in if you really are pressed for time, but often this will not be the case.
  • Be flexible in your standards and do not re-do something unless really necessary. A child who is proud that she has buttoned up her coat does not really need it re-done because she did not line up the buttons.
  • In a friendly atmosphere, adults and children help each other out. Sometimes a child is able to do something but for the moment would like you to do it, so he feels cared for by you. You are physically capable of fetching the tissue box or pouring yourself some more juice, but you ask for help because a child is nearby and because she likes to help.
  • Children need to practise in order to hone their skills of self-reliance, just like any other area of learning. They are more likely to keep trying when their resistance or difficulties are met with patience, good humour and help from adults.
  • Children are discouraged by ungracious adults who take the line of ‘you’re four years old, you ought to be able to …’. If children are behaving in a hopeless-helpless way, then being rude to them or making them feel silly will not improve matters.
  • Children’s successes should be met with pleasure and a ‘well done’ from adults; never with any sense of ‘so what, you should be doing that anyway’, which is most discouraging for anyone of any age.

Everyday skills can seem ordinary but this does not mean that they are easy skills to learn. Young children can be motivated to learn skills of self-care but they need caring adults to show them how and support them. You learned physical skills such as cutting your food or tying up shoelaces a long time ago. Do you recall how difficult these tasks seemed to you as a child?

For example, suppose that a three-year-old is learning how to pour herself a drink from a jug. She has to look carefully at the jug, pick it up and hold it steady as she moves it to her cup or mug. She has to concentrate on holding the jug and looking at the cup as she starts to pour. She has to stop before the drink goes over the top of her cup. Then she has to straighten the jug and look carefully as she moves it back and places it down on the table.

The impact of disability

Some features of good quality care are especially relevant when children are very young. However, the need for such an approach continues into later childhood when children have disabilities.

  • A child with learning disabilities may take longer than her peers to understand and be able to take over her own care.
  • A child with physical disabilities may know what has to be done but cannot manage some part of the physical coordination or balance.
  • Alternatively, disabled children may need much more time, and therefore adult patients, and perhaps some special equipment to enable them to take over their own care.

Children as partners in helping out

Young children are keen to learn everyday skills and are enthusiastic about having a trusted part in the daily routine of home or early years setting. Unfortunately, they will give up if their offers are regularly refused. Children also stop offering if adults set such exacting standards that the children inevitably fail.

Helping out in the daily routines

You can find many opportunities for children to help and learn:

  • Young children enjoy learning some of the simpler tasks of everyday life. Tasks that seem dull or very routine to you can be refreshing to children and also intriguing because they are part of the adult social world.
  • An 18-month-old can be delighted to hand you items you need. Your words and expression tell him that the book or tissue he brought over is just what you needed.
  • Young children can learn skills while they help you sort out cupboards or track down the missing pieces of the jigsaw. They often like this time for conversation. You chat together while you share the activity.
  • Children are flattered that you ask and let them take simple messages from one room to another.
  • Children like to be involved in the care of children younger than themselves. Three and four-year-olds are often fascinated by baby care and basic child development.
  • Of course, you must remain responsible for a baby’s safety, yet children can hand you a clean nappy or the tub of cream. They could choose clean clothes for the baby. Children are also often adept at amusing a baby while you do the changing.

Tidying up

It is valuable that children learn about tidying up.

  • Give children a simple count down that tidying up will be soon. They can then prepare themselves.
  • Give enough time so that children are not rushed. They will not want to be involved if tidying up means being nagged and criticised.
  • Have a system that makes it easy for children to know where items go: a written label, a picture or a shaped board for tools.
  • Encourage children to put equipment like a posting box back together and encourage them to be good spotters of missing jigsaw pieces.
  • Show the children that you value tidying up time as a routine of learning. It is not wasted time, so be encouraging and say ‘thanks’ or ‘well done’.

Watch out for any sense that everything must be tidied up and put away if that means that a child’s work in progress is demolished. Some settings have great difficulties because they share premises, such as pre-school and playgroups that use church halls. However, some settings that do not experience these pressures nevertheless can get into thoughtless habits.

  • If children are in the middle of large construction, a painting or piece of craft or woodwork, do look for places to put it safely, so that they can come back to it.
  • Use cameras to record work in progress or take a permanent record of something that took children a lot of time and of which they are proud: a den in the garden, substantial sand or earthwork that will not survive the next rain.

Step by step learning

You can help children by understanding the step by step process of learning ordinary tasks. Make everyday tasks simpler if necessary or find a part of a task that the children can do. Keep to realistic standards for how long a task will take and how well it is done. Ordinary daily routines in a nursery can take a little longer; maybe you can finish off the task discreetly later and then children feel encouraged and ready to have a go another time.

Remember that the process does not have to be all or nothing. Look at it as several stages:

  • You are totally responsible – you judge that babies or children cannot manage something or it is not yet safe for them to try, however much they want to try. They may watch you but do not actually join in.
  • You encourage them to join in – you enable children to help you out a bit, though you are still basically in charge.
  • Children take responsibility but you watch over them – you can say, ‘Go on, you try it’ and you stay close to help if they need it
  • Children are wholly responsible – you allow children to take responsibility for the task with little or no supervision. You may check on the task afterwards and give encouragement and any helpful feedback.

Cleanliness and personal hygiene

Once a nursery, pre-school or home environment is clean enough there is no advantage and some disadvantages to greater attention to cleanliness. Over-attention to cleaning and tidying means that your time is diverted from the children. There is also some suggestion that an obsessive concern with cleaning and ‘zapping’ germs means that children’s bodies do not encounter the range of ordinary germs that enable their bodies to build up immunities. Basically, children and their surroundings need to be clean but not sterile.

In the play area

A safe environment for babies and children is free from threats to their physical well being and health. The environment should be clean, some areas, like toilets and kitchens, need to be kept within a good standard of hygiene. The whole play area needs to be tidy enough for people to be able to move around and not trip. However, children need to spread out with their play materials if they are to enjoy and learn.

An appropriate standard of cleanliness allows for enjoyable play:

  • Children will get grubby on occasion and happy outdoor play will involve natural substances that mark hands and clothes.
  • Children clean up very well and soon become active participants in the cleaning up and tidying process.
  • Children who are expected to remain unnaturally clean cannot help out properly in their daily routines, cannot play with their friends and cannot learn.
  • Younger children are unlikely to make it through the day in the same set of clothes.
  • Older children may be fine apart from the odd accident, so long as they get into the habit of using aprons or overalls for art, craft and cooking activities.
  • Play materials need to be clean but, unless children have health conditions that make them especially vulnerable, you do not need to be forever scrubbing and polishing.
  • Your storage systems should keep play materials as free from dust as possible.
  • You will need to pay close attention to the hygiene needs of babies and young toddlers.
  • Babies and toddlers suck and chew their play materials, so it is particularly important that their toys are regularly washed in hot soapy water, rinsed and left to drip dry.
  • Rattles and similar baby toys should not ideally pass from baby to baby without being cleaned.

Kitchens and bathrooms

Strict standards of hygiene are needed in the kitchen and bathroom. Infections, especially those causing stomach upsets, can pass like wildfire around a group of children and adults who spend their days in close proximity.

  • In the early years setting, you will be responsible for cleaning up after children but there will be cleaning staff on the team who do the regular cleaning.
  • If you work as a nanny then you may share some of the cleaning responsibility with parents – as it affects the children – but you should not be expected to do household cleaning as such.
  • As a childminder, you will be responsible for your own household tasks and cleaning. But you should ensure that cleaning does not impose on generous time and attention given to the children.

Hygiene procedures

You should wash your hands with soap, or an alternative if you are allergic to soap:

  • before and after changing a child
  • before cleaning cuts or grazes
  • after you have been to the toilet
  • before you handle food or prepare a baby’s bottle.

You should cover any cuts or grazes on your hands with a plaster.

Adults in early years setting need to follow a consistent procedure to avoid cross infection between children and adults. Contact with body fluids and body products can be a very efficient way of passing on minor and major infections.

  • You should wear a fresh pair of disposable gloves each time you change a child or dealing with an accident in which a child’s skin is broken.
  • After use, the gloves should be placed in a sealed bag in the same careful way as disposable nappy, used dressings and bandages.
  • Precautions such as wearing a light apron and using disposable gloves became more usual in nurseries in response to conditions such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. You will not necessarily know if children are infected and, even if you do, it would be thoughtless to treat that child noticeably differently from his or her peers.

You might still choose to use disposable gloves if you work as a nanny or child-minder, but the risks of cross infection are less.

Sharing the care on hygiene

  • You can set a good example in hygiene that will promote health without making children over-anxious about bugs and germs.
  • Show and remind children so that they learn hand washing after going to the toilet and before handling food or eating their meal.
  • In a group setting, they also need to understand about using only their own towel, flannel or toothbrush. Children can be helped to follow hygiene when they have an individual peg with the child’s name and a photo or picture to help them recognise their own items.
  • You can explain simply about germs passing when you sneeze or cough and that is why everyone should put their hand in front of their mouth and use a handkerchief or tissue.
  • Younger children need guidance and redirection to understand that sand and earth are not for eating and you may need to clean up their hands more often than those of older children. Children with learning disabilities will take longer to learn and you may need to offer this care and support into middle childhood.
  • Children are often very interested in the care of others and like to watch you change or clean a baby. Use these opportunities to explain and answer questions.
  • Special care and explanations need to be given about hygiene if you have a pet in the setting or you visit a children’s farm. The main dangers come from children touching an animal and then putting their fingers into their mouth.


Generally, you will only need to ensure that children keep clean enough and that you deal with any scrapes or bruises. You may need to use the cream on a child if her skin has a tendency to become dry and cracked. This is a normal part of daily care for many dark-skinned children and should be discussed with their parents. However, some lighter-skinned children have sensitive skin and also need some personal attention. You will probably find a cream that is appropriate for all children who need this extra help. You may not need to put cream on some children unless they have a long day with you or you take the group swimming. Some four and five-year-olds will be ready to help with their own skincare.

Care in the sun

All children need protection against the sun when they are playing outside in hot weather. Children’s skin is especially sensitive and later problems with skin cancer can arise from sunburn in childhood. Light skinned children will be the first to burn but dark-skinned children will also get sunburn and heatstroke if you do not take care of them. Children do not understand this risk, although they can comprehend getting hot and sticky. It is the adults’ responsibility to keep children safe:

  • Children should not be kept inside during hot weather. They need to get out but equipped with a suitable sun hat and sun cream.
  • Discuss with parents the need for sun protection creams and ask them to send in a hat that their child is prepared to wear.
  • The best kind of sun hats is the kind with a neck flap as well as the hat part – the legionnaire style.
  • You will need to put the sun cream on younger children but you can start the process of encouraging them to rub in the dabs of cream that you put on exposed limbs and their face.
  • In a long hot spell, you will need to limit children’s time in the direct sun and ensure that everyone has water easily available for drinking.
  • You also need some shade in a garden or outdoor area. If you do not have natural shady areas in your garden then you need to create some shade with an awning or an impromptu tent or tepee. Children will like this kind of facilities and play in them even when the sun is not that hot.

Children need sunlight

It is good practice to help children protect themselves from overheating and sunburn. However, children need to get out in the air and they need sunlight; it is a vital and free source of vitamin D. This vitamin is also available from some foods, but since the vitamin is stored by our bodies, summer is a good time to build up children’s reserves.

Clothes and dressing

  • Choice of clothes

Ideally, children should be wearing clothes in which they can have a relaxed and enjoyable day. From the perspective of early years setting this tends to mean comfortable clothes that are not too fussy and that parents will tolerate getting a bit grubby or dotted with paint.

Some parents will put their children in clothes that are good for play and be fairly calm about the evidence on clothes of a good day for children. However, some parents want their children well turned out all the time and may spend a

lot of money on fashionable clothes for even very young children. Your preferences for clothes may not be those of parents and in different ways, you do need to reach some compromise. For instance:

  • Talk with parents before children join your setting about the activities that they will enjoy.
  • Offer overalls, aprons or even a change of clothing for art, craft and gardening activities.
  • Do your very best to protect children’s clothes but not to the point of restricting their play and playful exploration.
  • Offer practical advice to parents about how to remove paint or glue. Some paint has to be washed out with cold water; hot water sets it like a dye. Some glue comes off more easily if the item is cooled in the fridge or freezer first of all.
  • Understand that for some parents there will be issues about modesty and girls.
  • Muslim parents, in particular, will not be happy for their daughters to strip down to underwear for games or possibly to go swimming. See what compromises can be reached.

Growing self-reliance

Very young babies cannot help in their physical care, indeed their waving arms and legs can make simple dressing quite a marathon. Within a few months, however, they start to join in.

  • A baby or toddler will push his arm into a sleeve if you hold it out for him. From the baby’s perspective, it may be just as interesting to take his arm out again.
  • Toddlers who gain the skills required to take their hats on and off sometimes continue this action for the sheer pleasure of doing it successfully.
  • Toddlers who are in the mood may cooperate in dressing, so long as they are not rushed and the dressing is not taking them away from a more interesting activity. They aim their arms and legs into clothing that you hold out.
  • Two and three-year-olds learn to manage the simpler parts of dressing: pull on or pull up clothes, slip on shoes.
  • They will find some fastenings difficult and it is not unusual to see them tug hard and hope for the best.
  • Children also find the sequence of dressing complicated at the outset. Without your help, they may put on pants over the top of trousers, so line up their clothes so they can follow a sequence and say out loud when you dress them.
  • Three, four and five-year-olds learn to tackle the more common ways of fastening clothes and many garments for children are made easier with elasticated waists or velcro to fasten shoes.
  • Children of this age need to see what they are doing and you may be able to direct their attention to how the task is progressing.
  • Children will have more difficulty if fastenings are at the back or their clothes are tight fitting.
  • You can help children by being patient as they learn and helping them sometimes. Children appreciate a helping hand and not just because they have failed and ought to be able to do up their buttons.

Rest and activity

Children need a healthy combination of varied activity, quiet and restful periods and actual sleep. Babies, toddlers and children vary in terms of how much sleep they need in total and how they gain this amount. It is in everyone’s interests, adults as well as children, that children get enough sleep and that in the end, they do their sleeping in the night time.

Children who do not get enough sleep can have dark rings under their eyes or nod off regularly during the day. But they can also be irritable and more likely to squabble with their peers and you may not immediately explain this behaviour by insufficient sleep. Young children do not know that they are lacking enough sleep and they may, of course, be very resistant to going to bed and staying there in the evening at home. It is an adult responsibility to help children develop healthy sleeping habits and that needs a bedtime routine.

Sleeping patterns

Babies sleep for a large amount in total of the 24 hour day but they do this sleeping in bursts of 3–4 hours, waking for feeding throughout the day and night. A lot of babies do seem to reach a more settled pattern, with longer night sleeps by about three months or earlier. But this is not an absolute and some apparently settled babies start a wakeful pattern later on. At some point during the first year of life many, but certainly not all, babies sleep for the longest period through the night. Their parents, or a nanny with sole charge, will then get a decent night’s sleep, although possibly with a prompt start to the day.

Older babies and toddlers will have one or two daytime naps. But some children up to three and four years of age may still need a short daytime nap, probably after lunch, or at least a quiet period. Some children attend an early year setting for full childcare because their parents work or study. The full day can then be long and children are likely to need a quiet, peaceful time to recoup their energy, even if they do not actually fall asleep.

Rest and quiet in the day

Early years setting needs comfortable areas where children can rest or nap in comfort. Sleepers need to be undisturbed by other children who are awake, but close enough that someone can be with them swiftly as they move back into wakefulness.

All children need a set of bedding for nap time that is not shared with others and is laundered regularly. If bedding like sleeping bags has to be dry cleaned, then they must be aired thoroughly before they are used for sleeping, in order to remove any residue of the cleaning chemicals.

Bedtime routines and night waking

By no means, all very young children sleep all through the night, every night. Readers, who are not themselves parents, need to be aware that night-time waking and general sleep disruptions in the family are the most commonly reported problems for which parents would like advice, especially for children aged 12–18 months. Studies of sleep and waking patterns show that children, just like adults, vary a great deal in how long they sleep in total, how restless their sleep is, how deep their sleep is and how much they move about. Young children wake a great deal but some drift back into sleep and do not call for their parents.

You may directly face the issue of night waking because you work as a nanny with some night-time responsibility. Alternatively, if you work in early years setting, parents may ask for your advice about night waking.

The current generation of children has later bedtimes than previous generations and sometimes working parents enjoy a longer evening to spend time with their children. Even with some flexibility, a regular bedtime and bedtime routine is important to help children to settle and to get enough sleep so that they enjoy their days to the full.

  • Establish a regular bedtime routine that creates a different feel to the end of the day.
  • A wash or bath can be followed by putting on night-time clothes and reading a bedtime story.
  • For a younger child, the light is then put out or turned low. Some children of five or six years of age may need quiet time in bed with books because they genuinely are not ready to sleep yet.
  • After settle time, calls from a child or appearances in the living room are dealt with calmly but the child is tucked back in or taken back up and told it’s bedtime now. Adults, a nanny or parents, need to be patient and be prepared to return the child again and again.

Self-reliance on toileting

Becoming toilet trained is a major issue in early childhood and will take some time, although not always a very long period. Children need to become reliably trained for day and night time and to be confident about dealing with their needs at the toilet, which also includes being able to handle their own dressing and undressing.

When are children ready?

There is no point in trying to toilet train children before they are ready. Being over prompt only means frustration and many wet pants. Talk with a child’s parents about their own view and ensure that the toilet training is done in partnership. It is not helpful if parents leave it all up to the nursery; toilet training needs to be a joint enterprise.

The signs of readiness are only partly physical:

  • Young children need to have reached the point where they recognise that they have wet or filled their nappy; something has happened.
  • This physical awareness is unlikely before 18–24 months of age and some children are really not ready until after their second birthday. Girls on average are ready a little earlier than boys, but you will see a great deal of variety between individual children.
  • Children also need to be able to understand simple requests. The new idea of ‘Let’s sit you on your pot’ has to make some sense so that children start to sit themselves, rather than you’re doing it all. Nearly all two-year-olds have also started playing simple pretend and this shows you that they can imagine and think ahead a little.

Some young children will not be ready by two years because their overall development has been slowed for some reason. Perhaps this child was born very premature or has a health condition or disability that means that toilet training is less straightforward. In consultation with the child’s parents, you need to be guided by what children can manage and understand, not just their age in years and months.

Be supportive and realistic with parents. If a new baby is on the way, it can seem very attractive to parents to get the older one toilet trained before the new baby arrives. But if the older child is not ready, then everyone’s efforts will bring little change and even reliably toilet trained children sometimes slip back when a new sibling arrives.

Helping children to become toilet trained

Children vary a great deal and some get the hang of toilet training in a matter of weeks, some steadily learn over a period of months. Some toileting accidents are usual for children who are toilet trained. Children are absorbed in play or try to hold on too long.

In a nursery there may be several children at one time in the process of getting toilet trained, so they have company and perhaps some idea of what happens. If you are a nanny working in a family home, then only one child may be working at this developmental task at any one time. A sensible way forward is as follows:

  • When it looks as if a child is ready, then encourage him or her to try out sitting on a pot in the bathroom for short periods of time.
  • Although little boys will eventually learn to urinate standing up, they start by sitting down.
  • Many children start with pots, but some children like to sit on the toilet from the very beginning. In a nursery, there will be low, child-sized toilet seats. In a family home, you will need a child seat to set within the ordinary toilet seat and a safe step for them to get up.
  • It is an adult responsibility to ensure that a pot or the toilet seat is wiped clean after use. In early years setting there may be a pot for each child or parents may bring in the child’s own pot from home.
  • Initially, the aim is to encourage a young child to sit on the pot, or the toilet, several times a day, but only for short periods of time.
  • If children are lucky and get something in the pot, then say encouraging words like ‘well done’ and smile. If not, then maybe next time.
  • It does not help to put pressure on children to sit until they have done something.
  • In a nursery, there may be times when you encourage all the children to go to the toilet, perhaps before going out into the garden. Try to avoid an institutionalised routine and allow for personal toileting patterns.

Your aim is that the child’s parent is following a similar pattern during their time with their child. Keep talking with the parent and compare how the process is coming along. If, after a couple of weeks, a child is really not keen, then stop. You will achieve nothing if toilet training becomes a battleground. It will be wiser to try again in a few weeks’ time.

When children are happy to cooperate with going on the pot or toilet and have far fewer wet or soiled nappies, then you can take the next step of trying a child with pants and no nappy. Talk with parents and see if they feel their child is ready.

  • Once children are minus their nappy, they do need regular reminders (every couple of hours) to sit on the pot or toilet. They also need continued encouragement by word and expression from adults. They are managing a tough developmental task and there should be no sense of ‘about time too!’
  • It is important to keep calm about the inevitable accidents and explain how normal this situation is to parents who have their first child. Explain to children that they need to have their pants changed, but avoid looking or sounding cross, because this is an accident.

Nowadays disposable trainer pants offer a halfway house option, but children need to make the move into proper, unpadded pants to be fully toilet trained. Padded pants may be useful on the odd occasion but, despite the enthusiastic advertising hype, are not evidence that children have managed this task.