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Not My Baby!

Jennifer Hooks

The nursery was perfect. Matching cribs lined one wall, each with crisp pink and blue checked sheets. Developmentally appropriate toys sat neatly on white shelves just waiting for tiny hands to hold them. A wooden rocker sat motionless in the corner with a soft, pale green afghan folded over its arm, ready to comfort and warm a tiny soul. The small room waited for small guests.

Outside the nursery, a flurry of activity filled the halls. Children and their parents hurried by on their way to classes and services. Laughter and excitement bubbled up everywhere -- everywhere except in the nursery.

Makes you feel sorry for the nursery, doesn't it? This scenario may sound extreme -- but when we surveyed parents of babies and toddlers to see whether they use the church nursery, we found that some never do. So why don't these parents use our nurseries? Their reasons may surprise you, but they also may inspire you to make your nursery the place to be.

Health Hazards

One common reason parents resist leaving their little ones in your nursery is they're afraid their small children will be exposed to otherwise-avoidable illnesses.

"My concern is that many parents will take a sick child to the nursery," said one parent. "I also worry about whether things are cleaned and disinfected. I suppose I should just ask, but then I feel like the freaky mom who worries too much."

Take Action: Help parents see that you're taking measures to keep all your small friends healthy and happy.

Establish an illness policy. For example, require that children who have a fever, runny nose with yellow discharge, diarrhea, vomiting, or other symptoms remain with their parents. Require that parents whose children become ill retrieve their child within 10 minutes. Create an isolation area in your room so if a child becomes ill, he or she can be separated from other children while waiting for Mom or Dad.

Keep your room sanitized. Clean all toys before returning them to the shelves by rinsing them in a bleach and water solution. Keep changing tables sanitary. Use disinfectant spray liberally during peak illness seasons. Encourage hand-washing among children and require it of volunteers. Provide sanitizing hand gel at your entryway, changing tables, and restroom.

Post these policies and health-conscious procedures outside your classroom and in your promotional materials so parents know you're working to keep kids healthy.

Safe and Sound

Parents of young children have an especially keen radar when it comes to safety, and if they feel as though your nursery doesn't take necessary precautions to keep their little ones safe, they won't be leaving their children with you any time soon.

"I wasn't pleased at all with the condition of our nursery," confided one parent. "It looked like nothing had been done since the '70s."

Another reason this parent felt uneasy leaving her child: "There's no check-in/check-out system whatsoever, and I've never heard of any kind of background checks being done."

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Take Action:

Shed light on your nursery as a safe place for babies.

Update your décor. There are simple, inexpensive ways you can update your nursery. A coat of white paint leaves a better impression than dreary paint. Use freshly laundered linens. Tape visuals and safety mirrors at children's level.

Invest in background checks. Parents often spend hours researching and interviewing potential day-care providers and caregivers. It's illogical to them to leave their child in the arms of a complete stranger with an unknown history. Let parents know your volunteers have passed background checks. Create "meet our volunteers" sheets where volunteers' photos are posted. Include the volunteer's name, interests, education or employment, and something about his or her passion for serving in the nursery. (Click here to read Safety First: A Guide to Conducting Background Checks).

Keep it safe. Do regular safety checks and updates in your classroom. Provide CPR and first-aid classes for your volunteers. Post safety rules and child-protection policies on your doorways and throughout your rooms. Use a secure check-in system, which can be as simple as requiring the same person to sign in at drop-off and sign out when picking up.

Disorganization

When asked to describe her church's nursery, one parent's response was, "One word -- chaos! I know the nursery becomes a crazy place sometimes, and I worry that my infant won't get the attention and care that she needs."

Take Action: Action can be a good thing; it means babies are stimulated and people are interacting. Chaos, though, is a bad thing; it can be a telltale sign of disorganization and discord.

Streamline. Update your processes for check-in and check-out. Organize your room. Massage your classroom routine to make it as efficient and child-friendly as possible.

The reason one parent gave for not using the nursery is surprising -- and worrisome: "[At our previous church], I didn't even know where the nursery was."

Take Action: Don't assume parents know about your nursery. Many smaller churches have wonderful -- but empty -- nurseries because they're tucked away where visitors, and even regular attenders, can't easily find them.

Go public. Promote your nursery's location and benefits. Spend time "walking the carpet" -- shaking hands and inviting parents to stop in for a visit. Have an open house following services. Do a little PR. Train ushers to escort parents to the nursery. And make your nursery accessible -- optimally, it should be within eyeshot of the worship area, allowing parents convenience and ease of mind.

Opting Out

"Our church attendance has been spotty this year, [due] to the child care and our son's response," said one parent. "He clings to us and doesn't want to go at all...Honestly, I just don't know what our future at this church will be."

If you've ever wondered how important your nursery or toddler ministry is, this parent's response is your answer.

Take Action: If a child resists coming or a child who attended stops, dig deeper. In one situation the parents discovered that another child was biting their son. The teacher was able to resolve the situation. Had it been ignored, the parents may have opted to keep their son out of the nursery permanently.

We also found that one of the common reasons parents don't leave their children in the nursery is actually positive: "We wanted to begin worship as a new family."

Take Action: Today's families trend toward family togetherness, so it's no surprise that many young families want to worship together. Support these families by informing them about your services and providing worship "care kits" for their little ones, such as crayons, coloring sheets, and simple snacks. Provide a cry room or nursing room where parents can still see or hear the service.

The Great News

The great news is that hundreds of thousands of parents use their church nurseries every weekend and throughout the week -- and they love it!

"The nursery coordinator really knows my kids and our family," said another parent whose three daughters all stayed in their nursery. "Even the weekly volunteers seem genuinely interested in loving little ones!"

For a reproducible (PDF) "Invitation to Parents" you can use to inform parents about the wonderful things happening in your nursery, click here.


Will You Pass My Test?

We recently left our church of six years. The deciding factor was our toddler's consistent negative reaction to the nursery -- we want him to have a positive beginning at church. In our search for a new church, I used a mental checklist to evaluate each church's nursery. I'll bet most church visitors have a similar checklist. Here's a peek at what parents are looking for.
•    What's your classroom or nursery like? Is the atmosphere fun and engaging?
•    Is my child safe? Do you have a system in place to stop someone else from claiming my child? Does the door lock so my child can't wander away? Are there safety features -- outlet covers, sturdy cribs and swings, and age-appropriate toys? Can you quickly contact me if my child needs me?
•    What happens at drop-off? Separation anxiety is normal, but does my child's reluctance seem like more? Does the teacher try to engage him, as well as assure me that he'll be okay?
•    Is there structure? Do you follow a routine? How will I know what my child experienced?
•    Are you interested? Do you verify the spelling and pronunciation of his name? Are you happy to be there? If we come back, do you remember him?
•    How do other kids act? Are they happy or upset? engaged or bored? Is the classroom chaotic?
•    What's my child's reaction? I'll ask him if he liked Sunday school and ask him simple questions about the lesson. I'll pay attention to his emotions when I pick him up, and may peek into the classroom before I make my presence known. Is he participating and having fun, or is he crying for me?
•    Will you answer my questions? If our first visit went well, I'll call the children's ministry director to find out more about your ministry. Do you welcome this conversation?
After trying a few churches, we've found one we like. The clincher was the other day when out of the blue my son said, "I like going to church."

 


Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children's Ministry Magazine. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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