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Nurseries urged to draw up cuddle policies over fears intimacy with children will be misunderstood

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Nurseries are being urged to draw up cuddle policies setting out clear guidance for practitioners, after a study found some nursery staff are afraid to cuddle young children, fearing they could be accused of child abuse.

Dr Jools Page and a small research team from Sheffield University carried out a study called Professional Love in Early Years Settings (PLEYS) to explore ‘professional love’ in early years settings and look at how to increase the confidence of early years practitioners who work closely and intimately with young children.

Dr Page said: “In recent years, a small number of high profile cases of early years practitioners have been convicted of child abuse, and the continued media exposure of abusive clergy and then of various ‘celebrity’ entertainers has led to a climate of wariness, if not suspicion, which has grown around the general issue of adults’ professional relationships with very young children.

“A difficulty for those who work in early years settings is thus how to express the affectionate and caring behaviours, which the role characteristically demands of them in their loco parentis, and which very young children need in their development of healthy attachments.”

Dr Jools Page and her researchers worked with the Fennies nursery group which has eight nurseries in south east England to look at how early years practitioners practice love, intimacy and care. They also carried out an anonymous online survey which had 793 completed questionnaire responses.

The project findings were used to co-produce an Attachment Toolkit which includes case studies, narratives and video materials to support early years practitioners in their attachment interactions with young children and in their work with families, particularly during times of parent/child separation.

Cuddle policies

A number of practitioners called for nurseries to adopt cuddle policies to address the confusion felt by many childcare workers.

One early years practitioner said: “We have always felt strongly at my setting that it was more damaging to deny young children affection such as cuddles (I have worked at my setting for over 10 years and this has always been our view) but I was aware that many other settings do not think this way.

“I read the first paper on Professional Love as part of my degree studies last year which I felt validated my setting’s views even more but also increased my concern that there are settings out there that still have ‘no cuddling’ policies.

“This just seems inhumane to me if you are working with young children, especially with all the research becoming available on the importance of affection in healthy brain development etc.”

Another practitioner said: “I think all settings should have an attachment policy which should place importance on allowing staff to show professional love to children appropriately.”

The research team found that one in 10 practitioners reported concern over parents feeling threatened, jealous or uncomfortable about early years staff developing a relationship with their children.

However this was more common for childminders (13 per cent) than those working in other early years settings (8 per cent). Some said they felt vulnerable, with one in 10 of practitioners reporting that they worry about false accusations and how others view the appropriateness of their actions.

A slightly higher proportion of practitioners that work with children under two tend to feel that parents approve of them kissing their child than those working with older children.

Male childcare workers

Some practitioners said parents had raised concerns about men working with their children, with one male nursery worker saying: “What really bothers me is that those parents who argue that there are not sufficient men in early years settings, primary school settings, and child care, are also the first to accuse men of inappropriate behaviour towards (their) children.

“And only then these parents wonder why so many men shy away from working with children. Only then society comes to the conclusion that men are insensitive towards children and ignoring/neglecting/avoiding their duty of care towards children.

“As a male working with children I simply cannot win, and regardless of what I do I know it is only a matter of time before I get accused.”

Dr Page said: “The necessarily intimate relationships that practitioners develop with young children have become a matter for scrutiny, and a matter of equally nervous concern for early years practitioners themselves. This is an issue that affects all practitioners, but is particularly pertinent when they are men.”

The childcare sector is notorious for having a minority of male practitioners. This has been attributed to low pay, stereotypical beliefs but also to men not being made to feel welcome and viewed as potential child abusers.

Early Years Foundation Stage Framework

“One phrase in the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (EYFS) which challenges early years practitioners is ‘excessive one-to-one attention beyond the requirements of their usual role and responsibilities’ whereas elsewhere in the EYFS it talks about the role of the key early years person having ‘a settled relationship for the child and build[ing] a relationship with their parents,” said Dr Page.

She added: “This statement about closeness poses a particular dilemma and challenge for early years practitioners when considering their familiarity with young children, and in particular with babies.

“It is important that early years practitioners are helped to recognise this does not mean that they cannot cuddle babies or hold them close, especially at times of settling in, distress and also during personal care routines. Their role is about establishing a close bond but not making it so overly intense that the baby has his or her independence taken from them.”

'Professional wariness'

She has found that “some early years practitioners exhibit and express a professional wariness as they operate, increasingly, in a culture of suspicion. This has led to concerns that early years practitioners are fearful of showing intimacy with young children, often because they fear their affections being misunderstood”.

As well as ‘professional love’ policies, practitioners told the researchers they wanted training workshops on the issue with case studies and scenarios.

In a bid to address these needs, Dr Page developed the Attachment Toolkit This includes e-booklets and case studies plus video clips of parent child interaction.

With babies and young children spending an increasing amount of time in early years settings, it does seem that the whole issue of ‘professional love’ does not receive enough attention. “Defining love in professional roles is problematic because there is no skill set that can be applied, taught or measured.

“Nevertheless, to deny the existence of love, particularly when research has already confirmed that love matters is unhelpful,” says Dr Page.

The PLEYS project was funded by the University of Sheffield Innovation, Impact and Knowledge Exchange (IIKE) in collaboration with Fennies Nurseries.

To find out more about PLEY go to ran a feature on kissing bans in nurseries. To see more go to


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