ECE Resources

Eight features of quality caregiving for infants and toddlers

Caregiving is an important part of pedagogical work for teachers of infants and toddlers. It is not just a set of tasks that must be completed for the child’s wellbeing. Neuroscience has demonstrated that, especially in early life, development of the brain and the body are closely interrelated. This means that physical care is an integral part of, and stimulates, infants’ and toddlers’ learning and development. The nurturing involved in moments of care such as mealtimes, nappy-changing and going to sleep, offer a meaningful context for developing attuned interactions which are an essential component of infant and toddler pedagogy. Small group sizes, a high ratio of adults to children (ideally 1:3) and low staff turnover all help to enable better quality caregiving practices. Research into quality caregiving for infants and toddlers has identified the following eight features.

Primary caregiving in ECE 

Primary caregiving is essential for supporting ‘attuned’ caregiving (which means the caregiver is aware of and responsive to the child). This helps infants and toddlers build attachment and a sense of security. The intimate caregiving relationships through primary caregiving build vital trust and reassurance for infants. Primary caregivers can support children through separations and reunions with parents and whānau, and other moments of transition such as going to sleep or mealtimes.

Primary caregiving also contributes to strong relationships as it facilitates a multitude of interactions that allow the teacher and the infant or toddler to get to know each other. Children’s needs for nutrition, sleep, activity and comfort can then be met in individualised ways that further build their competence and strengthen the connections between caregivers and children.

The child and family are often assigned a caregiver before they start at the early childhood setting, but it might sometimes be worth considering the personalities of children and teachers to see what the best match may be, or even allowing a bit of time for infants and toddlers to show a preference for a particular teacher. A good match is important for effective relationship-building. No child or parent should be forced into a primary caregiving relationship, so ECE providers need to create opportunities for parents to voice concerns or questions, and be open to making modifications that are mutually agreeable.

Continuity of caregiver 

Continuity of care means that children remain with the same caregiver for more than a year, and ideally up until the child is three years old, giving children and teachers time to get to know each other. A lack of continuity can have negative impacts on children’s learning and development as repeated detaching and re-attaching to new caregivers is emotionally stressful for infants and toddlers.

Many practices can support continuity of care. For example, you might consider building ‘family groups’ of children and one or two teachers which remain together in a small group for large parts of the day, and which also remain constant over a prolonged period of time. Planning multi-age groups with each teacher means that children need not transfer caregiver when they reach a birthday. Another alternative is allowing ‘looping’, where same age groupings move on to a new physical space with their caregiver until they leave the setting, at which point the caregiver takes on a new group.

Of course, it is likely to be impossible to have the same caregiver present at every moment of a child’s time at the setting due to shift times, leave and other absences. Strategies to overcome these difficulties include ensuring secondary caregivers build a relationship with and knowledge of the child, and making sure that, if a teacher leaves, there is overlap between the familiar teacher and a new one. When new caregivers need to step in to cover, this should be explained to the child. It is important to ensure a consistency of practice across caregivers: while it does not replace the security of a primary caregiver, it helps children know what to expect from each adult in your setting. For example, if one caregiver always gives children a few minutes notice before coming back to change their nappies, another caregiver who was caring for children in her place would also give children the advance notice they are used to.

Effective settling processes 

It is important to have parents involved in the transition to ECE and the settling process. Ensuring the child’s emotional security in the new setting should be seen as a joint task between the parent and the caregiver. Try to have only one child settling in at a time, because the presence of the parents during this new child’s visits can be unsettling for the other children.

  • Keep the first visit short enough that feeding or changing will not be necessary, and have the parent present the whole time. This visit is about the parent and child exploring the setting and ensuring a positive experience.
  • On the second visit, the caregiver can start to interact more closely with both the parent and child, so that the child becomes aware of their presence. On this and subsequent visits, increase the amount of time that the parent and child spend in the setting each day. When the parent and teacher agree the child is ready, the parent can start leaving the child; over the following visits, the length of time that the child is left without the parent can be increased.
  • Ask the parent to carry out the first nappy change while you observe. That way you can base your nappy change routine for that child on what they are used to with their parent. There might be aspects of the parent’s nappy change routine that are less responsive or respectful than the teacher would like, which offers the teacher an opportunity to explain common caregiving practice and its rationale, and invite the parent to try some of these ideas at home. Repeat this practice of observing the parent’s routine for mealtimes and sleep times.

Adapting to the child 

Take time to find out how a child prefers to be fed, how they like to fall asleep and how they react to loud noises or different kinds of touch. Adapt your practices to the child, rather than expecting the child to meet your expectations or adapt to the setting’s fixed routines. A flexible programme will support you to provide individualised care, as it enables you to follow the child instead of a roster. The aim is for infants and toddlers to develop a sense of security that comes from knowing what to expect of their world, both at home and in the early childhood setting.

Attentive responsiveness 

Caring involves genuine attentiveness. For example, this means watching attentively for cues that the infant is ready for the next mouthful during feeding. This gives the child a role in the feeding process, and demonstrates that you listen to their every communication. Every interaction provides an opportunity to interact in a caring way, which offers children guidance but also freedom to learn and develop. The gentle and considerate handling of and interaction with an infant or toddler also demonstrates your attitude towards them and affects their developing self-concept as someone worthy of respect and consideration.


Primary caregiving is not about focusing so much on a child that you lose sight of your own identity or needs. Care is not effective when the independence of either the child or the caregiver is reduced. Both teacher and child need to be heard by each other and feel able to express wishes, preferences and dislikes. Caregiving is not about meeting children’s needs at whatever cost. Not all needs must be met: sometimes there are other priorities or children’s demands are unreasonable or unsafe. At times, not complying with children’s requests might provide opportunities to build resilience, self-control and tolerance.

Maximising learning  

Recognise the learning opportunities present within caregiving routines and the flow of everyday experience. When you and the infant or toddler are both focused on the same activity of care, it allows for the development of the shared meanings necessary for attuned caregiving. Within attuned interactions, you can regulate and influence infants’ and toddlers’ attention and build their interest, awareness and understanding. There are opportunities for co-operative action, where the infant or toddler contributes to particular tasks during a nappy change, or during feeding, where both parties must synchronise their movements. These are also rich contexts for language development and conversation.

Widening the range of relationships with others 

The safety and security promoted by a predictable relationship with a permanent caregiver ensures that the child is supported to develop relationships with other caregivers and children in the setting. This enables the child to engage in, and learn from, a wider range of interactions. 


Dalli, C., Rockel, J., Duhn, I., & Craw, J. with Doyle, K. (2011). What’s special about teaching and learning in the first years? Investigating the “what, hows and whys” of relational pedagogy with infants and toddlers. Summary report. Teaching and Learning Research Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.tlri.org.nz/sites/default/files/projects/9267_summaryreport.pdf

Edwards, C. P. & Raikes, H. (2002). Extending the dance: Relationship-based approaches to infant/toddler care and education. Young Children, 57(4), 10-17.

Lee, S. Y. (2006). A journey to a close, secure, and synchronous relationships: Infant-caregiver relationship development in a child-care context. Journal of Early Childhood Research 4 (2), 133-151.

Sands, L. (2016). Connections. The First Years Ngā Tau Tuatahi, New Zealand Journal of Infant and Toddler Education. 18(1), 35-8.

By Dr Vicki Hargraves


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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