Nursery Safety: Choose Volunteers Carefully

Protect the smallest members of your church

It’s a typical Sunday morning in your church nursery. Your volunteers are all present and accounted for. The babies are checked in and happily playing. Music plays softly in the background. What could possibly go wrong?

Hopefully nothing. But, in the blink of an eye, little fingers can get shut in doors, roly-poly babies can roll right off changing tables, busy workers can trip over toys—or other toddlers. And that’s just the beginning.

While risks abound, the good news is that with a little foresight, the right planning, and a lot of training, your church nursery can be a safe haven for God’s children as well as for the volunteers who care for them.

Choose Workers Wisely

Children’s ministry volunteers can be scarce, and it may be tempting to allow anyone who shows interest to serve in the church nursery. Doing so opens the door to people who might neglect, or even abuse, the children in their care. That’s why you should carefully screen all nursery staff and volunteers.

“Church members who are interested in helping in Discovery Island must first attend a ministry tour where they are asked to complete a volunteer application form,” says Anita Weldon, director of children’s ministries at NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Michigan. Discovery Island serves an average of 225 infants and toddlers (ages 6 weeks to 3 years) each Sunday morning. Each application is carefully reviewed to determine how long the applicant has attended NorthRidge Church, and what other areas of ministry he or she is involved in.

NorthRidge also invests in criminal background checks for each Discovery Island applicant. Volunteers who pass through these initial steps are then called in for a personal interview with Discovery Island staff. Weldon says the process is time consuming but the benefits far outweigh the costs of time and money.

“The staff hours invested in applicant screening and the cost of each background check is minimal compared to the potential costs—financial and emotional—of one negative incident,” says Weldon. Consider these five steps for screening nursery staff and volunteers:

  1. Require applicants to attend your church for at least six months.
  2. Review written applications.
  3. Check references.
  4. Conduct personal interviews.
  5. Perform criminal background checks on all staff and volunteers.


Provide Superior Supervision

As a church, you need to be concerned not only about the safety of the children, but also the reputations of your volunteer leaders, teachers, and workers. By following careful supervision procedures, you not only make it more difficult for abuse to occur, you also make it easier to refute false allegations.

  • Follow the two-adult rule. At least two adults should staff the nursery, no matter how few children are in it. This prevents the isolation that can lead to misconduct allegations or situations.
  • Limit teenage volunteers. Young people can be a great help in the nursery, but they shouldn’t be in charge of it. Allow teenagers to work alongside at least two properly screened adults.
  • Enlist hall monitors. Someone should check each nursery room to make sure it’s properly staffed and running smoothly. This person could also monitor hallways and exits, help newcomers find their way around, and help supervise restroom breaks.
  • Require open doors. People should be able to see into the nursery at all times. This prevents the isolation that could lead to misconduct. Options include leaving the door open (with a gate or half-door across the bottom to prevent escapes), installing a window, or monitoring the nursery area with video cameras.
  • Have enough help. To properly care for each child, experts recommend the following child/teacher ratios:
    • Infants (0-6 months): Two babies to one adult
    • Crawlers (6-12 months): Three crawlers to one adult
    • Toddlers (12-18 months): Four toddlers to one adult
    • Walkers (18-36 months): Five or six walkers to one adult

For their safety, children should be grouped by developmental stages. In addition, your volunteers will be more likely to come back if they don’t feel overwhelmed by too many children.

Follow Safe Procedures

Having written procedures helps your children’s ministry provide consistent care, even with a rotating staff of volunteers. Parents know how their children will be treated while in your care, and you have a written record of the safety measures in place. Procedures to consider including in your plan:

  • Register children. On their first visit to the nursery, ask parents to fill out a form listing their name, address, and contact information, along with their child’s name. The form should note allergies or any special needs the child has. Each session, keep an attendance log noting which children were placed in the nursery.
  • Use a claim system. You need a system that ensures that each child leaves the nursery with the right person. Without one, it’s too easy for a non-custodial parent or other unauthorized person to abduct a child, simply by showing up at a nursery door. Some options include sign-in/sign-out forms, two-part nametags, pagers, or computerized bar code scanners.
  • Supervise restrooms. A nursery worker should never be alone with a child in a restroom. Have two teachers escort a group of children to the restroom. If a single child needs to go, have the volunteer stand outside with the door propped open.

Other important procedures include dealing with sanitation, housekeeping, emergencies, injuries, discipline, and reporting child abuse. Consider keeping your procedures in a binder in the nursery, where workers can reference them easily.

Train All Workers

Training is the only way to ensure that all of your workers know your procedures and can apply them consistently.

“Screening and training volunteers is one of our steps in providing a safe and secure environment for children of all ages ,” says Weldon. “Volunteers at NorthRidge Church are required to attend a ministry tour where they are given general information about volunteering and the requirements associated with that commitment. We also conduct annual training meetings and background checks as a standard practice with all volunteers.”

Caring for other people’s children requires a higher degree of accountability than caring for one’s own. In many states, childcare workers are responsible for recognizing and reporting signs of physical and emotional abuse. Furthermore, the church can be legally liable if children are injured while they’re in the church's care. It’s important to provide both initial and ongoing training for all of your children’s ministry staff and volunteers.

  • Initial training. Teach volunteers your church’s policies and procedures. Require them to sign a form stating that they understand your church’s child safety plan and agree to follow it.
  • Follow-up training. Offer refresher courses periodically. Some recommended areas to cover include emergency procedures, CPR, first aid, and recognizing signs of neglect and abuse.

Keep It Baby-Proof

When was the last time you inspected your nursery from a toddler’s vantage point? Have you inspected your equipment lately for sharp edges or broken pieces? Are you sure all toys are age-appropriate and have no small pieces that could choke a child?

If you’re not sure what else to look for, be sure to download Brotherhood Mutual’s Nursery Safety Checklist and other resources. Inspect your church’s nursery on a regular basis to make sure the cribs are in good shape, all electrical cords are out of reach, you're using the safest type of rocking chair, and all cleaning supplies are stored in locked cabinets.

Make It Pay Off

Great nurseries don’t just happen. They’re developed. It takes time, but it is well worth the investment. You’ll never find a parent who says, “My church does too much for my children.” Don’t wait for an accident to happen before you realize your nursery isn’t as safe as it should be. Do it now, and let the little children come.

Download our Nursery Safety Checklist >>