There was once a time when a new father was free to relax, sit back and enjoy the warm glow of parenthood when his first child was born. It was not to be for lawyer Andrew Lee. Within three hours of his son Alexander's birth, Andrew, 45, was dispatched from the labour ward on a mission that he must not fail: registering his newborn at five of south London's most oversubscribed private nurseries.
His wife Estelle, a former ad director, recalls: "For the last two months of my pregnancy, I had all of the application forms filled in and ready to go on the kitchen worktop, complete with registration fees and fully addressed envelopes. Almost as soon as the baby was born, I sent Andrew straight home to fill in the final missing pieces of information - his name and birth date - and personally hand deliver them to each of the schools. I didn't trust the post."
It may sound like Estelle, 38, who now runs independent parenting magazine Smallish, was quick off the mark. Far from it. In today's cut-throat educational arms race, some might even consider she left it a little late.
Tiger parenting, it seems, now begins before birth, with the pressure to win places at some of the most sought-after pre-schools across the UK so intense that no sooner have some mothers spotted blue lines on their pregnancy tests, than they are filling out applications for their unborn embryos.
For educationalists taking a bigger-picture look at where this is all heading, however, there is dismay. Sue Palmer, former primary head and author of Toxic Childhood, believes the growing incidence of anxiety among children can be traced back to these increasingly early expectations.
"A highly competitive attitude seems to have overtaken our country," she says. "This behaviour suggests that the parents themselves are under extreme pressure, but they could be transferring their own anxieties on to little children."
Certainly, these days, it appears there is a great deal more at stake at nursery school than an opportunity to learn the actions to The Wheels on the Bus. For a growing number of families, sending a toddler to a top nursery, serving up ambitious maths and literacy curriculums, is seen as the first domino tipped in the direction of Oxbridge and Ivy League universities - and the key to securing a top-class career.
At Golders Hill, a private nursery in north London, for example, where children start at the age of two, seven years' worth of results are posted on their website to show how successful they are at getting pupils into the capital's most impenetrable private prep schools. For those prospective parents thinking even further into the future, other nurseries list the number of "alumni" who have made it into Oxbridge this year, glossing over the fact that a lot can happen between learning to count, aged four, and taking the entrance exams at 18.
For one elite institution, Miss Delaney's in Holland Park, families are told to "register from the maternity ward", with some offering official advice that "an application form filed a few hours after birth is the best start".
Despite her husband's mad dash, Estelle still did not get a place at every nursery she applied for. However, her diligence did pay off when Alexander, now four, was accepted at Marmalade Cat, one of south London's most popular schools, which in turn feeds into sought-after prep Thomas's in Clapham, south London's so-called Nappy Valley.
Looking back, Estelle says: "To be honest, if I could have found a nursery that would let us apply before Alexander was born, I would have done. You have to realise that around here, competitive parenting is the norm. At Thomas's, where Alexander is going to next, there were 160 children applying for about 30 places. So I thank my lucky stars that his nursery helped him secure one. It's very nurturing but also academic with a small 'a'. It is not a status thing. It's just the relief of knowing he is on a trusted route."
Nicola Bull, a trainee teacher from Bromley, Kent, thought she was planning ahead when she took her one-year-old daughter, Jessica, for a nursery open day at a local school. But she was in for a shock. "I was chatting to a member of staff when she said: 'You do know that 20 parents have already put their names down before you?"' Nicola, 24, says: "I was stunned. I immediately applied to five nurseries in a panic. It felt like my daughter had barely arrived and parenting was already turning into a stressful race. When I was a child, it seemed you could send your child to playgroups in the local church halls. But they don't seem to exist anymore."
The pressure has even led to a boom for US-style nursery education consultants, who charge up to £350 an hour for their services advising parents how to navigate this treacherous system. Catherine Kelsey, director at Gabbitas Education, one such consultancy, says she gets contacts from mothers with babies still in utero. The pace has dramatically quickened over the past five years in particular, says Kelsey, to the point where it has now become "manic".
"I feel really sorry for mums," she says. Especially as the influx of wealthy foreign parents - particularly Russian and Chinese families who want their children to become UK citizens and receive a prestigious British education - has shifted the market further.
Although there have been murmurs among mothers in Didsbury, south Manchester, that a series of gifts can help secure coveted places at one prestigious private nursery, part of Kelsey's job is to explain to new arrivals that generous donations will not necessarily win their child a spot: "I tell them to offer the new library after the child has been accepted, not before." Morgan Griffiths, Managing Director at Holland Park Tuition & Education Consultants, advises on placements from pre-school up until university level, and says around 40 per cent of the mothers who first approach them for information on nurseries are still pregnant.
He says: "In the same way as you would want advice on your mortgage, parents also want to be sure they making the most informed choices for their children. There are parents who take a five, 10, 15 or even 20-year approach. We call them strategic educational road maps.
"If your goal for your child is Oxford, Cambridge, or a Russell Group university, it's about tracing that back to the very start and looking at what the best route might be."
However, the concerns over the effect tiger mothering is having are growing. If we are putting this much pressure on ourselves to get pre-school right, how will we handle it if our children never meet the high educational expectations we set for them from the off? Sue Palmer sounds a note of warning: "There is a great deal of evidence that this sort of pressure, building up on children over time, can lead to behavioural and emotional difficulties down the line, like self-harm and anorexia."
Indeed, if there are nursery lessons to be taught so early on in life, perhaps they need to be learnt by parents, not by our children.
Tanith Carey is author of 'Taming the Tiger Parent: How to Put Your Child's Well-being First in a Competitive World'.