Ofsted found some children strapped into chairs with no toys and staff struggling to cope with upset children when it inspected the first hour in 45 day nurseries.
A third of nurseries had weaknesses in the way they organised childcare in the first hour ranging from too few staff to children being left for too long without attention.
Inspectors said the best nurseries made sure there were extra staff to help children settle in and parents feel reassured at the start of what can be a very long day.
Not all did, though. One inspector said: "By 8.30 six babies have arrived, five strapped in chairs. None has any toys or resources to play with."
Another said: "Children who were upset when parents left were sometimes left to cry as the phone had to be answered."
The report was particularly critical of the three nurseries which had allowed inspectors to walk in unchallenged. Inspectors also found a nursery in which unvetted staff took children to the toilet, as not enough staff were on duty.
Ofsted said good nurseries not only had sufficient staff but had set up activities at the end of the previous day so the nursery was bright and cheerful with plenty to do when children arrived.
Most nurseries offered breakfast - mostly cereal and toast - but in two children were not offered drinks.
One nursery which opened at 7am was praised for its "impressive child-accessible storage", which enabled children to get out toys and play as soon as they arrived.
But one inspector found such foresight lacking at another setting, where "the planned nursery day begins at 9.30am so that some children are in the nursery for up to two hours before this time".
It recommended that nurseries set up the night before, make sure there is a manager or deputy present who can answer the telephone and monitor the entrance, consider increasing the adult to child ratio above the minimum for the first hour - particularly for children who are new and finding it difficult to settle and make sure that children are given sufficient food and drink.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said it was important children felt settled as soon as they arrived and that parents were reassured their child was happy.
But she said: "It should be noted, however, that while many nurseries would like to increase adult to child ratios, as per the Ofsted suggestion, it is not a viable option for many nurseries.
"For such a change to be implemented, there would need to be increased government investment direct to nurseries - otherwise the larger staff costs would need to be reflected in higher fees for parents."
Early Doors: experiences for children in day care in the first hour of the day. www.ofsted.gov.ukpublications