Nanny versus nursery: which is the better childcare option?

Parents deciding between hiring help and sending their young ones to day care may not be thrilled to learn what the majority of UAE mums recommend

Children's Oasis Nursery assigns two qualified teachers and one or two assistants for each class 
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Parenthood: while it's full of heartwarming cuddles and memorable milestones, the majority of new parents in the 21st century are unable to commit to being full-time, stay-at-home mums and dads. Mothers who are facing the end of their maternity leave and preparing to rejoin the workplace are faced with the daunting task of deciding what to do with their babies. Should they hire a nanny or should they enrol their young ones into day care or nursery?

According to a recent report in The Guardian, in the UK grandparents are the most common (not to mention, low-cost) caretakers of young children, followed by nurseries. However, many UAE residents have arrived in the country without their parents in tow, while some aren't always pleased with their home situations. A mother from Dubai, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me that her mother-in-law looked after her five-month-old baby when she returned to work. "Honestly, it saved us some money, but it ruined my relationship with her," she says. "Having two women who love the same man under one roof is a disaster. In addition, my child was ­continuously spoilt, had sugary things without my approval and spent too much time in front of the TV."

With grandparents out of the question for many working parents, they’re left with two options: nannies or nurseries. 

The benefits and risks associated with nannies

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates --- September 30, 2009 --- Sarah Kim (right) has a live-in nanny, Ester Toldanes (left) for her 16 month-old daughter, Farah Kim-Naghdy. ( Delores Johnson / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  dj_30Sep09_pf_nanny_001.jpg
Sarah Kim, right, hired a live-in nanny Ester Toldanes, left, for her 16-month-old daughter Farah Kim-Naghdy. Delores Johnson for The National

Hired help is part and parcel of life in the UAE. Take a look around any restaurant or shopping mall and you'll spot several families that include a mother, father, a couple of children, and often a third adult, in a neutral-­toned uniform that distinguishes her non-familial position: the nanny.

The average salary for a full-time nanny, not including her visa and living costs, is about Dh2,000 per month, and hiring one is a relatively affordable option for working or even ­non-working mothers. Many value the one-on-one time that a nanny gives a child, as opposed to a creche or nursery with many children in each "class". And, for those with trust issues, it's easier to keep tabs on your nanny through CCTV cameras that can be accessed from your phone. Some nannies' job descriptions even include helping out with the cooking and housework – a bonus for working parents.

While it may sound convenient and cost-effective, not all mothers jump on the nanny bandwagon, however. Some families who relocate to the UAE from western countries, aren't accustomed to having a third person living under their roof. For them, nannies, like cooks and drivers, are simply not the norm, and the legalities, such as arranging sponsorship and visas, may be a deterrent. It's also an added responsibility. Mothers who resist hiring a nanny often do so to avoid looking after yet another person in their home. Some, wary of rumoured thefts, affairs and runaways, are simply not able to place trust in a complete stranger to look after their child. Others question whether would-be nannies are trained in any professional capacity, or have reliable credentials or certification, to care for children.

Katja Quraysh, a member of the Real Mums of Dubai Facebook group, points out that occasionally the word nanny is misused altogether. "Sometimes people are not native English speakers and simply use the word nanny instead of babysitter, rather than using it in terms of someone who is specifically trained for that purpose," she says

The advantages and limitations of nurseries

Nurseries enables young children to socialise with their peers 
Nurseries enables young children to socialise with their peers 

Nurseries, on the other hand, are licensed by the Ministry of Education, employ qualified teachers and are subject to regular official checks. Most mothers who prefer nurseries over nannies are attracted to the prospect of their children socialising with their peers. Laura Rotariu from Dubai works part-time, but didn’t want to hire a nanny for her son. “We chose to enrol him [into a nursery] so he can have more social interaction and fun activities, which I couldn’t organise at home every day,” she says. “I prefer him spending time with other children, having a lot of activities and learning in fun ways,” she says, adding that her child’s nursery doesn’t allow junk food or sweets to be brought into the premises in lunch boxes.

While the concept of day care might sound appealing, it does present its own risks. An unwell baby can be a nightmare to deal with, and in closed groups, young children are exposed to germs and illness. If your children do fall sick, they must recover before returning, causing parents to arrange for days off from work without any warning. "My daughter started at four months in the nursery and she had flu twice in two months. So, we took her out and hired a nanny – best decision," says mum Beverlyn Tapia-Todorov.

For five days a week, five hours per day, enrolling your child into a nursery can set you back by Dh4,000 (including meals) per month – and that doesn't include the registration or medical fees. 

Aside from illness, there are other inherited preconceptions about the dangers associated with day care. A 1986 study (Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern?) found that babies put in day care were at an increased risk of developing aggressive and disobedient behaviour later in life. Research conducted in 1996 (Effective Provision of Pre-School Education) also showed that children who were previously in nurseries had aggressive tendencies when they started school at age five, but noted that the effect would wear off by age 11.

Then there are the costly fees. For five days a week, five hours per day, enrolling your child into a nursery can set you back by Dh4,000 (including meals) per month – and that doesn't include the registration or medical fees. The most common complaint about nurseries, however, is that their timings don't cater to many working parents' needs. School holidays, for instance, are more prevalent than days off from work, so when children are out of school, working parents must arrange for external childcare. In some countries, schools arrange day camps during holidays, however, this isn't common practice in the UAE. As many mothers point out, nursery timings hardly ever match up with office hours – sometimes children are released early in the afternoon, which isn't compatible with most full-time jobs.

"Even a child enrolled in nursery needs to have supervision after nursery is closed for the day, because parents are still in the office," says Quraysh, who leaves her house at 7am to commute to work and is back at 7pm. Her husband also leaves at 7am, but takes the children to nursery, goes to work, collects them in the afternoon and takes them home, returns to his office and then comes home at about 10pm. "With no family members here to help, as they are working as well, it is only possible with having a nanny [too]," she explains.

What mums want

As my own daughter approaches the one-year milestone, I am thinking about returning to a more stable working environment, and questioning which service would be best: nanny or nursery. Following a poll conducted with more than 500 UAE mothers on The Real Mums of Dubai Facebook group, it looks like the answer is going to take more financial planning than I anticipated. While 25 per cent vouched for nannies and 30 per cent opted for nurseries, the majority, 45 per cent, stated that both a nanny and nursery, simultaneously, are essential childcare components for working parents.