It’s one of the toughest moments for any parent: handing your child over to someone else for the first time and trusting they’ll take care of them. Stop and think about it too long, and it’s a wonder any of us manages to get past the conflicting opinions, anxiety and information-overload to make it out the door. Add to that the unique challenges and environment parents face in the UAE and it’s little wonder confusion sets in.

Experts have debated all sides of the issue for decades, advocating everything from making sure kids get stimulation outside the home, to warning we’re only storing up trouble by dropping a child off at daycare before they’ve turned two. Jay Belsky’s 1986 study, Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern? set the debate alight (along with many working-parents’ ire), by warning that babies in daycare could go on to show increased levels of aggression in later life.

Since then, a steady stream of studies have muddied the waters further. Oxford University’s Kathy Sylva’s research in 2004 found that these raised aggression-levels in kids who had been in nursery disappeared by the time they were 11. And in 2009, the Family Childcare Network found no link between the amount of childcare experienced by a baby and behaviour problems at 36 months. In short: the research is conflicted, and confusing.

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In the UAE, childcare can seem all the more complicated. Maternity laws mean mothers are often faced with returning to work just six weeks after giving birth, and children tend to join the school system here much earlier compared to other countries. Often, family support systems such as grandparents aren’t available to expat parents, while having a nanny at home is an affordable option. With so many options and opinions to digest, how are parents meant to come to an informed decision that suits their family?

According to Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, it’s all about the setting. She says:“While infants thrive in the care of their mothers (and fathers!) in the first year – it is such a critical time in their development and the formation of secure attachments – that is not always possible, and the impact of nursery care from a young age does not have to be negative. It is very dependent on the environment and how the integration into that environment is managed.”

Ages and stages: What’s right for you?

0-24 months

With just 45 days’ maternity allowance in the UAE, heading back to the office when your baby is still very small is unavoidable for many mothers. And without grandparents to turn to, the options for most of us tend to be nursery or nanny, with clear benefits for each depending on your situation.

0-24 months: Help at home

Having a trusted helper at home who knows baby’s routine inside out can offer busy mums peace of mind as they juggle work and home.

Dr Logan says:“Families often have their nanny in place before or very soon after a baby arrives and so they are able to provide consistency for the child. If your nanny is engaged and interactive, they can be a wonderful caregiver to your child. Many nannies will make links with others in your neighbourhood who also take care of children, which can mean your child gets some social time too. Children are innately social, but at such a young age they do not need huge amounts of social stimulation and will get plenty from an engaged and attuned caregiver.” 

Nannies also allow for that one-to-one care that is important for forming the foundations of secure attachment, adds Principal Trish King of Smart Start Kindergarten Dubai. “At an age when children are developing key social bonds, it’s important for them to feel safe, and this normally happens one person at a time. However, it all comes down to the caregiver’s level of childcare experience and ability to provide a stimulating and nurturing environment.”

Juman Karaman, author of Early Childhood Education in Dubai, a policy brief for the Dubai School of Government, points out that 58% of children under three are left in the care of untrained housemaids for 30-70 hours per week, which exceeds the duration recommended by major studies. “The development of a child’s first language is critical during the first year of life,” says Juman. “Parental awareness of their key role during that first year is crucial. So, too, is their understanding of the influence of maids who speak a different language.” 

 When choosing a nanny in the UAE there are plenty of options, from agencies who can match the right person to your family, to Facebook groups like Mary Poppins Dubai, where you can read about recommended nannies from fellow UAE parents. Interviews are a crucial opportunity to ask all the questions you might have, and to let candidates know how your home runs. It’s also a chance to see how a prospective nanny connects with your baby. Always ask for references and conduct trial days if possible. However, child counsellor and founder of MindfulParenting.ae Joanne Jewell emphasises the importance of hiring someone who has both the skills and the freedom to nurture and stimulate your child: “My concern is that many nannies are expected to look after the children while also maintaining a full housekeeping role, and I don’t think this is realistic. If you choose to have a nanny you must be realistic about their duties and ensure they understand where their priorities should be during the day.”

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0-24 months: Off to nursery

While many experts baulk at the idea of sending small babies into a nursery setting, others argue there can be real benefits. “There’s a solid base of evidence that suggests putting a child under-two in full-time nursery may have some adverse behavioural and emotional effects,” says Kamal Dasani, senior occupational therapist at Riverston Children’s Centre and owner of TherapyBox Australia. “These effects are modest and accompanied by some, equally modest, positive effects on language and cognitive skills. The relatively small statistical impact makes it hard for a parent to assess what’s best, but I feel that the right nursery can be a stimulating and nurturing experience for children under two who are at a stage where they are eager to participate in new activities.”

Nursery not only provides children with social interaction, it can also be reassuring for parents to know their children are in the hand of experts with the sort of experience in child-rearing that perhaps even they themselves may not have yet. “It offers structured days filled with stimulating activities, meaning children may have a better sleep routine and eat more as they are busier through the day,” continues Kamal. “Parents also gain an objective review of their child and if a child has additional needs, nursery teachers can steer parents in the right direction early on, which is key to success in therapy.” 

However, Smart Start’s Trish King has some tips of things to look for in a prospective nursery for your under-two-year-old. “In under-twos, quality care and attention should be prioritised over socialising and stimulation. If a child is left to cry or fed late because other children need assistance, it could impact how they choose to communicate in the future. It is also important that nurseries offer consistency in their childcare provision. Children need the opportunity to attach in order to feel safe in their new environment.”

Dr Rose Logan agrees: “Consistency is so important as it allows that internal model of secure attachment to evolve. That doesn’t mean only one person has to do everything for that child but that there is a key person who the child can expect to engage with each time they attend nursery. Ideally, a child would have a key worker who knows their routines, likes and dislikes and with whom they develop a relationship.”

As far as possible, Trish also recommends that there is a balance of nursery and parent care when children are so young: “If a child is in nursery numerous hours a day and there is no other option, it’s important that parents try to provide as many opportunities for engaged bonding and attachment at home as possible.”

Read more Nursery nerves: How to prepare your child to start pre-school

2-3 years

By the time children get to between two and three years old, the benefits of nursery and hanging out with friends their own age can be significant as play steps up a gear.

2-3 years: Finding the right nursery

Dr Logan says: “By this age a child’s play will have become more complex and they will begin to engage and play with their peers more as opposed to the parallel play typically seen in under twos.

“I think the problems arise when there is too much of a ‘one size fits all’ approach at nurseries. When you visit nurseries, check that children are cared for in age-appropriate groups and engaged in age-appropriate activities with space for quiet time as well as physical activity. Talk to the staff about your child and their personality and how they will facilitate their integration. Making the integration gradual will help the child to feel secure and reduce separation anxiety.”           

With so many nurseries to choose from, take the time to research the options that suit you; a good place to start is with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (khda.gov.ae) – although it does not regulate nurseries in the same way as it does schools – or reading material such as Your Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Nursery in the UAE. Recommendations from friends and colleagues can also help, as well as taking a tour of the facilities. Most nurseries will offer induction days to ease your child into their new routine. “There are a huge variety of nurseries in the UAE but few regulations in place,” points out Smart Start Kindergarten’s Trish King. “Many have wonderful facilities and access to endless learning resources, but it’s essential for them to have experienced and qualified staff in place. Health and safety and quality of staff should be the backbone of every nursery in the UAE. ”

This is backed up by research cited by Juman Karaman for the Dubai School of Government, which found that: “Of all the elements likely to raise the quality and outcomes of an early childhood education system, the quality of the staff employed has the greatest influence.” It’s worth checking out the treatment of the staff as well as the credentials of the teachers at your potential nursery since, “research consistently shows the link between strong training and support of staff – including appropriate pay and conditions – and the quality of early childhood education services,” says Juman.

While you may need to investigate a bit, Sophie Oakes, early years consultant for the education consultancy Gabbitas, believes parents should be reassured that there are many excellent nurseries in the UAE. “The quality of Early Years learning in the UAE is fantastic,” she says. “There are lots of different types of nursery and it is worth doing your research. From EYFS to Montessori and Reggio Emilia to a Creative curriculum, there is much to choose from.”

Read more Diary of a Dubai dad: Is my child too young for school?

2-3 years: Making it work at home

For parents who prefer the idea of keeping little ones at home with their trusted nanny, or who are combining both nursery and nanny but are anxious kids are stimulated once they come home, there are plenty of options to explore. “If you feel your nanny is not engaging your child, it might be worth considering that they might need more stimulation, or your nanny may need more support and education around the importance of play and stimulation,”says Dr Logan.

 Thankfully there are lots of places to turn to for help, with a good selection of training courses for nannies in everything from first aid to the importance of structured play. With some lasting just a few hours and able to be completed on weekends or remotely, your nanny will also benefit from training certificates and the chance to add some new strings to her bow. For those worried about costs, mobile app Rise launched this year and offers a wealth of affordable ways for nannies to improve their skills. Available on Google Play and iOS, you can download it and immediately access childcare and educational courses, from Dh50 to Dh200. Rise works with international and local experts to offer courses in a variety of areas, such as building a caring and nurturing environment, instilling healthy eating, understanding child safety and supporting learning and child development.

3 years and onwards

3 years and onwards: School, nursery or home?

For many of us, packing your kids off to school at three is a scary thought, but in the UAE, unlike a lot of countries in Europe, that’s exactly what happens as many children enter the school system at Foundation Stage 1, around their third birthday. While FS1 isn’t compulsory, kids already in school are automatically guaranteed a place in FS2, so there could be fewer places up for grabs if you delay until your child turns four. But, with almost 20 schools opening up in Dubai alone in 2017, there’s far less competition for spaces than there used to be, and many parents choose to keep their kids at nursery or home a little longer.

“Quite often there is a lot of pressure from the schools for parents to accept a place when their child is three so as to guarantee the place,” says Sophie Oakes of Gabbitas. “In an ideal world it would be great if the schools were just schools (and not nurseries as well). There is much to be said for keeping a child in the small, nurturing environment of a nursery school until they are ready for the next step. Every child is different, and while one may rise to the challenge of a larger environment, many need a little more time to grow.”

3 years and onwards: Striking the right balance

However, for many parents keen to introduce their children into the school setting along with other kids, a gentle, play-based approach can help ease the transition and make the experience rewarding for all.

Rebecca Mundy, assistant headteacher, head of foundation stage at Kings School Al Barsha, Dubai, believes an individualised, play-based approach can work very well. She says: “There is a lot of research into the advantages of children entering the school system at an older age, and in countries such as Finland, their curriculum lends itself well to a more relaxed early years experience.

 “It is key that we do not ‘push’ children to take steps in their learning and development that they are not yet ready for. This is why is it so important to select an early-years setting which supports a play-based approach. If children are given a balance of play-based learning, alongside high expectations of independence and behaviour, they should be able to achieve at their own pace, whilst also meeting those key developmental milestones.”

Read mire Should you be negotiating your child’s UAE school fees?

The importance of doing research into all of the options and considering the right questions is emphasised by Cheryl Murree, assistant principal, GEMS World Academy. She says: ‘’Do your research, ask questions, go on school tours and talk to people about your child and what’s important to you.

‘’During assessments that engage the child and involve discussions with the parents, there are opportunities to clarify what may be the best environment and programme for your child, whether that means nursery or a move on to FS1. Both are safe, nurturing and holistic in their approach.

‘’Possible considerations when comparing these options may include certification level of staff, roles and responsibilities of staff especially teaching assistants, curriculum exposure, range of facilities, resources and school events, school location, transportation services and the pick-up/ drop-off schedule.”

3 years and onwards: Making the right choice

Ultimately, at any age and stage, the key is to find the right fit for your family – whether that’s through a bit of trial and error until you find a solution you’re happy with, or taking the best bits from multiple approaches to make sure both you and your little one are happy.

“I encourage parents to make a conscious choice about what is right for you and your child, and not feel pressured

to make a decision based on what other families do or because of pressure from the school or nursery you are considering,” says Joanne Jewell of MindfulParenting.ae. “This can feel hard, and it will be the first of many hard decisions you will make for your children throughout their formative years.”

Whether you pick a nursery, nanny, school, or choose to stay at home, feeling confident about the standard of care is key, says Trish King:“The location of where it all happens becomes irrelevant and rather the quality of the care provider(s) is the pivotal factor in whether a child is able to flourish in their environment.”

Dr Logan of The LightHouse Arabia has some words of reassurance: “There are millions of children all around the word growing up in all sorts of caregiving situations and there is no right way! Take your time, meet with nannies and nurseries, and speak with your employer to see what kind of flexibility or support they can offer. If you have family around, speak to them and see what they think might work as they know you and your child better than most. Whatever your decision, it does not have to be final! If it is not working, you can always make adjustments or try another option.”

Read more School gate heartache in Dubai

Question Time

To help you reach childcare decisions, Cheryl Murree, assistant principal, GEMS World Academy, gives some pointers

‘’The wide range of educational choices can quickly shift parents’ feelings from excitement to overwhelmed and exhausted as they are inundated and overloaded with information. Jot down the answers on sticky notes to some important questions to help narrow things down.’’

  • What do you want for your child?
  • Is interaction with other children important?
  • How many hours would you like your child to attend a childcare setting?
  •  Is securing placement in a particular school a factor?
  •  How important are budgetary constraints?
  •  Why are these factors important to you?
  • What do you need to know about options that meet your needs? Who can help?
  • Which options will you eliminate and continue to explore? Why?
  • What questions do you still have?
  •  What are the deciding factors?
  • What final steps do you need to take to feel confident and trust your decision?

Childcare around the world

How some countries are taking a novel approach to looking after children

Norway
Children up to the age of six attend kindergartens in a system that helps parents return to work. The Norwegian government provides funding and there’s a price-cap to keep the costs down.

France
French children up to the age of three are cared for in crèches run by the local government with fees set according to parents’ earnings. Located in special childcare centres, there’s also part-time care and childminding support. This makes managing childcare easier for working parents.

Canada
Parent cooperatives are a form of childcare where parents volunteer or play a role. One success story is the Dandelion Daycare Co-op, which started as an informal arrangement between parents to share caring responsibilities so they could continue to work.

Australia
The Australian government is piloting a scheme that gives subsidies to parents to enable them to use nannies. To be eligible, families must earn less than around Dh700,000 a year, and must be isolated from mainstream childcare options or have difficulty managing childcare arrangements.

Further reading

The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl

Held up as one of the world’s best models when it comes to childcare, this book covers childcare in Denmark, including how play is essential for development and wellbeing.

Child Care Today: Getting It Right for Everyone by Penelope Leach

A candid look at the full spectrum and quality of childcare options around the world

Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under Fives by David Gettman

A look at the philosophy and method to Montessori with a step-by-step guide to learning activities most commonly used with under-fives.

Photos by Istock/Shutterstock