Working Parents: When a nursery is best for your baby

Safe, happy days in the company of other small children can be ideal. Sarah Jewell reports
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When Karen Richards recently went back to work, she decided to leave her 17-month-old daughter in a nursery because she felt it was "the safest option"; she felt more secure about leaving her baby there than "in a stranger's house".

Karen's baby settled in well, but for a child to be happy in a nursery it is essential that there are enough staff per child to provide the intimate care that all children, particularly babies and toddlers, require. All private day nurseries have to adhere to the Children Act 1989, which states that there should be one adult for every eight children aged from three to five, one adult to every four children aged two to three, and one adult for every three children under two. Local authority nurseries can set their own staffing levels. Susan Hay, managing director of Nurseryworks, which has branches around London, advises parents to "check that these staffing ratios are in place all day long, even during breaks and when staff are sick". She adds, "it is not just a question of numbers; it is also about the knowledge and maturity of those adults to do the job."

Jenny Rabin, who worked for 10 years in state nurseries, says that a broad range of activities is important, but children should "be free to choose what to do rather than be directed all the time. Very young children in particular need to flit around and do their own thing in an atmosphere of safety." And since they tend to get very tired there should be provision for rest as well as play. "Children should be allowed to flop on to the floor on a cushion and take a cat nap."

Many nurseries assign each child to a particular person, and this is particularly helpful when settling the child in. Janet Francis felt that at two-and-a-half her daughter, Maddy, was ready for a change of stimulus, and decided to put her in a nursery full time. The first couple of weeks were difficult, but in the third week Maddy "latched on to one of the nursery workers, and from then on it was plain sailing and she did tremendously well." Janet was happy with the nursery because she felt that Maddy was having great fun and was learning in a disciplined way: "All the activities - water play, sand play, painting, sticking, singing, reading - were planned and prepared for, and there was a level of discipline that I approved of; the children were expected to help clear up after playing, and realised that things don't get put away by magic."

The cost of nursery care varies enormously. Maddy attended a council nursery, but as both her parents were working they had to pay on a means- tested basis. Private nursery fees can be as much as pounds 220 a week.

All day nurseries have to be inspected once a year, but, as a recent Panorama programme showed, this does not prevent unacceptable behaviour by staff. Anna Roberts took her six-month-old daughter away from a nursery because, she says, "The staff kept changing, and I hated leaving her with a different person every day. But the final straw came when I saw a nursery nurse writing up the daily diary for my baby first thing in the morning."

It may not always be easy to find a suitable nursery, but, as Jenny Rabin says, if you do find a good one, "it is a great environment for a child."

British Association for Early Childhood Education (0171-739 7594; National Private Day Nurseries Association (01484 546502).