Yes, there are horror stories. But handing over with confidence is the perfect start to a working mother's day, says Diana Appleyard
For parents who work full-time with unpredictable hours, a nanny is often the best option for looking after young children. The problem comes with the fact that almost anyone can call themselves a nanny, and there is no national registration system, as there now is with childminders.

In practice that can mean that you get an absolute gem - or you can end up with the nanny from hell.

I have employed nannies for both of my children, ranging from the hopeless to the excellent. In the first instance, it is always worth checking to see if the person replying to your advert has the NNEB qualification, which means they should have some idea about stimulating and caring for young children. But perhaps even more important is to check references, preferably by quizzing at least two previous employers.

The first nanny I employed for my eldest daughter was a registered NNEB - but was the doziest girl I've ever met. I employed her only because everyone else who responded to our ad was even worse. As a young mother who needs to go back to work to keep the family going financially, there may be pressure to find someone quickly - and often you can end up clutching at straws. It's also an emotional period leaving a baby for the first time, so you always want to believe the best about someone.

The regime with this nanny was short-lived. My daughter, then six months, screamed continually from the moment she saw me putting my coat on, and rarely wanted to be held by Susan. That is a bad sign. One day I returned unexpectedly, to find Susan lying on the sofa with Neighbours on full- blast, and my daughter screaming upstairs. I could tell from the redness around her eyes that she had been crying for some time. The final straw came when my husband returned home, to find her shouting at our daughter. It makes me shudder to think about it now, but hopefully my daughter was so young she will not suffer any ill-effects.

A friend of mine also had a bad experience. Every day when she returned home, her baby daughter wolfed down two full bottles of milk. It later transpired that the girl she had employed to look after her daughter had not bother to feed her at all during the day.

Those are the horror stories. On the plus side, we have just finished employing, on a daily, living-out basis, the most wonderful nanny in the world. If you are working full-time in a fairly stressful job, there is nothing more blissful in the early morning than handing over your children, in whatever state of undress they might be, to a calm smiling presence. The drawback with private nurseries and child-minders in my view, is that you have to get your child dressed, fed and looking reasonably clean before you leave the house. The house in also in whatever state of chaos you left it in when you return, tired, at the end of the day.

With Jenny, I could tear out of the house, knowing that my children would then be fed a healthy breakfast (she was much stricter than me about food), taken to school and nursery perfectly groomed and brushed (something again I wasn't too good at) - and that, best of all, the house would be tidy, the children's clothes ironed and the children themselves glowing pinkly after their bath. All I would have to do would be read them a story (in their very tidy bedrooms) and plonk down on the sofa with a glass of white wine. A good nanny is as concerned with stimulating as with caring for the child. Jenny built up a store-cupboard of glue, paper, shiny stars and Plasticine for my three-year-old, and every afternoon after nursery they would sit down for several hours to make paintings and models. As a busy mother, it is always my abiding shame that I have so little time and patience for that kind of activity - there always seems to be something more pressing to do. But for Jenny, entertaining Charlotte was the number one priority.

In the school holidays, there were trips to the park and to the zoo, and she built up a network of contacts with other local nannies with children the same age. In some ways it looked like she had the perfect day - chatting with friends while the children played, and then a trip to the park or MacDonald's. But as every mother knows, looking after a three-year-old all day is no picnic.

The drawback to nannies is of course the expense. A friend in London who has twins is paying upwards of pounds 1,000 a month for her nanny. That is a hefty whack out of any salary, especially if you then go on to have a third child. A lot of people opt for a nanny-share, as we did for a brief time with Jenny and a friend who had just had a baby. But in that situation there can be conflicts - whose child has priority, which house do they stay in - and whose ironing gets done?

There are also limits on the number of responsibilities a nanny will take on. Many will not do housework or ironing, other than the child's clothes. In many ways that is fair, and we always employed a cleaner as well, so Jenny did not feel she had to vacuum the entire house. But it is reasonable to expect that the nanny will tidy the children's rooms, wash their clothes and keep communal areas like the kitchen clean and tidy.

The greatest test of course is how your child responds to the person. Both my daughters adored Jenny, the three-year-old especially. In a way it made me sad to see how happily she ran to her each morning, and that while I was at work I knew she was noticing all the new little things Charlotte was learning, and the funny things she said.

Both my children are at school now, so I don't need a nanny any more. But Jenny still writes to the children, and carries their pictures in her handbag. I know when my children look back on their childhood, she will hold a special place for them bothn