Night nurseries have been popular in Finland for over 20 years and are now beginning to pop up in the UK. Becky Pugh writes about the growing need for all hours childcare...
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The search for convenient, affordable and high-quality childcare is a constant struggle for working parents. The challenge is even thornier if your hours – and those of your partner – are inflexible, unsociable or unpredictable. Without local relatives or the money for a full-time nanny, the task can be impossible.
Research proves that working habits in the UK are increasingly unconventional. According to a recent report by the Resolution Foundation think tank, at least one partner in 75 per cent of families on low-to-middle incomes works outside the hours of 8am to 6pm. Also, the UK has the highest proportion in the EU of employees regularly working at night. Suffice it to say that the need for out-of-hours childcare is growing fast.
A controversial solution is cropping up around the UK – in the form of the night nursery. Yes, established nurseries are starting to offer overnight care to meet the changing needs of working parents. Where once nurseries were open only during standard working hours, usually from around 8am until around 6pm, they are now welcoming children around the clock.
Before you recoil in horror, imagining a barren Victorian workhouse, picture the following scene. En route to your night shift, you stop by your child’s nursery, kiss him goodbye and hand him over to a familiar, smiling member of staff. Your child has a snack and a warm drink, brushes his teeth at a miniature basin and changes – or is changed into – the pyjamas he has brought with him.
The nursery worker tucks your child and his favourite teddy bear into a freshly made-up cot or toddler bed and reads him a story. She dims the bedroom lights, turns on the monitor and tiptoes down the hall – only to check on your son every 20 minutes throughout the night.
When he wakes the next morning, your child has had an uninterrupted night’s sleep, in cosy surroundings, watched over by a loving professional. Oliver Twist it certainly is not.
In Sweden, the first night nurseries were set up 20 years ago and are a popular form of childcare. In that country, there is now out of hours care in 123 out of 290 municipal areas, and it is used by almost 5,000 children. Bear in mind, too, that Sweden is often ranked among the best countries in the world in which to raise a family.
One of the pioneers of overnight care here in the UK is Natalie Salawa, who runs Russell Hill Road Day Nursery in Surrey. Her nursery is now registered to provide night-time care for up to 12 children per evening (her daytime provision caters for up to 56). One night – which is from 7pm until 7am – at Russell Hill Road costs £60.85 for under-twos and £55.52 for over-twos.
Natalie tells me: “I believe our parents choose our nursery because of the flexibility of service that we are able to provide.
“Those parents who regularly use our night-time facilities include a flying doctor and cabin-crew staff, both of whom could be away for up to three nights at a time and use our facilities for that entire period.
“We also have hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, who generally stay for just a night. Many of our regular daytime clients use our out-of-hours care, too, on an ad hoc basis.”
Sue Palmer, an expert in child development and the author of the bestselling Toxic Childhood, says: “It is so difficult for modern parents, juggling work and childcare, and there are sometimes emergencies when one has to find an overnight carer. But all the research shows that little children don’t benefit from institutional care.
“When they have to be left with a substitute carer at night-time, it's best to find a familiar trusted adult such as a family member or regular babysitter.
“Mothers whose children regularly play together can sometimes organise a ‘sleep-over’ to cope with this sort of situation. I’d definitely look for this kind of care, rather than a night-time nursery.”
Whatever your instincts about night nurseries, we can all agree on one thing: that the decision about who will take care of your children while you work is among the most gut-wrenching you’ll ever make. We are all just trying to do our best, right? Well, if you make sure that your little people feel safe, warm and loved, I don’t think you can go too far wrong.