As a mother, this topic is something that has been occupying my thoughts for a long time now, and has contributed significantly to the greying of the few strands of hair left on my pate. So, after so much of my brain (and my so-called youth) has been eaten up in this worry, I still haven't really figured out the answer :-) but I think I am close.
When I started working, DD was only 5 months old. And I knew I had my MIL staying with me for a couple of months at least. So I decided to go with a nanny and registered with some agencies that are known to provide reliable nannies. The process of hunting for a nanny and the problems that I had with the succession of nannies that DD had (the current one is Nanny #3) are fodder for a separate post - or maybe even a series of posts. But things were chugging along and there was nothing major to complain of. So far, so good... till a few months ago, a time came when I had no family at home - no one from my side and no MIL. Since I knew this situation would arise, I had started DD on daycare for 3 hrs a day. And then, the nanny had to bring her home and take care of her till I came back from work.
The current nanny (I will call her N3) is quite good in terms of taking care of DD, cleanliness and all the basic criteria. And yet, I have nagging fears at the back of my mind. And so I opted for a few months of work-from-home and then some flexible timings, all because I couldn't convince myself to leave DD alone with N3 for long durations of time. Whenever I come home from work, I always find DD playing happily, well-fed and in clean clothes.. and I sometimes really think I am raving mad. N3 is good with DD, DD adores her, and things are fine.. and here I am, trying to obsess about problems that do not exist.
Apart from her official days off, N3 bunks at least a day or two each month. She has taken week-long sick leaves, calling in sick once with chikungunya, and another time with viral fever (Luckily both when MIL was around, so I didn't end up taking lots of leave myself). She has abysmal standards of punctuality. If I expected her to come in at 9.30 AM, she has always arrived 20 mts late , never on time. But I have always managed to get a hold on my temper and put up with her, for the single reason that she is good with my child, and that, to me, mattered the most.
2 weeks back, N3 called me one day and told me she was down with Malaria and would not be in for a couple of days. This time, I had to take leave from work to care for DD till she came back, which was 10 days later. And these 10 days gave me a lot of time to think. I tried to compare a reasonably good nanny (N3, in this context) to a good daycare system, seeing which provides better benefits to me and DD. And here is my comparison summary for anyone who cares to read thru:
1) Having a nanny is better in that the child gets personalized care, as against the "institution care" provided by a daycare center. I feel that the personalized care is probably quite important early in childhood (below age 1). The daycare is kind of "institutional-care" and obviously has the merits and demerits of that.
2) As the child grows, one has to be aware of the influences that the nanny has on the child, in terms of language, behavior and many other aspects. For eg, currently DD spends 3 hrs in daycare and 6 hrs in her nanny's care, so obviously she picks up more words/gestures from her nanny. And while it is possible to filter the market for reasonably well-groomed and well-mannered nannies, this can be no comparison to the quality of exposure at the daycare. Unless some of those Victorian governesses are still around :)
3) In my experience, nannies tend to get extremely complacent once they know that the child adores them
and their employer depends fully on them. Now this is a major problem since this upsets the equation, and often, leads to a situation where the employer is scared to rake up an issue with the nanny, lest she leaves. (yeah.. I sometimes maintain stoic silence if the issue is not directly related to DD). A well-run daycare centre normally incorporates valid feedback from parents, being a professionally-run institution.
4) Reliability - Unless one has a live-in nanny, there will ALWAYS be problems related to punctuality, not turning up when expected, undeclared days-off and all the rest of it. I don't know if this is true for countries outside India, or even cities like Mumbai, where domestic help is supposed to be more professional in their approach. But this is what I have seen in Chennai, and largely South India. The daycare obviously is more reliable. Having a live-in nanny would probably solve a lot of day-to-day issues, but if one lives in an apartment, this invariably means a compromise on your family's privacy.
5) How much routine? - Most daycare centres have a routine and the kids in daycare follow the routine, with some variations allowed. Most pareting material says that a child NEEDS a routine. I don't know if this is true for most kids, but it is certainly true for DD. She LOVES routines and seems to have an internal clock to go by schedule! To the extent that 95% of her days are routine-driven. The other 5%, she decides to vary her routine, for whatever reason. These 5% days will not be feasible if she is in a daycare full-time. And I found that when she was around a year old, the non-routine days were closer to 10-15%, but has come down now, due to a number of factors - one of which is that she has only one nap in a day. Which is why I feel that personalized care is needed at smaller ages.
6) Food- the daycare that I have chosen for DD, with all other criteria, insists that the kids should not bring food from home. While this is good from their perspective, since all kids get to eat the same food at the same time, this will probably force the kid to eat something that he/she does not like so much. Individual tastes are not catered to. While this may help the kids adapt better, one is always left with the question of whether they need to start adapting so young
7) Behavior and Discipline - The nanny is less likely to discipline a child, and the child gets the message that throwing a tantrum is the best way to get something he/she wants. In a day-care the child's energies are better spent and of course, better discipline is instilled. In addition, there is the definite advantage of having a peer-group around and learning from each other easily.
8) Health - It is true that if you have a clean and well-trained nanny, it is certainly better for your child's health than a daycare, where the child is exposed to viruses doing the rounds in peer-groups. So in the short run, this may present health problems, which also result in at least one of the parents taking leave from work to take care of the child frequently. But in the long run, this may be better because a child has to develop immunity and doctors opine that this is the only way their body learns.
9) Finally,the parent has to be comfortable with the arrangement. DD seems quite comfortable with being with N3 alone. But I am not, at least not fully. What works for one parent, doesn't for another.
So I am now closer to believing that DD is ready for longer durations at daycare - and so I am planning to extend her timings soon. For me, this reduces the dependence on N3 and also frees my mind from the nagging inhibitions that I have when DD is alone home with N3. But I know she is going to have eating and sleeping troubles initially, and probably going to fall sick more often(if that is possible!). I am promising that I will chant the mantra "Short term pains will lead to long term gains" and hang in there, and wait for her to settle down soon. Fingers Crossed.