For many working mothers it is the last thing they want to hear: that their decision to return to work has resulted in damage to their child's psychological and physical health. So declared the leading psychologist Aric Sigman in a recent article for the UK's The Biologist journal. "The express intent of this article," he says in a statement on his website in response to the significant media reaction to his claims, "is to provide readers with the under-acknowledged and often uncomfortable findings of bioscience studies on day care."
Uncomfortable they certainly are: babies who are separated from the mother during the vital early years of the brain's development may, he says, struggle to form relationships as adults. Not only that, but the resulting stress caused by significant periods of a baby's first year being spent cared for by strangers may be detrimental to their health, since increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which have been detected in children up to the age of three who are sent to day care, have been linked to lower resistance to infection and even heart disease.
"The effects of day care on the child continues to be discussed through the prism of adult sexual politics and women's rights," he concludes. "This has been a significant impediment, involving a serious conflict of interest: women's rights and self-fulfillment are not the same issue as a child's well-being and may often compete for precedence."
Well that's us told. Or is it? Yes, there is some stress involved in sending a child to nursery, says Jo Shaban, the managing director of Bright Beginnings nursery in Abu Dhabi. When managed correctly, though, day care can be a positive experience. "Starting day care can be a stressful time for everyone," she says, "but the way it is approached by all concerned makes a huge difference to how much stress a child will feel. Mums going back to work need to be organised and ready to send their child off - not just practically, but emotionally." A child, she adds, can sense a parent's anxiety. "We always encourage our parents to be positive, even with young babies."
A calm and welcoming environment will also help to keep stress levels to a minimum. "We have staggered starts where children don't come in all day every day from the beginning," she says, "They build up slowly. If any child won't stop crying after half an hour we ask one of the parents to come and collect them."
Once they settle down - and the vast majority do - the benefits of day care can be extensive. "They learn interaction with other children, language and physical development, and mental milestones are reached more easily in a nursery environment."
Crucially, adds Charlotte Gast, the managing director of Blossom children's nursery in Dubai, the staff at their nursery do not qualify as "strangers", as Sigman terms them. "There is a settling-in period," she says, "but then we become part of the child's extended family. It's very important to us to have continuity in the classroom. Every day there is the same staff. If someone is off sick we make sure there is somebody there who is familiar with the children."
The alternative for mothers returning to work in the UAE is to leave their child at home with a maid; something Gast, an expectant mother, will not be doing. "You are not there and so you don't know what your maid or nanny is doing with them," she says. "I would rather have my child in nursery care where there is more control over the quality of care they are receiving."
It is this quality of care, says Rudolf Stockling, an educational psychologist based in Dubai who works with children with learning difficulties, that is the real issue. He refers to the Study of Early Childcare and Youth Development carried out by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "The outcome of this study says that the important thing for society is to increase the quality of childcare and have very good control over how well the carers are qualified, how many children are in their care, etc," he says.
He is critical of Sigman's report. "What he doesn't do is look at the many variables that influence the effect; socioeconomic factors, for a start. Children from a deprived socioeconomic background that is not educationally supportive might benefit hugely from spending time in childcare."
However, he would not recommend sending a child to full-time childcare before his or her first birthday. "A child needs a stable person with whom it can bond and experience the slow separation of two to one," he says, "so that they have total security that someone is taking care of them."
One of the big drawbacks of day care, for some parents, is the lack of one-on-one attention. "We put our 17-month-old daughter into nursery," says Victoria Abkik, an Abu Dhabi-based mother of two. "Partly because we didn't want her staying at home all day with the maid while I was at work." The regime lasted less than a week. "There were no fixed classes for her age group," she says. "There was just a big room with lots of toys. She's a happy child so she wasn't making a fuss and therefore didn't get much attention. I just thought what advantages is she getting here that she can't get at home?"
For others, though, day care can help with the transition to school. "I sent Alfie to nursery at 20 months," says Lizzie Johnstone, an IT consultant with two young sons who lives in Abu Dhabi. "It was the summer and there was very little to do. It did lots for his confidence, his behaviour and interacting with other children." As a result, she adds, he had no problems starting school. "There have been no tears and I haven't had to worry about him."
Thankfully, according to the NICHD study, the buck stops at home. "Family and parenting experience," it concludes, "were as important to the well-being of children who had extensive childcare experience as family and parenting experiences were for children with little or no childcare experience."