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Night nurseries: Sweden's round-the-clock childcare

Leon in bed

As working parents around the world juggle their childcare issues, are Sweden's night nurseries the solution to unsociable hours?

Sweden has long had a glowing reputation for its generous childcare facilities and is regularly ranked as one of the best places to raise a family.

Each child is guaranteed a place at a public preschool and no parent is charged more than three per cent of their salary, with fees capped at SEK 1260 ($197, £132) a month for the country's highest earners.

All other costs are covered by the state, which spends SEK 56.6bn ($8.9bn, £5.0bn) a year subsidising preschool services, more than its annual defence budget.

Most public nurseries offer care from around 06:00 to 18:00. But with the numbers of parents working flexible or unconventional hours going up, local councils are increasingly providing overnight and weekend services.

In south-east Sweden, the small, former industrial city of Norrkoping is among those already leading the way in out-of-hours care. There are four council-run nurseries open overnight here, the first of which launched 20 years ago.

"At first it was very hard to take my kids to sleep somewhere else and my heart was aching," says mother Maria Klytseroff, 39, a part-time care assistant for people with learning difficulties.

Her children spend about two or three nights a week at one of the preschools, which is more like a homely apartment than an education centre.

"I am a single mum and I wanted to go back to my job, which is at night," explains Maria.

"The children soon got used to it, they have friends and they adore the workers who look after them."

Eighteen children are registered at the nursery.

The toddlers arrive in time to eat dinner, clean their teeth and then enjoy a bedtime story with a member of staff.

Two-year-old Leon is dressed in blue striped pyjamas and cuddles several teddy bears as he curls up beneath a duvet covered in cartoon characters.

His older sister India, three, is wearing her favourite strawberry-print nightwear and has just finished a glass of milk.

In the morning, staff will zip them into their padded snow suits and wheel them by buggy to a nearby day centre while Maria sleeps off her night shift.

"I have travelled a lot, so I know that I am lucky compared to people in other countries," says Maria, who pays a total of $112 (SEK 720, £75) a month in preschool fees.

Just over 78% of mothers with children under seven went out to work in 2012, according to Statistics Sweden's latest Labour Force Survey.

In Sweden, it is up to local government regions (known as municipalities) to decide whether they want to offer publicly funded out-of-hours care.

It is currently available in 123 out of 290 areas and used by almost 5,000 children.

Both single parents and couples are eligible to apply as long as their employer provides evidence of their shift patterns.

Hospital workers, restaurant workers, transport workers and shop staff affected by longer opening hours in recent years, are among those who benefit from the service.

From July, the governing centre-right Alliance has promised to spend $17m (SEK 108.5m, £11m) over the next four years to help more areas improve their services.

It says a lot about the nation's long-standing love affair with the welfare state that the main argument from opposition parties is whether that figure will prove to be enough.

"Sweden was earlier than other countries in terms of increasing women in the workforce and to make that possible we built up childcare," says Sweden's minister for gender equality, Maria Arnholm.

"We believe it is important that families can combine parenthood with work and that shouldn't just include those who work nine-to-five but also those who work inconvenient hours," she argues.

But not everyone is sold on the so-called Scandinavian model and its move towards 24-hour services.

"In terms of night care, I definitely don't agree with the plans to expand it," says Madeleine Wallin, president of the European Federation of Parents and Carers at Home, which represents its members at EU level and at the UN.

She sent three of her five children to public nurseries before deciding to raise the others at home in Hyssna, a small village in west Sweden.

Swedish children

"Spending hours and hours away from their parents can be incredibly stressful for children. You only have to look at their body language when they get dropped off at preschool," she says.

Wallin, who now runs a business with her husband, says she felt pushed into using childcare for her first children, because of a "social stigma" against stay-at-home mothers.

"Sweden is an expensive country and when I gave up work for a while to look after the kids it was a struggle financially. But I was fed up of being told it was better to leave them with someone else," she adds.

Since 2008, about a third of municipalities have started offering a special allowance to parents who choose not to work while their children are under three.

But this amounts to about eight per cent of an average monthly salary in Sweden and very few have taken up the benefit.

The European Federation of Parents and Carers at Home believes that offering parents more money could increase the numbers who stay at home.

However others argue that high employment among parents of young children is here to stay in Sweden.

"The problem is that once you have persuaded the majority of people to put their one and two-year olds in day or even night care, it is hard to have a debate," says analyst Jonas Himmelstrand.

"It is painful putting your children in nursery and discussing it reminds parents of a choice they didn't really want to make."

A strong advocate of home teaching, he has also published controversial research suggesting that preschools can damage children's mental health and lead to discipline problems in later life.

Now living in Finland, he is currently advising the Mothers at Home lobby group in the UK, where the government has promised to expand free early education to give more parents the choice of returning to work.

But when you speak to mothers and fathers back in Sweden, most do appear fully sold on the country's public preschool model.

"Thanks to affordable childcare, I was able to study and retrain as a nurse," says Martina Stenbom, 44, a mother-of-one who lives in Stockholm.

"In my area there is out-of-hours care, so I have had the chance to work and study at evenings and weekends."

She also supports the expansion of overnight services, even though they didn't work for her daughter when she was very young.

"We did try the night nursery when my daughter Pixie was 18 months old, but I didn't enjoy being apart from her for so long. I would try it again in future though, if she felt happy with the idea."

In Norrkoping, Maria Klytseroff remains passionate about the preschool facilities in her snowy city.

"It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor or in between like I am, the nurseries mean that everyone here has the chance to work," she says.

"We do pay high taxes but we get something back and I think that's a great system. I am very happy to be a mother in Sweden and I wouldn't want to bring up my children anywhere else."

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