The parents of missing Madeleine McCann left their three children alone in their apartment every night of their holiday because they did not want a stranger to babysit, it has emerged.
But, tragically, the routine may have allowed whoever abducted their daughter the chance to build up a picture of their movements while he planned his crime.
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Missing: Madeleine McCannDoctors Kate and Gerry McCann decided not to employ a £10-an-hour babysitter to look after Madeleine, three, and two-year-old twins, Sean and Amelie, while they went for dinner, because they "don't like leaving them with strangers", their family said.
Mrs McCann's mother, Susan Healy, said the couple had made a mistake in leaving the children alone, but criticism of them was totally unjustified.
"I know my daughter and the children are her life," she said.
"They were in a child-friendly apartment, that they thought was totally secure.
Desperate wait: Kate McCann with her two-year-old daughter Amelie"They made a decision and thought it was okay but this time it wasn't. Now Kate and Gerry have to live with that, which is dreadful.
"They made a mistake but they don't need the extra pressure of other people criticising them."
Police hunting for missing Madeleine McCann are today scrutinising four pieces of "very useful" fresh information, Crimestoppers said.
The tip-offs came among hundreds of calls made from Portugal to a special UK number set up by the charity.
A spokeswoman said they have been passed to Leicestershire Police, who are working alongside Portuguese police on the case.
But there are also reports today that Portuguese police will have to scale down their efforts within the next few days so that some of the 130 senior officers and 800 beat officers who are involved can be reassigned.
Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, face an agonising milestone today as they enter the seventh day since her disappearance.
Meanwhile, details of the family holiday have emerged as the couple insisted: "We continue to remain positive" about the safe return of their little girl, abducted a week ago tonight as she slept.
Relatives of the couple revealed that the McCanns and three other couples on holiday with them, all doctors, tucked their children into bed each night and walked the 40 yards from their apartments at the Ocean Club run by British tour operators, Mark Warner in Praia da Luz on the Algarve to a poolside tapas bar.
There, according to local police, the couples enjoyed "long dinners", checking on their children every 30 minutes.
It was part of a routine established by the McCanns and their friends from the first day of their sunshine break.
Until now, it had been widely believed that the abduction of Madeleine came on the one night that the McCanns had left their children alone.
But Mr McCann's sister, Patricia, a 47-year- old nurse from Glasgow, revealed: "There were eight of them there, all with kids, and every night they went out for a meal without them.
"It was less than 40 yards away and they were all meticulous in checking them, it was just part of the routine.
"They felt it was better than leaving them with a babysitter as you don't know who you are going to get with a stranger."
Madeleine's grandmother, Eileen McCann, 67, added: "They weren't sure about the babysitter service, they just don't like leaving them with strangers.
"It wasn't something they did very often - they have a nanny at home whom they trust.
"It's something we have all done at some point and you just don't expect anything like this to happen.
"They're normal parents who love their children and would never neglect them in any way.
"Any suggestion they were neglecting them is completely insulting.
"They aren't big drinkers, they all just like to go out for a meal and a few glasses of wine to relax in the evening.
"They certainly don't drink to excess - they are all doctors after all."
Portuguese police said it was "normal practice" for holidaymakers in the resort to leave their children. But locals in Praia da Luz are less sure.
Restaurateur Pedro Sales, summed up the feeling among many residents: "I am a father myself and I would never leave a child alone. I do not understand why they did this, they are a good couple, both doctors.
"I see the British leaving their children alone all the time. I go to a swimming pool and I see parents having a drink and laughing, and then their little children are walking along the side of the pool, and nobody has noticed."
Many in the seaside village remember seeing the McCanns, an attractive couple with three young children, during their holiday.
They were early risers, walking down to the beach or the small Baptista supermarket to buy provisions by 9am each morning.
In the supermarket, people recalled Madeleine's "happy smile" and "sweet face" as she ran up and down the aisles.
Most days the children attended the creche run by Mark Warner at the Ocean Club and took part in the games and activities organised by the trained staff.
But that routine ended last Thursday when Kate McCann went to check on her children at 10pm and found Madeleine was gone, while her two-year-old twin brother and sister were still sleeping.
Last night police were investigating reports that a blonde youngster was spotted at a motorway service station ten miles from Praia da Luz.
Staff told officers that a woman had come in with the child and told her to say "thank you" in Portuguese. It is understood they were captured on CCTV
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