The new £2000 tax payment towards child care will be a welcome drop in the ocean for parents struggling to work against mounting child care costs in a society in which it is increasingly difficult for families to survive financially on one income. However, these policies, driven primarily by economics, fail to place the needs of the developing child at the head of policy.
Humans are the only species of mammal which separates its young from the mother for social and economic reasons before the child is physically able to fend for itself. Early communication between infants (meaning one without speech) and adults is physical, beginning with sensory language based on smell, touch, familiarity of the mother’s voice and movement (attuned before birth as a result of the shared physical environment), and nurtured after birth in the context of nursing and social engagement.
While infants can and do survive and thrive when raised outside of this close relationship, this relationship is the first love affair of life and plays a primary role in building connections that will form the basis for social interaction, physical competence and empathy in later life. In this context, what happens to women and children in the first year(s) of life shapes the nature of society in the future.
As society becomes increasingly complex, on one hand, it becomes harder to tease out individual factors which are crucial in supporting children in their development and emotional education; on the other, scientific studies tend to focus on individual aspects, rather than viewing child development from a holistic perspective.
For example, some studies show that children from deprived environments benefit from early nursery care and early years education as it compensates for deficits in the home environment; others indicate that physiological markers of stress are higher in children in nursery care under two years of age and while they benefit on markers of cognitive development they may pay a price in emotional development. These studies also point to the amount of time spent in child care and the quality of child care under two years of age being mediating factors. After the age of three, the playing field starts to level out.
There is also a risk that early nursery care becomes a form of “early education” as opposed to being in “loco parentis”, the latter providing a nurturing environment in which sensory, motor, emotional and language development are the aims of growth, learned within the context of free space and opportunity for physical exploration and play in a loving environment in which physical interaction plays a key role
There are no easy answers, but in the push to return women to the work place as soon as possible and support families, governments – whatever their political persuasion – should place the developmental needs of the child at the top of the agenda.