nursery children

We have probably come to accept that in the economic climate of today, mothers will return to work in the first years after having their children and that childcare will be needed in her place. However, under a new government proposal toddlers could face spending up to 10 hours a day in nurseries under a £1 billion official plan to help boost employment among mothers. The document will invite nurseries and childminders to bid for funds to provide 30 hours a week free childcare for all three- and four-year-olds, extending opening hours from 6am to 8pm. The provision — which will double the existing 15 hours — will be available from next autumn

Increasingly, it seems that all that matters to successive governments when it comes to early childcare are the figures. This growing acceptance of nursery care as the norm is in stark contrast to how other members of our species behave; humans are the only mammal who deliberately separates its young from the mother before it is physically able to take care of itself. The relentless trend towards state provision of child care ignores the emotional, developmental and social needs of very young children.

Children are not simply miniature adults. A child’s brain feels, thinks and acts in completely different ways and the emotional brain of a young child is nurtured in the context of close loving relationships. Just as adult relationships need to be nourished by time spent together actively engaged in one another’s company to secure emotional attachments, proximity and engagement matter, and the younger the child, the more important it is.

Government-funded studies in the past have indicated that children whose experience of education begins as young as two are likely to have a head start of several months in reading, writing, and arithmetic over those who are exclusively cared for at home. However, their findings also pointed to a slightly higher risk that children who had attended pre-school education would develop social and behaviour problems.

A raft of studies, some using physiological markers of stress, also indicate that under the age of 3 years, while there are cognitive benefits to attending nursery care, children tend to show elevated levels of stress, which are proportional to the length of time spent in childcare and the quality of care provided.

Although the Government’s latest plans are for children above the age of three, they raise questions about policy intent on pushing for more daycare provision to the exclusion of other types of childcare. While educational skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic can be caught up with later on (in other European countries children do not begin their formal education until 7 years of age, and at 6 years in the USA), the developmental period for establishing emotional security is harder to put right at a later age.

Rather than extending the number of hours that children can spend in “looked after care”, it is my belief that we should be planning for greater flexibility in the time that mothers can return to work, enabling them to spend at least the first year and preferably the first two years at home, before being eased back into part-time work until the child is of school age.

While childcare from the age of three seems to be a positive force for educational and emotional development, this does not mean that long hours spent in day care are good substitutes for parental care. Many hard-working parents under financial pressure to work full time will welcome greater flexibility for dropping off and collection times, particularly for older pre-school children and few will probably choose to subject their child to a 10-hour day environment, but within this context is an insidious trend to “normalise” the replacement of parental care with state subsidised care.

Similar trends and experiments have been used in the past. A review of a small group of adults who had been brought up in a kibbutz found that there were many benefits for kibbutz-reared children in terms of ability to cope with the demands of their community and realities of the larger cultural communities, but the children of the kibbutz rated themselves as more anxious, were more critical of themselves and others and tended to succumb to a greater number of psychosomatic disorders.

Long working hours juggled with childcare also affect parents. Tired, stressed parents find it difficult to provide the same calm, emotionally regulated environment for their children, or have time to enjoy their children.

Parents are the chief architects of society in the future. While on the one hand nursery education can help to bridge the gaps for children who come from homes impoverished in social and intellectual stimulus, they should not become the dominant influence. When a society ceases to value and barters the role of parenthood in exchange for national revenue, materialistic gain, status, or instant gratification, it potentially mortgages its own future.

Qualities that cannot be as easily measured as figures on costs or educational attainment, such as self-esteem, self-regulation, compassion, tolerance and altruism, are the qualities that define a society and will only become apparent when the next generation reaches adulthood. They have their origins in the first three years of life and are nurtured in the context of safe and loving relationships.

The only figure that really matters is the figure at home available to nurture every child as nature intended.

Sally Goddard Blythe is an expert in children’s physical development and the author of seven books on the relationship between physical development, learning. This extract contains an excerpt from the 2nd edition of “What babies and children really need” due to be published under a new title of “Raising happy, healthy children. Why Mothering Matters” by Hawthorn Press in the autumn of 2016.

  • Mez

    The figures show that women working part time (as one of a couple) when they can, reduces the rate of child poverty from over 35% to 9% . Time spent in child care is also the issue for young children, the risks are about time- in being in child care all week, but part time – good quality child care, for ‘over two’s’ can have a significant positive impact, when introduced in a positive encouraging way, and as you suggest with access to the types of toys etc children wouldn’t get at home, can be very supportive for some homes. Good quality child care should mean mothers have the choice as to who they leave their children with, including friends and family, (which means a repeal of the Blair legislation which prevents that), and not be an over riding state policy, which involves forcing everyone to adopt it. Enforcement which removes choice is putting the state in the position of overriding individual freedom, and self ownership, and aspect of leftist politics, which shouldn’t be seeping into the right.

    • Busy Mum

      Mostly agree – but please define ‘child poverty’.

    • Stephen T

      The best child care my children had was from a woman childminder who lived nearby. We knew her and her good reputation. Part time care after the child is two or three might be a good balance. Ten hours is horrendous.

    • Phil R

      “The figures show that women working part time (as one of a couple) when
      they can, reduces the rate of child poverty from over 35% to 9%”

      Simply because that is the way the tax and benefit system is structured.

      The stats do not take into account 30 hours in day orphanages to earn the “extra” (average) £10k per family.

      Tesco (and others) do very well out of these state subsidised workers.

    • Woman at home

      The devil is in the detail.
      Yes, 15hrs a week of good quality childcare for a 3 year old can be beneficial, but what exactly do we mean by “Good quality childcare” and is care of such a high standard widely available?
      The studies quoted in favour of childcare usually involve well-funded nurseries with highly qualified and well paid staff – not the average nursery.
      I don’t doubt that most nursery workers try to do a good job, but at the end of the day it is a job and most are unlikely to have the same focus or interest as a mother.

    • Groan

      Yes indeed. I am old enough to recall that such full time mass childcare was a noted feature of the Communist Countries behind the then iron Curtain. Really fascinating that a “conservative party” is so committed to the same policy of state regulated parenting of the next generation. All the flexibility is squeezed out including allowing couples to let men take on a caring role. It would seem not impossible to set things up to alow people to make choices themselves and support them with helpful additional services. It all seems to go back to Simone de Beauvior probably wise observation that giving choices to women runs the risk that they will choose to be “mothers” as a role as well as a title.

  • Busy Mum

    ‘…to help boost employment among mothers’. Being a mother is more than enough employment for anyone. The government is sending a message to new mothers that having a baby is easy as pie; said mothers are therefore feeling terribly inadequate when they find out how much work a baby is.
    When did you last hear of a government initiative to ‘boost employment among fathers’?

    And all these nurseries will be flaunting their child:carer ratios and the poor mums will never get a chance to take a step back and think, hang on a minute, my child could have 1:1 care at home with me.

    • Coniston

      “child:carer ratios”. At present I regularly visit a close relative at the other end of life, requiring nursing care in a residential home for old (and very old) people. With the best will in the world there are simply not enough trained staff to give a good carer:resident ratio. The pay is poor, and there is a big staff change-over. I suspect that much the same will apply in many nurseries. Will some, in practice, be much more than child-minding centres? In schools the unending stream of government regulations is driving many teachers out of the profession. All governments now, it seems, want to run and regulate every aspect of our lives.

  • Colkitto03

    Of course the staff at daycare centres do churn. They move on as one would expect. The trouble is, that toddlers bond with these women (and they are all women) They spend a lot more time with these carers than their mums. A family close to us had the situation where their little boy used to unconsciously call his mum “Barbara” after his daycare centre carer. That was awkward. Over the course of several years toddlers can experience loss on more than one occaision when a favourite or loved carer moves on. I think this is quite traumatic for them.

  • LoveMeIamALiberal

    It should also be said that research shows the educational benefits of childcare only occurred for children over 2 years and there was no benefit for children receiving more than 15 hours childcare a week.

  • klm

    Good article, Sally. One of the most important points you make is in regards to social/emotional development. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry if 2- or 3- year olds just starting daycare after staying at home with their mothers were a little behind in knowing their alphabet, numbers and colors, etc. These things they will learn soon enough. It is the emotional development (“emotional intelligence” is now an increasingly recognized and valued asset in a person) that is critical during that time. Human beings need to be able to connect with other human beings, and that starts with a child’s mother. In extreme cases, children who do not have the opportunity to form bonds with other people during their early years can then fail to develop empathy for others a little later, possibly leading to sociopathic behaviors. In less extreme cases, children who spend too much time in daycare may simply be more stressed and anxious, a state that no child should have to be in – especially in stable, Western countries (absence of war, famine, etc).