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. www.inpp.org.uk