Is daycare good for babies?

  When a well-paid career woman gives up her job to have a child, she incurs an opportunity cost -- her forfeited income and possible career advancement. When she minimises this by placing her six-month-old baby in daycare and returning to work it’s the baby, according to a growing body of research, who incurs the costs.  
Anne Manne, an Australian mother and writer, has explored the dilemmas of modern motherhood with unusual sensitivity and depth in her recent book, Motherhood: How should we care for our children? In this interview with MercatorNet she talks about the state of research on daycare for infants, what mothers really want, and why it should be possible to give them that choice.


MercatorNet: There is a disturbing image in the literature critical of daycare -- that of a baby being dropped at a centre at the beginning of the working day and picked up 8-10 hours later. How common is it for babies and toddlers to spend long hours in group care?
Anne Manne: This is certainly the crux of the issue about daycare, although it is not nearly as common as people think it is. In my country, for example, in 2002 only 5 per cent of babies under one were in long daycare centres. In other words more than 90 per cent of Australian parents choose not to use childcare for their babies. By the age of one, a little over 20 per cent of children are in daycare, though not all full-time. By age three around a third, but still a minority. Most childcare usage is part-time.  
For the infant and toddler period, there is an overwhelming preference for mother or parental care, followed by grandparent or other family care. A lot of that supplementary care is less career related than while mum goes shopping or to a part-time job or just has a break. When children are around four years of age the numbers in preschool kindergarten programs increases significantly. But these half day preschool programs while the rest of time is spent at home, are quite different from formal long daycare. And yet these things are often lumped together. Then it becomes a political bullying tool to make us feel that everybody is doing it and indeed ought to do it. 
MercatorNet: Who uses daycare? 
Anne Manne: In fact, when you look at who uses daycare for the longest hours and who returns to work the fastest after giving birth – in most countries it is more likely to be upper-income women, who have the most to lose financially and in career terms by staying away from work. One can understand their dilemma, of course, although I argue in my book that longer parental leave programs care for infants needs more successfully than daycare. 
MercatorNet: What basically is wrong with childcare centres? 
Anne Manne: The mantra is always that as long as it is “high quality” then all will be well. Yet “quality” is extraordinarily hard to achieve. For example , we now know the centrality of a secure attachment to the primary caregiver, and to any substitute caregivers. And we know that a secure attachment is fostered by "contingently sensitive caretaking", that is, responding to a baby's need promptly and calmly, really knowing this particular baby's rhythms and preferences, not leaving them to cry for long periods. Yet even in the best centres, how do you achieve that with, as we have in Australia, ratios of one caregiver to five babies! A mother with quintuplets would get more support! And in such conditions, as in the United Sates and Britain, you have a very high turnover of caregivers, and again, how do you promote a secure attachment when caregivers leave all the time?  
Then there is the kind of “flatness” of a disengaged emotional style which seems common. We had a series of reports in Australia that illustrate the problem. Researchers in three states investigated what they call joint attention sequences. This involves the sort of thing parents are doing all the time -- you're with your baby and you follow their eye to an object and say, "Oh, would you like that? Shall I get the yellow teddy bear down? Shall we look at this storybook together?" and so on. So it’s a shared intimate moment when the attachment of the infant to the mother is reinforced but also when learning takes place and the child's world is expanded.  
When they looked in childcare centres they found almost none of this. Almost none. A baby or toddler would make a bid for attention to enter one of these sequences and would rarely be responded to. Maybe they'd have one turn -- the caregiver would say something and that would be the end of it. 
MercatorNet: Separating little children from their mothers on a regular basis seems so counter-intuitive it's a wonder that the idea ever caught on. How do you explain the trend? Is it all down to the feminist movement? 
Anne Manne: It's a good question and one I've dealt with in my book. The women's movement is one with many strands, and I think there was a companionate marriage, so to speak, between the new capitalism of the last few decades and a certain feminism that really emphasised individualism and paid work and succeeding on male terms, what's called in feminist literature the "repudiation of motherhood" school. Linda Hirshman, for example, has just produced a book called, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, in which she sees no problems about compelling women to work because she deems it is in their best interests.  
But it is certainly not all down to feminism. The present set of values in our very consumerist, materialist world also emphasises paid work as a means of delivering the things of the good life- larger houses, bigger cars, every imaginable gadget and so on.  
In contrast I am very interested in “maternal” or social feminists, who are quite strong in the US, who emphasises the importance of women's caring work, the immense contribution of that labour to the economy and to community wellbeing -- as well as the care penalty women pay, which remains an issue of justice to be addressed. 
MercatorNet: Intuitions are debatable, but what about science? What are the studies telling us about the effects of daycare? 
Anne Manne: There are two sorts of studies. Longitudinal studies, which look at the long-term emotional and behavioural outcomes, then a newer group of studies which measure the stress hormone, cortisol, in children in daycare. 
In the United States, the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) has a long-running study which we need to pay careful attention to. It has shown that, at kindergarten age, children who had already spent long hours in daycare showed much stronger aggression and related traits -- really problematic behaviour.  
Those results came out in 2001 and there was a huge furore about it. It was not what the researchers themselves had hoped to find and there are ongoing attempts to sanitise the data. All the same, there have been two studies that have come out in Britain and another in Northern Ireland, another in California, all of which show the same type of antisocial and worried behaviour among children who have been in long daycare -- under two years of age, that is. 
Then there are the cortisol studies, which measure a hormone related to stress. For a child at home, the normal pattern is for cortisol to be high in the morning and decrease throughout the day. But even in very high quality daycare centres, studies have shown that cortisol levels in some children stay high or even increase as the day goes on. Even allowing for variables like temperament, daycare itself seems to have this effect. 
MercatorNet: Is anyone paying attention to this evidence? 
Anne Manne: Not enough. In the NICHD study the risk of negative behaviour increased from 6 per cent of children in daycare for less than 10 hours, to about 18 per cent of those experiencing the longest hours. Perhaps that doesn't seem much, but it's massively higher than the risk of a clot for women having hormone replacement therapy -- and look how seriously we take that.  
The response to the cortisol studies can be similar. No-one would say to an adult, "Look, if you're stressed and miserable for a year or two, don't worry. Long-term you'll be fine." But a certain corruption has crept into our attitude to the child, who can be seen as an investment unit where only the long-term outcomes really matter. 
Don't we have an obligation to consider their happiness and wellbeing in the here and now? Parents should have the confidence to say, "My baby is happy here with me, and this is the way we're doing it." And be able to be supported by state policy -- without necessarily penalising other parents who are doing this differently. 
MercatorNet: Sarah Friedman, who is involved in the NICHD study, said recently in your country that it’s the parents who matter and that daycare alone makes little difference to a child's social and cognitive development. "The children who do best come from families with more income, more financial security, and responsive, educated mothers." Your comment? 
Anne Manne: There's a lot one could say about the way the NICHD data is being interpreted, but this seems to me basically an alibi position. The first alibi was that it's the quality of daycare that counts. Now we know that quantity also counts and the alibi is that it's down to who the parents are. We heard very little about the importance of parents when the wonders of daycare for disadvantaged children were being sung.  
MercatorNet: The United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand have all invested heavily in daycare as the answer to the needs of the working mother. But when mothers are given a reasonable choice, what do they really want? 
Anne Manne: In Scandinavia, despite a big social commitment to having women in the workforce, people don't actually use infant daycare. Given a choice of daycare or staying at home for the first few years with job-protected leave, mothers have voted with their feet and stayed home. Even in Sweden where they might go back during the second or third year, most parents will be at home for the first 18 months on paid leave.  
And in Britain, where there's been a strong emphasis on getting mothers back to work, the government has now taken notice of the research and what women themselves want and they are moving towards two years' parental leave and more part-time work for parents of children under school age. I think these are the policies of the future, as well, of course, as supporting those mothers who basically want to spend the first five years at home. 
MercatorNet: If Scandanavian countries, and France, can pay mothers to stay at home with their young children, can't the rest of us afford it? 
Anne Manne: The Scandinavian experience is that it's cheaper to pay parents because it is so difficult to provide good institutional care. Good institutional care demands a stable caregiver, and that means higher pay to retain staff; better ratios of staff to babies; better working conditions; very good training for caregivers in an effort to improve the sensitivity and responsiveness of those who are doing the care. To get all this established in a childcare centre is very difficult and expensive and, well, why not offer that amount of money to parents, who can, generally speaking, do this so much better. 
What I favour is a choice between a childcare place and three years of job protected leave and a homecare allowance, which either parent can take. In my own country there is a shift of thinking in this direction, but still a lot of talk about providing more daycare when in some areas it is actually over-supplied -- as in Queensland, according to a report this week. The state, I think, should provide the freedom for different options but be neutral as to which is best.  
This debate is not just glib rhetoric about choice. Whether mothers of young children go out to work or not, whether they use daycare or not, these choices concern basic human truths. Before we had the evidence about cortisol, I knew that my children didn't like being left in the care of others and far preferred being with me, and many of my peers and younger women say the same about their experience. It's just a universal preference young children have for their mother or father, someone, usually close kin, who is “crazy about the kid.” Many parents feel a lot of pleasure and pride, too, in caring for children well and helping them to flourish in the early years. We don't need studies to tell us that. And women shouldn't have to appeal to studies to justify a decision to care for their own children.
Anne Manne is a writer and social commentator who has been a columnist for The Australian and The Age. Prior to writing full time, she taught in the Politics Departments of Melbourne and LaTrobe Universities. She also spent ten years out of the workforce raising two children and caring for the needs of her family.  
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet and writes from Auckland, New Zealand.


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