Tuesday, December 15, 2009

a question of childcare (4b) research - Peter Cook 's Mothering Denied - studies of childcare

A few weeks months ago I told you about Peter Cook's online book, Mothering Denied (yes, I did lose track of my series on childcare while I wrote for EQUIP books; and no, I haven't forgotten about my childcare series, although it looks like I'll be finishing it in the new year!).

My last post in this series was on what Peter Cook says about the ideologies underlying childcare. I was challenged by his comments on feminism and the pressure on women to return to the workforce.

But it's when it comes to studies of childcare that Peter Cook's arguments become uncomfortably compelling. Childcare, it seems, has negative effects proportionally related to the big three: too early, too much, too long. Here are some of the findings of respected studies (often government-sponsored studies sympathetic to childcare) as described in Mothering Denied.

  • Affordable care is low-quality care. "High quality care" is often claimed by childcare centres, but in reality, is nearly unachievable. High quality care includes staff responsiveness, warmth and sensitivity to infants; a carer-infant ratio of 1:3 for children under 3 (1:5 is usual in Australian childcare); no more than one change of caregiver in a year (i.e. low staff turnover); and, preferably, the same carer continuing with a particular group of children from year to year. Which gives you some idea of what to look for in a childcare centre!
  • You can't expect a childcare worker unrelated to your child to love and delight in your child. What is often lacking even in good childcare centres is the positive, joyful, spontaneous interactions which take place between a mother and child, because crying babies take attention from happy ones.
  • Infants react to separations from their mother first with 'protest' (loud crying), then 'despair' (apathy and withdrawal), then 'detachment' (the child seems to settle but is emotionally distant from the mother). Evaluating a child's response to childcare needs to take all these into account, not just lack of crying.
  • Studies show that increased hours of childcare during the early years leads to increased risk of insecure attachment between mother and child, and maternal insensitivity to the child's needs; aggression and disobedience or withdrawal and sadness during childhood; and abnormal levels of the stress hormone cortisol into the teen years. Too much early childcare may diminish a person's long-term ability to form relationships of intimacy and trust, and their ability to bond with their own children when they become parents.
  • Some infants are tough and resilient and others are tender and vulnerable, so the impact of childcare will differ from child to child.
  • Childcare may be preferable to mother-care for children of mothers with depression or mothers who don't prioritise motherhood; best quality care can also improve educational outcomes for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds
  • Penelope Leach's anonymous study found that most infant mental health professionals privately believe that it's very important for infants to have their mothers available to them for most of every 24 hours, ideally until the child is over 2 years of age (although they are often unwilling to admit this publicly).
  • Childcare workers are amongst the lowest paid in our society, leading to high staff turnover and inexperienced staff. But the childcare industry is powerful and wealthy, and unwilling to reduce profits by increasing quality of care, for example by increasing carer-infant ratios.
  • By 2007 over 25% of babies in Australia were in childcare before they were 12 months old.
  • Surveys from 24 countries show that the great majority of mothers believe that mothers should not undertake paid work that requires them to leave their children while they are of preschool age (in Australia 71% of mothers thought this; 27% favoured part-time work; and only a tiny minority favoured full-time work).
  • The cost of subsidising childcare for under-2s is similar to the cost of generous parental leave for 2 years - in Sweden, either parent can take up to 3 years' parental leave, much of it paid; they can choose between high-quality childcare or a home-care allowance (which most parents prefer); and the right to work 6-hour days on reduced salary until the child is 8. I'm moving to Sweden! :)
What are the implications for you and me? I guess to take a close look at the facts before we consider putting our children in childcare (I'd suggest that you read Steve Biddulph's Raising Babies before you read Mothering Denied). Use childcare as little as possible, especially for children under 3 - at this age, infants' main need is consistent care from an attached carer who loves them. If you do use childcare, choose your centre very carefully (see the first point above); observe your child closely for ill-effects (not just crying, but also emotional withdrawal - see the third point); and avoid the big three: too early, too much, too long.

first image is from Mothering Denied; others are from Stephane Delbecque, swo_co, and CastleGonyea at flickr

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