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National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Articles

Concerns about Child Care - Part 1


Modern life is full of pressures which did not exist several decades ago. Today the battle to pay off the family home and meet other financial needs is becoming increasingly more difficult. A single wage is often not sufficient. As a result more and more families are being compelled to rely on two incomes in order to survive. The need for out of home child care has therefore risen markedly. Moreover, the large increase in the number of single parents has also meant a greater demand for formal child care.

With over $1.5 billion a year spent on child care by Australian Governments, child care is big business. And with over 600,000 children involved, it affects many people.1 There is no denying that child care is a growth industry. Indeed, Commonwealth spending alone has risen 160 per cent between 1991 and 2001. In 2001 dollars it grew from $573 million to $1,490 million.2

But with this growth there have been questions raised. Concerns about child care are being expressed from a number of quarters. How does parental absence affect the child? With growing numbers of children being raised by strangers, what effects will this have on society in the near future? It is important that these questions and concerns are addressed before more growth takes place. This paper will examine some of these considerations.

I. Day Care Can Be Harmful to Children

The most important question in the child care debate (and the one that is least asked) is this: "How does it affect the child?" Most discussions about child care revolve around issues like employment or a woman's right to choose. Seldom is the child given any consideration. As family psychologist Steve Biddulph has said, "Childcare was not invented for children's sakes, but for adult needs."3 Or as Anne Manne put it, "In this issue, those affected most deeply, children, are wordless, hence cannot be participants in that conversation."4 What then are the effects long term day care can have on young children?

Numerous international studies have shown that maternal deprivation at an early age can affect the mother-child bonding process, and can impair a child's emotional, social and psychological development. For example, a major 1990 American report found that a higher proportion of children under age one in day care "show anxious- avoidance attachment to their mothers than do home-reared infants".5 More recent research has found that maternal separation can profoundly affect the brain's biochemistry, with lifelong consequences for growth and mental ability.6 Commenting on the new research, Mary Carlson of the Harvard Medical School said, "Our findings support clinical research showing that infants cared for in institutions grow slowly and have behavioural retardation".7

The work of people such as John Bowlby,8, 9 Selma Fraiberg,10 Robert Karen11, Jay Belsky,12, 13 Ronald Haskins14 and Mary Ainsworth,15 to name but a few, has shown a clear connection between extended periods of maternal absence, and lengthy stays inday care (as little as 10 hours a week) for infants, and later developmental problems.

Not only is the important role of instilling values, purpose and responsibility best met by a child's biological parents at an early age, but so too is the cultivation of a sense of security and well-being. Indeed, as one expert put it, the attachment relationship that a young child forges with his mother "forms the foundation stone of personality".16 Regular and prolonged detachment from the mother can demonstrably impair a child's intellectual and emotional development, and affect a child throughout his or her life.

Studies in bonding and attachment theory have shown that a child's emotional and mental well-being are inexorably tied up with continuous, sustained, stable physical and emotional contact between mother and child. Taking the child away from its mother during this critical period can result in a number of harmful results: "Children deprived of parental care in early childhood are likely to be withdrawn, disruptive, insecure, or even intellectually stunted. New research [even suggests] that the depression resulting from separation anxiety in early childhood can cause a permanent impairment of the immune system making these children prone to physical illness through their lives."17

A parent's absence or inaccessibility, either physical or emotional, can have a profound effect on a child's emotional health. Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi has observed that individuals who suffer from severe nonorganic emotional illness have one thing in common: they all have experienced the "absence of a parent through death, divorce, a time demanding job or other reasons".18

One study from Norway, for example, found that children experiencing less maternal care than others had higher levels of behaviour problems.19 Learning can also be impaired. Ernest Foyer, former U.S. commissioner of education, and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has said that children in day care suffer in terms of language skills development.20 A recent American study of 4000 children found that mothers who return to work soon after giving birth may harm their child's school performance. The study showed that children of mums who work full-time struggled academically compared with those whose mums stayed at home.21 Other studies have even found that children who spend a substantial time in child care are more likely to join gangs as surrogate families.22

A recent 10-year study involving 1300 American children found that the more hours that toddlers spend in child care, the more likely they are to turn out aggressive, disobedient and defiant. The researchers said the correlation held true regardless of whether the children came for rich or poor homes.23

Educational psychologist Burton White, director of the Harvard Preschool Project, has written extensively on the subject of nonparental care. This is how he summarises his experience: "After more than 20 years research on how children develop well, I would not think of putting a child of my own into any substitute care program on a full-time basis, especially a centre-based programme".24

Babies need a mother's love and attention. Child development experts indicate that children do not engage in peer play until they are about two years old.25 The late psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg said that babies need mother most of the time until age three, and afterwards, can tolerate a half day's absence.26 As Connie Marshner sums up, "The quality of love and care that a child receives in the first three to five years of life is the main factor in whether that child will be able to think, to learn, to love, to care, to cooperate with other people in short, whether that child will merely exist or will thrive and flourish and add to human society".27

Some Australian researchers have sought to dismiss overseas studies which suggest that child care can have negative consequences for young children. Some Australian studies seem to tone down or explain away findings on any adverse effects on children. Yet they too have to admit that children brought up in long hours of day care are more aggressive, bratty and uncooperative.28 Even though they try to put a good spin on such findings, and say such brattiness is not a sign of "emotional maladjustment", any teacher or parent will tell you otherwise. (For an excellent analysis of the many shortcomings of this and other studies, see Early Child Care by Peter Cook.29) Indeed, other Australian researchers have found that these bratty preschoolers are more likely to grow up to be chronic drink-drivers.30 Other Australian studies have found that children do better in school if they have not been in child care.31, 32

It is true that some of the earlier studies on child care seemed to show little difference between home-raised children and those in day care. But that research focused on high-quality, university-sponsored child care centres. By the late 1970s, psychologists began to study children in much more typical day care centres. Insecure attachment was noted in the children, along with delays in cognitive performance: "Suddenly, the effects of day care no longer seemed so benign. . . . Some psychologists started to wonder whether children ought to be placed in day care at all."33

Even if there were not widespread agreement on the negative effects of extended periods of day care, there would at least be uncertainty, and the benefit of doubt should go in favour of children. Those who argue that day care does not harm children should bear the burden of proof.

One may take the following illustration: suppose you go to a doctor who tells you an injection might be (a) very harmful; (b) moderately harmful; or (c) with unknown effects. Most people would not take the injection under those circumstances. The situation is the same here if we are not certain about the long-term effects of day care on young children, why unnecessarily put them at risk? Why treat them as guinea pigs?

One further problem that needs to be noted is the possibility of child care centres becoming places of child neglect. Increasingly there will be the temptation to use day care centres as places to dump children. This becomes more possible as day care centres' hours are extended. In Victoria child care centres will soon be allowed to remain open 24 hours a day, with no limits on how long a child can be left in care.34 One child care spokeswoman warned, "Childcare is not a place just to deposit your child and get on with your life".35 The head of the National Childcare Accreditation Council, Ms. Quentin Bryce, said, "There are some children in childcare for nearly as long as they are in the whole of their primary and secondary schooling, which is staggering to a lot of people".36

More recent proposals in Victoria include no limits on the hours a child can be there, with assistants as young as 15 being allowed to work in centres. The proposals have prompted some to speak of "warehousing children".37, 38 Speaking of such proposed changes, Ms. Celia Haddock of the Community Childcare Association of Victoria said, "We are meant to be family support, not boarding centres."39

In addition, a number of studies from here and overseas have shown that there is a much higher risk of physical health problems associated with day care. 40, 41, 42 Colds, diarrhoea, coughs, hepatitis A, respiratory complaints, mumps, measles, influenza, cytomegalovirus, meningitis are some of the medical problems which abound in day care centres.43, 44, 45 One Australian study for example found that "children prone to respiratory illness were more likely to be users of child care centres or creches than the children who were not prone".46 Another study of 23 long-day-care centres in Canberra found that on average children there suffered six more respiratory infections a year compared with children not in care.47 Moreover, some of these infections can be passed on to the parents.48 Other studies from here and overseas have found that the diets of children in long day care can be missing out on essential nutrients.49 A Norwegian study found that toddlers who attend day care or nursery school are twice as likely to develop asthma.50

Other studies have found that not only are children in day care at greater risk of disease, they are also at greater risk of being abused. A recent study conducted for the National Centre on Child Abuse and Neglect in America found that there is a "substantial" risk of sexual abuse in day care centres.51 In another study, 75 per cent of sexual abuse victims in Michigan were day care children.52 Children can also be neglected in child care centres. Numerous complaints have been made about babies and toddlers being left alone in child care centres.53 In other instances, children have been found to have wandered off from child care centres.54

II. Quality in Day Care

Much is made of quality in discussions about child care. The ironic part of all this is: if we are really concerned about quality in raising our children, why not promote the best source of quality? Why not allow the best carers the parents real freedom of choice to be able to care for their own children? An abundance of studies have made it clear that what babies and toddlers need most is the continuous one-to-one attention of a caregiver. This can rarely be obtained in group care. For one thing, the ratio of children to staff is often 15 to 1, or worse, and secondly, there is a very high turnover rate of staff at day care centres. As one expert put it, "Many childcare youngsters will spend 12,000 hours in care before they reach school, with dozens of different carers and that's if they stay at one creche!"55 Thus, no matter how excellent a facility may be, it can never replace a mother's continuous love and attention. Common sense, as well as sociological studies, bear this out.

Obviously there are many good day care centres and many devoted day care staff. But children do not need "expert" professionals, they need committed carers, and who better than parents to provide that commitment and love? No child care worker, no matter how skilled, can replace the love, attention and devotion of its own mother. This is how one mother put it: 56

"While I and most of my friends were saying our minds were 'too good' to stay at home and raise our children, none of us ever asked the question, 'Then what sort of minds should be raising our children minds that were not very good?' My carefully worded advertisements for childcare literally came back to haunt me. . . . I wanted someone who would encourage my children's creativity, take them on interesting outings, answer all their little questions, and rock them to sleepage I wanted someone who would be a 'part of the family.' Slowly, painfully, after really thinking about what I wanted for my children and rewriting advertisement after advertisement, I came to the stunning realisation that the person I was looking for was right under my nose. I had been desperately trying to hire me."

As Penelope Leach has said in her important book, Children First: "It is clearly and certainly best for babies to have something close to full-time mother care for six months at least conveniently linked with breast-feeding and family care for a further year and better two. Using financial or career penalties to blackmail women into leaving infants who are scarcely settled into life outside wombs that are still bleeding is no less than barbarous."57

She goes on, "However carefully she is fed, washed and protected, and however many mobiles are hung for her, a baby's overall care is not good enough to ensure her optimal development unless she is constantly with people who know her as an individual and who always have the time (and usually the inclination) to listen to and answer her; to cuddle and play, show and share. These are the people she will attach herself to and that attachment matters."58

Even if the above argument is accepted, the response of some is still: "Why not put more tax dollars into day care, to improve quality and service, in order to replicate that home environment?" There are several problems with this. First, the better a day care centre is, the more it costs. Thus low income families tend to lose out. And as Patricia Morgan explains, "Affordable care is low-quality care. Universally available high-quality care is achievable nowhere on earth."59

Secondly, day care work is a thankless and underpaid job. To enable day carers to better perform their tasks, they need all the comforts other workers get; rostered time off, lunch and tea breaks, shift work, vacation time. But this is the Catch 22 situation: the better we make working conditions for the carers, the more we disadvantage the infant! That is, the more flexi-time we give the carer, the less continuous, long-term attention the baby gets from one carer.

Why not simply give financial help to the one most likely to be committed to the child's well-being the mother? Day care can never come up to this standard. As Leach says, "That vital continuous one-to-one attention can rarely be achieved in group care, however excellent the facility may be. Babies in their first year need one primary adult each, and while that may be inconvenient, it is not very surprising. Human beings do not give birth to litters but almost always to single babies."60 Or as Anne Manne put it: "Children need most not trained, expert, professional care, but the passionate partiality of parental love. That love is not reproducible, just as to be a mother is not reproducible. Caring is."61

Indeed, the more we hear from feminists that the solution is to just spend more money on better quality care, the more it seems that they are seeking to approximate the very place they do not want children to be at home with their mother. As commentator Richard Lowry remarks, the "search for the holy grail of high-quality care will be everlasting, like the quest for the elusive 'true Marxism'. What distinguishes high-quality care is lots of intense, personal attention (cooing, stroking, bouncing, babbling) over an extended period of time in other words, exactly what real mothers would do, but for an hourly wage. This kind of care is hard to find, and expensive."62

If child care is necessary, keeping it in the home is the best option. As one child psychiatrist said, "The best substitute parents are extended family members grandparents, uncles and aunts, for example who have a genuine emotional interest in the child."63 Evidently most parents believe this as well. In America nearly half the non-mother child care is provided by family members or relatives.64 In Australia, the same situation can be found. Only 34 per cent of children aged four and under receive some formal care.65

And child care experts even concede this point in the choices they make. A 1996 survey of Macquarie University early child care students with experience in day care found that no students said they would put their babies in a child care centre.66


1. E.PAGEA.C., Future Child Care Provision in Australia. Interim Report. Canberra: Economic Planning Advisory Commission, 1996.

2. Vanstone, Amanda, "Fact Sheet: Child Care Assistance," August 2001.

3. Biddulph, Steve, "A Creche Can't Love Them", The Herald Sun, 7 April 1994.

4. Manne, Anne, "Electing a New Child," Quadrant, January-February 1996, pages 8-19.

5. National Research Council, Who Cares for America's Children? Child Care Policies for the 1990s, cited in Richard Gill, "Day care or parental care?", The Public Interest 105, Fall 1991, pages 3-16.

6. Hotz, Robert Lee, "Parental care vital to child development", The Australian Financial Review, 28 November 1997, Review Life, page 14.

7. Cited in Hotz, ibid.

8. Bowlby, John, Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

9. Bowlby, John, Maternal Care and Mental Health. New York: Schocken Books, 1950.

10. Fraiberg, Selma, Every Child's Birthright: In Defense of Mothering. New York: Bantam Books, 1977.

11. Karen, Robert, Becoming Attached. New York: Warner Books, 1994.

12. Belsky, Jay, "The 'effects' of infant day care reconsidered", Early Childhood Research Quarterly 3, 1988, pages 235-272.

13. Belsky, Jay and David Eggebeen, "Early and Extensive Maternal Employment and Young Children's Socioemotional Development: Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth", Journal of Marriage and the Family 53, November 1991, pages 1083-1110.

14. Haskins, Ronald, "Public school aggression among children with varying day-care experience", Child Development 56, 1985, pages 689-703.

15. Ainsworth, Mary, et. al., Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1978.

16. Bowlby, ibid.

17. Schwartz, Michael, "Do We Want Government to Be Our Baby-Sitter?", in Phyllis Schlafly, ed., Who Will Rock the Cradle? Washington: Eagle Forum, 1988, pages 269-288.

18. Nicholi, Armand, "The Fractured Family: Following It into the Future", Christianity Today, 25 May 1979, page 11.

19. Borge, Anne and Edward Melhuish, "A Longitudinal Study of Childhood Behaviour Problems, Maternal Employment, and Day Care in a Rural Norwegian Community", International Journal of Behavioral Development 18, 1995, pages 23-42.

20. Cited in Suzanne Fields, "Heart Start preceded Head Start", Los Angeles Times, 28 September 1992.

21. Baskett, Sasha, "Working mums study", Herald Sun, 18 May 2000, page 11.

22. Hanson, Kylie, "Childcare link to teen gangs", Herald Sun, 17 July 1995.

23. Reported in Shankar Vedantam, "Child-care link to aggressive behavior", The Age, 20 April 2001, page 4.

24. Cited in Karl Zinsmeister, "Brave New World: How Day-Care Harms Children", Policy Review, Spring 1988, pages 40-48.

25. Hunter, Brenda, Home By Choice. Portland, Oregon: Multnomah, 1991.

26. Fraiberg, ibid.

27. Marshner, Connie, Can Motherhood Survive? Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgamuth and Hyatt, 1990.

28. Edgar, Don and Gay Ochiltree, Today's Child Care, Tomorrow's Children. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1995.

29. Cook, Peter, Early Child Care: Infants and Nations at Risk. Melbourne: News Weekly Books, 1996.

30. Cited in Alicia Larriera, "Today's kindy brat tomorrow's chronic drink-driver: researcher", The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August 1995.

31. Madden, Kelly, "Child care a hurdle", The Mercury, 12 January 1996, page 6.

32. Heath, Sally, "Stay-home parents crucial to child's learning: researcher", The Age, 23 September 1995.

33. Broude, Gwen, "The realities of day care", The Public Interest, Fall 1996, no. 125, page 97.

34. Hanson, Kylie, "Childcare to go 24 hours", Herald Sun, 14 December 1996, page 7.

35. Quoted in Kylie Hanson, "Round the clock Childcare plan", Herald Sun, 9 October 1996.

36. Quoted in Jennifer Foreshew, "Kids clock up the hours in extended childcare", The Australian, 23 October 1995.

37. Heath, Sally, "The new faces of child care", The Age, 22 November 1997, page 12.

38. Pegler, Tim, "'Open house' child-care proposals under attack", The Age, 14 November 1997, page 7.

39. Cited in Pegler, ibid.

40. Carter, Helen, "Disease risk in childcare", Herald Sun, 17 May 1993.

41. Hailstone, Barry, "Infant immunisation warning", Adelaide Advertiser, 7 May 1992.

42. Thomas, Martin, "'Increased health risk' for children in day care", The Australian, 30 April 1991, page 3.

43. Graham, Duncan and Dugald Jellie, "Concern about illnesses in child care centres", The Age, 24 August 1994.

44. Haskins, Ronald and John Kotch, "Day care and illness: evidence, cost and public policy", Pediatrics 77, 1986, pages 951-982.

45. Bale, James, et. al., "Cytomegalovirus Reinfection in Young Children", Journal of Pediatrics 128, 1996, pages 347-352.

46. Woodward, Alistair, et. al., "Acute respiratory illness in Adelaide children the influence of child care", The Medical Journal of Australia 154, 1991, pages 805-808.

47. Ewing, Tania, "Illness more likely in child care: study", The Age, 9 July 1997, pages 1,2.

48. Hanshaw, James, "Congenital Cytomegalovirus Infection", Pediatric Annals 23, 1994, pages 124-127.

49. Nancarrow, Kate, "Diets of children in child care poor: nutritionist", The Sunday Age, 1 September 1996, page 7.

50. "Asthma linked to child care centres", Herald Sun, 25 September 1997, page 23.

51. Bybee, Deborah and Carol Mowbray, "An Analysis of Allegations of Sexual Abuse in a Multi-Victim Day-Care Case", Child Abuse and Neglect 17, 1993, pages 767-783.

52. Cited in Don Feder, "Day care's hidden agenda unmasked", The Boston Globe, 25 February 1991.

53. Stone, Deborah, "Child care babies left alone", The Sunday Age, 17 September 1995.

54. Pountney, Michelle, "Alert after toddlers escape", Herald Sun, 23 October 1998, page 31.

55. Biddulph, ibid

56. Linda Burton, cited in Karl Zinsmeister, "Brave New World: How Day-Care Harms Children", Policy Review, Spring 1988, pages 40-48.

57. Leach, Penelope, Children First. London: Michael Joseph Pub., 1994.

58. Ibid.

59. Morgan, Patricia, Who Needs Parents?: The Effects of Childcare and Early Education on Children in Britain and the USA. London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1996, page 109.

60. Ibid.

61. Manne, Anne, "A Reflection upon Re-entering the World", Quadrant, June 1994, pages 14-25.

62. Lowry, Richard, "Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Children in Day Care and the Mothers who Put Them There", National Review, 28 May 2001.

63. Rinsley, Donald, "A Child Psychiatrist Looks at Child Care", in Phyllis Schlafly, ed., Who Will Rock the Cradle? Washington: Eagle Forum, 1988, pages 43-54.





National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003