When a baby is born, it has more brain cells than at any other time in its life (200 billion). Throughout the first years of life more and more connections are formed as the baby's brain becomes 'wired'. 90% of this wiring takes place in the first five years. It is these connections that are the basis of both cognitive and emotional development.
The brain cells become connected through the experiences the baby has and since a baby cannot provide its own experience because it is totally helpless, that experience is provided by others. Positive contacts between carers and baby release chemicals that help them bond and soothes the child if distressed. If however the child's experience is of being denied physical and emotional closeness, being ignored, shouted at or criticised, the child experiences stress, which if prolonged can lead to permanent changes in the brain.
This information is particularly important when it comes to making a decision about child care for the under fives - and especially for the under threes. At a recent conference a speaker spoke about the increasing tendency for babies to be in nurseries for a whole day, many of which are open from 6.00am to 7.00pm. If I imagine what this is like for the babies, I am reminded of an experience I had with a friend of mine Fred, who at nearly 90 was unable to look after himself. It was decided that he should go into residential care and I viewed a number of facililties in our local area. I chose the best of those on offer and he moved in. He was so miserable there, that after a month he moved back home and we made another (one to one) arrangement.
When I visited him in the residential home, I was struck by the similarity in set-up with day nurseries. He was alone in his room most of the day. (I know babies are not alone in rooms but if they spend most of their day lying in a cot, it's just a matter of scale.) His carers were usually unskilled and too busy to give him individual attention. The job was low paid and often a first stop on the way to a better career, so turnover was high. Similarly day nurseries are usually staffed by young girls with a minimum of training, pay is low and turnover high. Some carers may have natural nurturing instincts -if they have been well nurtured themselves but they have to spread it between several babies. If a baby becomes bonded with a carer -which is surely the best option, they may be separated as the baby grows older and is cared for in another part of the nursery or the carer leaves. Another separation and sense of abandonment!
Fred spoke up, we listened and he went back to his home. Are we really listening to our babies when they cry when being left in the morning? when in our stomachs we know they may stop crying but are not really happy? When they are clingy and quiet when picked up. This is not an argument for a child to be with its mother all day everyday, but we know what babies need and it should inform all decisions that are made about child care. Child minder or day nursery? sharing child care with other family members? How to choose the right nursery? when should I go back to work? for how long?
Small children need warm close and responsive nurturing from all adults with whom they spend any amount of time. Good carers interact with a baby not just because he is crying or grizzling but because the carer, cares. So there is only one question when it comes to chosing child care. Do they care about the child or just care for him?