If, when or where to place your baby into childcare can be one of the most difficult early decisions to make as a parent. Your decision may be influenced by many factors, but for many parents it is simply the only practical option; financial, social, family or career pressures may mean that the decision of ‘if’ is not up for debate. Currently, more than a third of all children under 3 years old in New Zealand are in some form of organised childcare.
There is no question that if you start talking about babies, childcare and a baby’s development, many of your friends and family – not to mention the experts – have an opinion.
Over the past 25 years there has been increasing debate about the benefits, drawbacks and potential long-term effects of placing infants in non-parental care. There is clear evidence that infants thrive and are less stressed when they are with caregivers who are attuned to their cues and who provide their care from a place of genuine interest and love. These everyday interactions form the basis of healthy attachment and are vital for early brain development and well-being.
It is often mothers who provide this intensive care. Although it is widely acknowledged that this care is optimal for infants, society does not always value and acknowledge those who provide this nurturing environment in their own home, for their own children. So, if this is you, well done. It may be a world away from your previous experiences but you are providing such a wonderful start in life for your baby.
For those of us who love our babies every bit as much . . . but must consider working outside of the home, don’t panic. The well-being of infants and young children is influenced by the relationship and experiences that they have with their primary caregivers, family and whānau, regardless of whether they have care provided in a non-parental setting for part of their day. Ensuring that the time you do spend with your baby is quality time, being present, engaged and attentive to their needs will help to support healthy development.
While previous research highlighted potential negative effects of childcare, such as increases in aggression, stress and other behavioural changes, these are more prevalent in children who spend more than 30 hours a week in care,
and those who start in care at younger ages. To mitigate the potential impact of childcare, aside from the practical aspects, such as location, cost and availability, evaluate how many hours your baby or child needs to be in care, and specifically assess what type of care is offered.
New research into out-of-home caregiving has shown, in general, babies and children in high-quality care had lower stress and anxiety levels. Keep in mind that high-quality care is not just about having good resources, a clean environment and qualified staff. For your baby the most relevant aspect of his experience will be the consistency and level of engagement of the staff. Inconsistent caregiving is linked to poorer outcomes as it directly impacts a baby’s ability to form the attachments that are so important for healthy development. You should assess aspects of care such as staff ratios and turnover. Do the staff ratios allow babies to get individual attention or assigned primary caregivers? Primary caregiving means that your baby can build a trusting relationship with a key person who gets to know him, his routines and needs well. Do other staff/teachers show a genuine interest in babies and interact with them in a positive way?
Remember, there are many options for childcare, from nannies, home-based care, au pairs, sessional and full-day nurseries and kindergarten. Kōhanga Reo and Playcentre are unique in that they encourage a parent’s active involvement in their programmes. We are fortunate in New Zealand that early childhood education is well recognised and supported. My advice is to look at your needs, assess your options, visit, observe and ask questions of those who may be entrusted with the care of your little one – remembering that it is the interactions and relationships with the teachers and/or caregivers that will be central to your baby’s experience.