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Hidden stress of the nursery age
· Study finds hormone
level soars when daycare starts
Lucy Ward 19th September 2005
Toddlers starting at nursery after being at home since birth experience high levels of stress in the first weeks after separating from their mothers, and are still showing "chronic mild stress" as long as five months after their first day in the new environment, according to a study measuring hormone levels in young children.
Levels of the stress hormone cortisol doubled even in secure youngsters during the first nine days of childcare without their mothers present, compared with their normal level at home. The levels fell but were still significantly higher than for the same infants at home five months later, even though the children (aged between 11 and 20 months when they started nursery) by then appeared to have settled and no longer showed outward signs of distress.
In a further insight into the way young children react to daycare - an increasingly common experience for UK toddlers as more and more mothers return to the workplace - a related study also reveals that children at nursery do not see a drop in cortisol levels over the day as they would at home. Instead, they remain "unusually aroused or stressed", and, a research paper to be published next spring and drawing on the cortisol studies concludes, they need extra time and attention at the end of the day to help bring them back to "emotional equilibrium" ready for the next day at nursery. Without that comfort from a parent, says the paper, the children start the following day "hyper-aroused", which can lead to behaviour problems or disobedience.
The findings do not mean that daycare is bad for children, and there is no evidence yet of long-term effects of raised cortisol levels, according to co-author Michael Lamb of Cambridge University. However, the conclusions can help provide pointers to show how parents, nurseries and policy-makers can minimise the stress toddlers experience when they make the transition from home.
Amid government moves to boost the UK's childcare provision, the majority of youngsters now spend at least part of their pre-school years in some form of childcare. In March this year, there were 518,000 full daycare places in England, generally in nurseries, according to the inspectorate Ofsted, with the number of children using them even higher because some places are part-time. Childminders provide 316,000 more places, and playgroups, after-school clubs and crèches bring the total registered places for under-eights up to 1,468,300.
There is now one full-time regular childcare place for every four children under eight, compared with one for every nine when Labour came to power in 1997, and the government plans further expansion under its 10-year childcare strategy launched last December.
However, group-based daycare is not without critics. A series of studies in the US and Britain - highlighted last year in the Guardian - have concluded that high levels of group-based care can have damaging effects on some aspects of emotional and psychological development for children under two. After two, the situation reverses, and group-based care benefits all aspects of a child's development.
In his paper, to be published next year and co-authored by Lieselotte Ahnert of the Free University of Berlin, Prof Lamb proposes a range of measures to ease children's experience of daycare. One way of controlling the build-up of stress, according to the paper, is quite simply to minimise the time children spend in care each day. However, while some parents may wish to reduce the time their children spend in nursery, the UK's notoriously long working hours - the longest in Europe - still militate against parents, who may also face financial pressures to spend extra time at their desks.
Prof Lamb also suggests that nurseries provide regular rest periods which allow "some degree of self-regulation to take place". A 2002 cortisol study led by the US academic Sarah Watamura found cortisol levels fall during rest times, even when children appear not to sleep.
UK nurseries could also adopt the practice common on the continent of encouraging parents to accompany their children for the first days or even fortnight in care to help ease the transition, the paper says.
Parents need time in the evenings to return youngsters to "emotional equilibrium" before the children face another round of emotion-arousing experiences, the paper concludes. However, Prof Lamb acknowledged children's need for parental focus and a cuddle coincided with parents' hurry "to get the food ready, clean up, get the child ready for bed".
Psychologist Oliver James, author of "They F*** You Up", said while having time with children at the end of the day was better than nothing,"much better would be to organise our society in such a way so that women genuinely feel valued and have status higher than that of street cleaners if they do want to look after their children".
The government was "throwing vast sums of money at daycare", but would be better off focusing not on new buildings to house children but on childminders and other small settings, he said.
How the test was done
· The 2004 Berlin study followed 70 toddlers, 36 of them girls, who before enrolment in childcare at between 11 and 20 months had been cared for at home, mainly by their mothers.
· Researchers measured cortisol levels in children's saliva at home before childcare began; when their mothers were present with them at nursery; during their first two weeks without their mother; and five months later.
· The home measurements created a baseline against which levels at nursery were measured, although there was no control group. Higher levels of cortisol were found during childcare, even if mothers were present.
· Five months later, levels were still much higher than baseline levels - prompting researchers to conclude that the novelty of childcare, as well as separation itself, caused the stress.
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