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Mother figure is vital for a child
By Ben Fenton 20th October 2006
The document circulated by Sir Richard Bowlby is likely to cause tremors in the world of child care.
Sir Richard has spent the past 14 years studying the effect on attitudes to child care and child development of his father John's work, summarised in the document extract here. He has also incorporated recent findings from peer-reviewed studies.
He concludes that group day care is unlikely to provide appropriate surroundings for the very young and that, if left in the charge of a group of strangers, with frequent changes of carers, children experience prolonged levels of stress comparable with being lost on a beach.
Some studies suggest that this leads to chronic production of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, which research indicates may affect the development of the brain in very young children and inhibit their ability to forge relationships and communicate effectively with adults.
Recent research by Penelope Leach and others suggests that children cared for in nurseries are least likely to do well in developmental tests when compared to toddlers cared for by their mothers, or individual child minders.
Research in Berlin by Prof Michael Lamb and others showed that babies in group day care could experience prolonged periods in which the levels of cortisol they produced were significantly higher than in the home.
The Bowlby paper is the first to suggest that these two matters may be linked.
Sir Richard does not denigrate group day care as such but suggests that the only type of nursery that can hope to provide appropriate care is one that mimics the care offered by loving, experienced and well-trained child minders, nannies, grandmothers or fathers.
That means it must be the same person offering the care, that other children being looked after by that person should be from different age ranges and that there should be as little turnover in staff as possible. Some day-care nurseries do offer this kind of regime but they are not common, according to Chris Ponsford, the development director of the pressure group What About the Children?
The paper, in common with the vast majority of modern work on child development, is based on the work of Dr John Bowlby, who developed "attachment theory".
This complex doctrine is aimed at defining how secure a child feels about its world based on the strength of ties to its "primary attachment figure", usually its mother.
Secondary attachment figures, such as grandparents, nannies or child minders, are capable of replacing the mother for short periods but a rotating cast of less familiar carers is unlikely to provide the feeling of security necessary for a child to develop a strong sense of its place in the world.
Andy Elvin, the former director of the Soho Family Centre in London, said there was as much good practice as bad in day-care nurseries. "But it would be better for us to be looking for ways to value motherhood, such as replicating the schemes of countries where maternity leave is granted for two or even three years," he said. "That would take investment over a generation, and there aren't many politicians prepared to argue for tax rises to pay for it.
"But, down the road, the savings in terms of removing the need for special education support, counselling, even time spent in courts and prisons, would probably make it a worthwhile investment.
"In the meanwhile, for many parents, child care is often Hobson's Choice."
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