|Evidence that good mothering
matters, both for the individual and for society, is steadily
growing. More reports from the Early Child Care Network of the US
National Institute for Child Health and Development increase
concerns about early childcare and its effects on young people. Some
25 top US scholars co-ordinate this multi-million dollar study,
following more than 1000 babies from birth, to compare the effects
of maternal care with various alternatives. Fathering is important,
but this article is about mothering.
In Australia we fund the Institute of Family
Studies for expertise in family matters. In 1994 it published Effects
of Child Care on Young Children: Forty Years of Research by Gay
Ochiltree. She dismissed research suggesting risks in early
childcare, especially US studies, arguing that Australian childcare
is so good that American findings of adverse outcomes don't apply.
She claimed: "No evidence has been found that good quality
childcare harms children."
But in 2002, the NICHD Network reported in American
Educational Research Journal (39, 133-164) that, although higher
quality childcare was associated with better cognitive performance
at four and a half years, the more time during these years that
these children had spent in any type of non-maternal
childcare, regardless of its quality, the more assertiveness,
disobedience and aggression they showed with adults, both in
kindergarten and at home.
At school one year later, they continued to be
more aggressive and disobedient, not just assertive or independent.
So non-maternal childcare, whatever its quality, is
associated with important risks.
The NICHD researchers warned that even modest
adverse effects on behaviour can have serious social consequences
when large numbers of children are affected.
NICHD studies also found that when children
spent more time in childcare, their mothers displayed less
sensitivity when interacting with them at six, 15, 24, and 36 months
of age. Sensitive, responsive mothering through the early years was
the best predictor of social competence at six years, which in turn
predicts schooling success.
Early childcare also precludes longer
breastfeeding, which, besides better health, leads to significantly
higher IQs in adults. For example, those breastfed for 9 months,
averaged 6 points higher IQ as young adults. (Journal of the
American Medical Association, May 8, 2002).
The movement for women's
"liberation", while advancing women in the workplace,
devalued and undermined their role as mothers. This denied infants'
needs for mothering, and mothers' needs to provide it.
Healthy mothering includes breastfeeding,
holding, carrying, attachment bonds, and making infants feel loved.
These basic needs of infants are hardly met in institutional
childcare, especially when profits must be maximised in private
centres. Professor Jay Belsky, a distinguished member of the NICHD
Network, described a staff ratio of one carer to five infants under
two (the New South Wales standard) as nobody's idea of quality, but
rather a licence to neglect.
Childcare is now one of Australia's most
profitable growth "industries" (Business Review Weekly,Rich
200, May 2002). It promotes circumstances that fuel its own
expansion, as two-income couples bid up the price of homes, and two
incomes are needed to raise a family. Mothering is out. Childcare is
in. We pay almost anyone to look after infants except their mothers.
Mothering and fathering happen after work in "quality"
Yet Penelope Leach's (1997) large survey found
that most child development professionals privately believe it's
best for infants to be cared for mostly by their mothers. Like the
NICHD studies, they don't support the view that parents are
interchangeable, but that they complement each other.
We need to do whatever it takes to help women
give their babies and young children the lifelong benefits of high
quality mothering, and stop subsidising an ideology that promotes
risky and inadequate substitutes.