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Mothering Matters We pay almost anyone to look after infants - except their mothers

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" time.

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.

References for Mothering Matters, and some related references by the author

Belsky J. Developmental Risks (Still) Associated with Early Child Care. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2001), 42, 845-860.

Cook PS. (1978). Childrearing, culture and mental health: exploring an ethological-evolutionary perspective in child psychiatry and preventive mental health. Medical Journal of Australia, Special Supplement, 1978; 2:3-14.

Cook P.S. (1977) Attachment and Separation: What Everyone Should Know

Cook P.S. (1997) Early Child Care - Infants and Nations at Risk. Melbourne, News Weekly Books. 1997. 215pp. Foreword by Professor Jay Belsky. 2nd Printing May 1997 with Update Postscript.

Cook P.S. Rethinking the early child care agenda. Medical Journal of Australia 1999, 170: 29-31.

Also letters in reply to Rethinking the early child care agenda. Medical Journal of Australia 1999, 171: August 2, 1999.

Cook Peter. Home truths absent in early childcare debate: We need parent-friendly options. The Australian March 24, 1999, Sydney. And letter: The role of myth in childcare policy. Letter, The Australian April 14, 1999, Sydney.

Leach P. (1997). Infant care from infants' viewpoint: the views of some professionals. Early Dev. Parenting 1997: 6: 47-58. A summary of this study is presented in Cook P.S. Early Child Care: Infants and Nations at Risk (as above) on pages 54-57, reprinted with permission.

Mortensen, EL, et al.(2002) . The Association Between Duration of Breast­feeding and Adult Intelligence. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287(18). May 8, 2002.2365-2371.

Ochiltree G. (1994). Effects of child care on young children: forty years of research. Early childhood study paper number 5. Australian Institute of Family Studies, Commonwealth of Australia, 300 Queen Street, Melbourne, 3000.

Some publications of the Early Child Care Research Network of the National Institute of Child Health (Publication details as at July 2002)

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (1999a). "Child care and mother-child interaction in the first 3 years of life". Developmental Psychology, 35, 1399-1413.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. "Early child care and children's development prior to school entry". American Educational Research Journal. 2002, 39, 133-164.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. "Does Quality of Child Care Affect Child Outcomes at Age 4?". Developmental Psychology (in press).

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. "Does Amount of Time Spent in Child Care Predict Socioemotional Adjustment During the Transition to Kindergarten?" Child Development (in press).

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. "Social Functioning in First Grade: Associations with Earlier Home and Child Care Predictors and with Current Classroom Experiences". Submitted for publication.

Dr. Peter S. Cook is a retired Sydney, Australia child and family psychiatrist, who writes on preventive child and family mental health. He is the author of Early Child Care: Infants and Nations at Risk (Melbourne: News Weekly Books, 1997).

Slightly amended from an Opinion article published in The Australian, Sydney, July 24, 2002. This article may be reproduced, with acknowledgement.