|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
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
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
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