As our son edges closer to his third birthday I find myself being asked to justify our deliberate decision to not use daycare. Managing without it isn’t easy, but we’re lucky enough to be in a unique situation where we can juggle unconventional work schedules, allowing us to care for our little man ourselves. At times, it feels impossible and as if we’re barely keeping our heads above water. But for now, it’s working (just!).
I appreciate it’s not for everyone and it’s impractical for many families. But, it frustrates me when others pressure us to abandon our time with our son when we’re trying our best to raise him in a way that works for us.
“If you don’t put him into daycare how will he learn to socialize?” “If he doesn’t go to daycare now, how will he ever be ready for school?”
The impression I get is that daycare is now a normal and expected part of toddlerhood. Some people seem perplexed by the choices we’re making and can’t understand why we appear to be making parenting more onerous than they think it ought to be. How has society’s concept of raising children shifted so dramatically that when a parent stays at home to care for their children it’s seen as peculiar?
Before writing this post I asked other parents if they experience the same levels of interrogation I do. What I heard was a resounding, “YES!” – many parents feel judged. Some feel as though full time parenthood is no longer valued and their decision is seen as a sign of weakness in our career-driven western world.
But, with financial pressures on parents escalating while support simultaneously disintegrates, daycare has become a necessary tool for many parents to be able to provide for their families. So, how do we find a balance, make an informed decision and protect our young children in these developmentally critical years?
HOW DO CHILDREN LEARN TO SOCIALIZE?
Daycare has become so ubiquitous, we’re inclined to assume it’s where toddlers learn social skills. On the surface, it makes sense. But, Dr Laura Markham, suggests toddlers may learn social skills more effectively in playgroup settings with a parent, or dedicated caregiver, on standby, rather than being put into a “sink or swim” social setting. “You want the digger and Sam also wants the digger. Two boys and only one digger – how can we work this out together?” Adults are able to give children the language they need to make sense of new situations and provide an avenue to problem solve.
Young children learn social skills and emotional regulation by observing and emulating adult behaviour.
By modelling adult behaviour young children learn life skills such as empathy, compassion, kindness and patience. These lessons are cemented through positive reinforcement, which adults (or older children) can readily give. Learning to share, for example, is an alien concept for young children. But, adults are able to model sharing and encourage children to become comfortable with it at their own pace.
Imagine a little girl sharing a toy with her grandmother. She’s rewarded with gratitude and feels safe to share in the knowledge her grandmother will give her toy back. But when the little girl shares with another child, the reaction is less predictable. The other child may snatch the toy, show little gratitude and refuse to return her toy. Such experiences, if frequent, may threaten healthy social development.
But, some children seem to thrive on the opportunity to socialize in a group setting and love seeking out other children. Dr Markham suggests toddlers are biologically designed to be away from parents for short bursts of time only and, in a tribal setting when they need “refueling”, emotionally or physically, they would return to the safety of their parents. This encourages self-confidence to build gradually and naturally. By limiting the number of hours children spend in daycare, to just mornings for example, we can mimic this situation and help children feel more safe and secure.
DOES DAYCARE THREATEN EMOTIONAL REGULATION?
A child’s behaviour tells us a lot about how they’re coping with everyday life. It lets us know how well we’re meeting their emotional needs and it serves as a barometer for how fully they’re able to regulate their emotions. Providing a strong emotional foundation serves children well for the rest of their lives. So, how does childcare affect behaviour?
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) performed a rigorous longitudinal study following over 1000 children analyzing the effects of childcare on children under the age of five. The researchers found the more time young children spent in non-parental care, the more behavioural problems were seen, including defiance, temper tantrums, refusing to cooperate and aggression.
An analysis by Professor Susanna Loeb, of Stanford University, found the negative social consequences began when children spent three hours per day in daycare and doubled when they spent six hours per day in care. Loeb’s study also demonstrated if children were cared for at home by caregivers other than their parents, such as grandparents or nannies, they did not suffer increased behavioural issues, suggesting the absence of parents isn’t the main problem.
Positive parenting educator, Pam Leo, says babies and children need a secure emotional attachment with at least one adult caregiver in order to thrive mentally and emotionally. By their nature, it is challenging for centre-based daycare (and preschool) facilities to meet these basic emotional needs. Seeking out daycare facilities which place a priority on forming secure connections between caregivers and children, have a low staff turnover and a high adult to child ratio may help mitigate these issues and promote healthy emotional regulation.
IS DAYCARE STRESSFUL FOR CHILDREN?
Cortisol, a stress hormone found in the blood, follows a predictable daily rhythm. Studies show when children stay at home, with parents or other caregivers, their cortisol levels peak in the morning and fall throughout the course of the day. But, attending daycare seems to influence this normal rhythm with cortisol levels increasing abnormally during the day.
One study revealed cortisol doubled even in secure youngsters during the first nine days of childcare without their mothers present, compared with their normal level at home. For girls, a cortisol rise may be associated with anxious, vigilant behaviour. And for boys the rise may cause anger and aggression.Toddlers have also been observed to remain “unusually aroused or stressed” requiring extra time and attention from parents at the end of the day to help bring them back to “emotional equilibrium”.
The concern is that chronic elevations in cortisol may contribute to long term health issues: animal models have shown it can increase fearfulness and impair behavioural and physiological regulatory competence. Although studies are inconclusive, common sense would suggest higher quality daycare facilities should reduce the stress experienced by young children.
Dr Markham suggests delaying all-day care (9am-3pm) until children are at least four, if not five, years old, can help lessen the effects of cortisol rise in young children. In addition, seeking out daycare facilities with low staff turnover and where sensitive caregiving is a priority may help children feel more secure, reducing the levels of stress they experience.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO WHEN DAYCARE IS NECESSARY?
With the exponentially increasing costs of living in modern day society, the loss of extended family support and global housing prices at an all time high, most families need both parents working. Daycare has become a necessary tool to allow parents to do that. Interacting and playing with other children at daycare can be a hugely positive experience but it’s crucial to find a balance between healthy social interactions, sensitive caregiving and the ability to form strong attachments.
A Norwegian study analyzed behavioural problems in children attending preschool – little evidence of behavioural issues were seen. Why is there such a difference between U.S based and Norwegian studies? A number of key differences between Norwegian and U.S childcare facilities may explain. In Norway:
- Children rarely begin daycare before the age of one.
- The ratio of adult caregivers to children is very high, improving the ability for children to form strong emotional attachments.
- Daycare is play-based and emphasizes social over academic skills.
- Children spend most of the day outside.
Learning from this and from the studies outlined in this post there are a number of factors parents can consciously consider to improve the outcomes for children attending daycare:
- Limit the number of hours children spend in centre-based daycare.
- If possible, opt for employing a nanny or use high quality family-based daycare facilities. If grandparents or other family members are able to help with child minding go for it.
- Accompany your child for the first week (or two) to ease the transition to daycare.
- Look for daycare facilities with a high adult caregiver to child ratio.
- Seek out daycare centres with smaller numbers of children (less than fifteen is ideal).
- Centres which have multi-age groups encourage diverse social interactions – Montessori and Waldorf education systems are well-known for this.
- Find a daycare centre where outdoor play is encouraged.
- Avoid daycare before the age of one. Start with three hours or less per day and try to delay all-day care until children are a four years old.
LETTING GO OF JUDGEMENT
As I sit here typing this post close to midnight, I can hear my little man snoring in bed recovering from a recent cold. Chances are I’ll be up before sunrise, grabbing a life-saving coffee and working on my day job so we can spend the day following each other’s leads. I’ll pray he naps after lunch so I can work some more and alleviate the stress I feel trying to keep too many balls in the air at once.
But, I feel privileged to be in a unique situation where I’m able to stay at home, care for my son and continue to work remotely four days a week – like most families, we need two incomes. It’s a struggle but it’s working for us at the moment. There’s no easy, one size fits all solution for balancing the pressures of daily life and being there for our kids. As a society, we must strive to improve the availability of high quality daycare for our children and for families, especially single mothers (a.k.a superheroes) to have the option of staying at home (even part-time) with their young children during these all too fleeting early years.
There should be no judgement for parents needing to use daycare as a necessary tool in order to work and provide for their families. Equally, parents should be celebrated if they choose to leave their careers behind, transition to one income or juggle unconventional work hours in order to care for their families.
Whatever we choose for our children, we’re all doing the best we can given our own set of personal circumstances.