A new report on daycare and child wellbeing in New Zealand has had a predictably stand-offish reception from the media and professional groups so far, although parents posting their opinions online are divided about its claims.

The report, Who Cares, published by lobby group Family First and written by British psychologist and author Aric Sigman, draws on research indicating that attending daycare for an extended period of time — and consequent separation from parents — is a significant source of stress for many young children. Studies have shown elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day among young children in daycare centres compared with levels among children at home.

I believe Dr Sigman is correct in claiming that “the provision of daycare has been one of the most successful sales stories in recent history.” The pitch has been particularly successful in New Zealand:

The number of children under two in childcare in New Zealand has increased by approximately 50 per cent in the past decade and now includes 25 per cent of all infants under two. With almost 60 per cent of two-year-olds also in care, New Zealand’s total of 36 per cent of all those under three in childcare is now among the highest in the world — in 2005, when the figure was 32 per cent, New Zealand ranked seventh-highest out of 28 OECD nations. And the trend looks set to continue. A new OECD report, ‘Doing Better for Families’, representing the policy strategy of 34 industrialised countries, has concluded: “It is crucial to mobilise maternal labour supply more effectively”, adding that “from a career perspective alone, women are probably best advised to go back to work at an early stage after childbirth” (OECD, 2011).

There you have it from the horse’s mouth: mobilising maternal labour supply.

Officially, though, the policy focuses on something else:

Daycare continues to be evaluated by child outcomes in terms of ‘skills’ such as language or school readiness at age five or six… But [says Sigman] what has proved elusive is an understanding of how the young child is affected emotionally and physiologically, and how they experience daycare while they are actually there. Babies can’t speak and toddlers have limited verbal abilities.

That, certainly, must be the first concern: what infants and toddlers experience at the time.

Dr Signman may be right or wrong in his interpretation of the evidence (probably right) but what he is certainly correct about is this: “discussions of childcare must, in future, be uncompromising and honest with an exclusive focus on the wellbeing of the child” rather than adults’ interests.

“Exclusive” focus sounds a bit tough, but, surely, what is truly for the wellbeing of the child in a particular case will take account of the circumstances of the adults.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet