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Many nurseries in the UK have adopted a ‘no kissing’ policy to protect their staff from being accused of abuse, however some argue children are being affected by bans on kissing and cuddling.
Over recent years, high profile cases such as the paedophile Vanessa George who worked at a nursery in Plymouth, have led nurseries to draw up policies on what is 'appropriate touch' and to ban kissing by staff over fears it could result in practitioners facing abuse allegations.
Twinkle Star Day Nursery in Portsmouth has a strict policy on contact with staff which says ‘Children are encouraged to be independent therefore prolonged periods of cuddling and sitting on practitioners’ laps is discouraged. Kissing of children is forbidden and may result in a disciplinary.’
Ladybirds Day Nursery in Barnstaple says in its policy ‘While some contact is unavoidable (nappy changing and toilet training) there are other activities, often instigated by the children themselves that we explain is not appropriate. This includes any form of kissing on cheek, forehead or lips when a parent is not present. If a child requires comforting (following an accident, or on parents’ departure from nursery) and in the short term cuddles will help, these will be given.’
One nursery manager says she even goes as far as not to even kiss her own daughter while in nursery, saying on a chat forum ‘I do tell my staff not to kiss children and explain the reasons for it to protect them from any allegations. Children naturally come to you for a kiss and a cuddle and we always turn to the side so that they can kiss our cheeks. I don't even kiss my own daughter whilst in nursery.’
Another nursery reports being told off by an early years advisory teacher after a member of staff was seen kissing a baby.
Reaction to the policy seems to be divided among parents with some approving while others echo the sentiments of one parent on a chat forum who said: “The thought of a small baby in a nursery going all day without a kiss from someone makes me quite sad.”
Zoe Raven, managing director at Acorn Childcare believes it is important to be led by the child on kissing and cuddling. She talked about the issue with her staff and concludes: “Children need and enjoy lots of cuddles, and nobody feels inhibited giving or receiving cuddles. Kisses, they agreed, could be accepted from children, (eg when they say goodbye at the end of the day) but the only kisses given by staff would be kisses on the head or arms (examples were kissing a baby's head as he or she is put down to sleep, or 'kissing better' a part of the body that has been hurt, IF that is what the child wants.”
Sarah Steel, managing director of the Old Station Nursery chain says: “All the evidence around attachment theory and all the guidance in the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) supports close physical contact with the youngest children and the importance of contact for all children. I think that a good, confident practitioner would know exactly what was appropriate – and younger or less experienced staff need to have good role models to work out their own boundaries.”
Penny Tassoni, president and Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) and author of many books on child development believes “it is actually the duty of anyone working with young children to offer physical contact”.
She says: “Young children who are not with their parents are likely to produce a stress hormone known as cortisol. Having access to a hug or even holding a hand of a key person can help to reduce anxiety. Policies that are draconian in terms of not allowing children to be comforted and reassured are therefore not fit for purpose as they ignore children's rights to being nurtured.”
She adds: “In terms of navigating around child protection issues, there are some key points to be made. Firstly, adults should 'offer' contact in ways that allow children to make the decision as to whether or not to accept e.g. a hand might be extended so that a child has the option of holding it. Whatever the child decides then has to be respected.
“Grabbing toddlers up from behind them is therefore a no-no as they have no ability before the action takes place to agree to it. Then there is the matter of appropriate contact. Good children protection policies should include clear statements to staff about what is inappropriate i.e undressing, kissing on the lips, so that there can be no room for doubt. Finally, it is common sense in group care for such offers to be made out in the 'open' and not covertly.”
The issue seems to become even more complicated when it comes to male nursery workers although Ms Raven says: “Our male nursery manager has only ever experienced one parent expressing concern, and that was because his daughter had told him that 'I kissed K... today'. The parent was fine once the context of the kiss had been explained, and our nursery managers all agreed that they would only accept kisses on cheeks, never on the lips”.
Ms Steel agrees “there is a concern that it could be harder for male practitioners, but again, if the individual is confident and works in a supportive team then this isn’t a problem. We have male practitioners in our baby rooms and pre-schools and they are just as likely to have several children sitting on their lap or snuggling up as a female practitioner. I think we should continue to promote the importance of hugs and cuddling, it would be such a shame to see people shying away because of concerns over whether it is ‘proper’ or not.”
John Warren, director of Childcare Services at Fennies Day Nurseries Ltd, has had a long career in childcare and as “a male member of staff I have never faced the issues of being questioned about hugging a child, I offer hugs as reassurance to children and accept them if children want them. There is a focus on ‘if it is okay to hug’ however, do we question if we need to change a nappy and perform a much more intimate care proceeding in a child? We do not because it would be neglectful to leave a child in a soiled nappy. I would add if this is the case then it would be neglectful to not give a child a hug because there is a strong likelihood they would need one.”
But Melanie Pilcher, the Pre-School Learning Alliance’s policy and standards manager, is keen to emphasize there are two sides to a cuddle and says: “There is no doubt that a cuddle can also be used as a form of 'control' a way to exert power over another person if it is not reciprocated – that is when it is not acceptable, and when staff need to be alert to the worrying behaviour of a colleague.”
She adds: “As long as staff are aware of what makes a safe and loving environment for children and the types of behaviour that should give cause for concern, then there should be no reason why staff should feel uncomfortable about cuddles. After all a cuddle conveys so much when it is given and received with equal enthusiasm. It is a form of non-verbal communication that says you are safe, you are loved, or I recognise how you are feeling.”
Laura Henry, managing director of Childcare Consultancy, which offers training to the early years sector, has found “some practitioners think that they do not want to upset parents by getting too close to their child; they may have concerns over safeguarding issues, practitioners favouring/bonding inappropriately, etc.”
However she believes “touch is one of the most important senses and when children are touched appropriately and meaningfully, this can help to stimulate a child’s emotional well-being, igniting their learning and development to an optimum level”.
One way of getting around the issue of what is 'appropriate touch' is to get the children to give each other cuddles. Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland, carried out a Cuddle Circles project at Happy Days Nursery in Dundee which involved children giving each other a daily cuddle.
Nursery staff found as a result, children are more empathetic towards each other and use more caring language and they themselves have become more aware of the emotional aspect of caring for a child.
After all everyone likes to feel the ‘cuddle chemical’, also known as the hormone oxytocin, that is released during a cuddle, bringing a feeling of contentment and security, lower heart rate and a sense of calmness and relaxation.