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Too young for childcare? Nine in ten parents feel anxious about putting their baby in a nursery

Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

What if he cries inconsolably when I leave him? How is she going to cope without me? What if the other children are mean? What if the staff forget to give him his comforter at sleep time?

These are just some of the fears plaguing many parents across the UK who are faced with the prospect of putting their baby in childcare.

“I really struggled with the dilemma of being a stay at home mum or returning to work,” said Ms Hutchinson. “When my youngest reached a few weeks old I made the decision to return to work on a part-time basis which meant I had the best of both worlds: quality time with my children and a career.

“But before we made our decision our baby was happy, she smiled all the time and laughed. She slept through the night and took good naps during the day. I was paranoid that she would not be happy anymore and I was also afraid she would not recognise us and smile at us like she used to. I was afraid that putting her in a nursery would change all of this.”


When a parent has been by their baby’s side every waking moment– holding them, guiding them, comforting them and playing with them – watching them disappear into a room of virtual strangers is enough to fill even the most confident parent with questions and doubts.

Even the shadow of a possibility that their baby might develop adverse emotional and behavioural effects long-term can linger in the mind of parents and make their decision fraught.

Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters and The Selfish Society, is critical of babies being placed in nurseries. She sees childcare for babies as a concept favoured by parents for their convenience, reliability and cost.

She said: "I hear a lot of parents who say that they are putting their baby into nursery because it needs stimulation, but what babies actually need is to make a firm attachment to a particular person; preferably their parents.”


According to Bowlby’s monotropic theory of attachment, if mother and baby are separated too soon or for long periods of time, particularly in the first couple of years, it can be detrimental to their joint health and well-being and attachment can be undermined.

A spokesperson for Mothers At Home Matter (MAHM) commented: “We are concerned that despite our better understanding of child development and the importance of loving interaction and communication, it is simply not possible for a childcare setting operating long hours to provide the kind of consistent and nurturing environment and loving care a baby needs to thrive.

“We applaud the work of dedicated staff in childcare settings but many countries make different arrangements so babies do not have to start care in nursery so early in their lives. The length of a typical nursery day is a concern and childcare from 8am to 6pm is clearly designed to accommodate parents' working lives and commuting time, rather than a child's needs.”


While anxieties in parents are completely natural, Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, says it is also worth remembering that “babies are far more resilient than they appear and can cope with the transition better than most parents.”

Professor Sylva, who has carried out multiple studies on the subject previously said: “A lot of parents worry unnecessarily and my research shows that the vast majority of children are not impaired on any measure by attending nursery under the age of two.”

In fact, a study commissioned by the Department of Education (DfE) in June 2015, looked at nurseries’ influence on children’s long-term attainment and found that children who had attended a nursery before the age of two had a better overall attainment than those who did not, and were able to form strong attachments and relationships with peers in primary school.

In the past Ms Sylva has received regular calls and emails from anxious parents.

“I get parents weeping down the line,” she said. “They say that they both have to work and that they need both incomes but they worry that one of them should stay home to look after their baby rather than use a nursery.

“I tell them that the research shows that the vast majority of children under two in nurseries are fine, and I tell them there are many things parents can do to make sure that their child is part of that majority.

“They can check the quality of the nursery care, speak to other parents, visit the nursery unexpectedly, make sure staff turnover isn't high and talk to the people actually caring for their child, not just the manager.”

’Emotional burden’

Since 1951 the number of women with children in employment has more than tripled; an increase largely due to the introduction of maternity rights, family-friendly policies, changing attitudes to work and improved access to childcare.

Currently, around 277,000 children under the age of three are enrolled in day nurseries across England, with nearly 50,000 aged from birth to two years.

Research from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) highlights the emotional burden that mothers face when they return to the workplace after maternity leave.

The research carried out by PACEY, who represent over 30,000 childminders, nannies and nursery workers across England and Wales, showed that nine out of 10 mothers are troubled by high levels of stress, anxiety and insecurities.

A further three-quarters are worried that they would miss their children, 56 per are concerned about their working arrangements not being compatible, while 55 per cent agonise over missing key events in their child’s life, such as their child taking their first steps or saying their first word.


The emotional impact on mothers and children during the transition of going back to work is all too often underestimated, and childcare providers play a vital role in alleviating parents’ concerns during this time.

Penny Tassoni, PACEY president and early years expert said: “Our research shows how heightened anxiety is for parents when they return to work and what an incredibly stressful time it is. With the increasing pressure on mothers to achieve the perfect work/life balance, feelings of guilt, anxiety and worry are all-consuming and separation anxiety is increasingly commonplace amongst parents and children.

“The childcare setting is central to mothers successfully returning to work, and getting this right will have a positive impact on both mother and child.”

The decision to return to work is not always a financial one. Monkey Puzzles Day Nurseries believe that a spell of maternity leave can often undermine confidence and self-belief. The fear of having gaps on a CV can also lead to parents feeling intimidated and disconnected from the world of employment.

The nursery group believe it is imperative that organisations and employers support new parents and concentrate on rebuilding confidence and sharpening skills.

They also recommend companies to have programmes and procedures in place that offer support to those returning. Skills training, access to networking and mentoring can play a crucial role in helping parents, particularly women feel prepared to return to the workplace, placing them in contact with their peers who are, or have been, in similar circumstances.


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