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A chilling truth about child care

February 5 2003

Babies must have contact with adults that involves more than just being cared for, writes Bettina Arndt.

Playing "peekaboo" isn't just about the joy of making a baby chuckle. Playing games that involve interaction with adults is essential for children to acquire knowledge about their world.

That's the conclusion being reached by researchers into infant development who are discovering the importance of social interactions where adults and infants share and respond to ideas, objects and events together. And babies learn best when they share these experiences with responsive adults who know them well.

Recently, some Australian researchers decided to measure these shared learning experiences - known as "joint attention sequences" - for babies in child care. At the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference on February 12, one of these researchers, Berenice Nyland at RMIT, will spell out her findings for these infants.

The results make chilling reading. Joint attention experiences barely exists in many infant child-care centres. In more than 30 hours of tape Nyland collected from 18 months of infant-carer interactions for two infants in different centres, she rarely found these desired social interactions. Sure the babies were fed, their nappies changed, their basic needs met. But as for the critical joint attention sequences - "there were hardly any", Nyland reports.

Other researchers have come up with similar results. Researchers from the School of Early Childhood Research at Queensland's University of Technology looked for joint attention sequences between carers and infants in eight randomly selected child-care programs. In two they found them; the carers were engaged in regular joint interaction with the children. But in the rest, such mutual engagement was very rare indeed. "Often the kids would make bids for attention, and the caregivers would miss them or ignore them," commented researcher Donna Berthelsen.

That's exactly what comes out in other Melbourne research by Nyland and Sharne Rolfe from Melbourne University and Romana Morda from Victoria University. They studied data collected from six-hour observations of infants in care and found half the attempts at connection by the infants resulted in failure. For most children, "interactions were fleeting - characterised by only one turn", and fell far short of the critical mutual engagement.

The distress children experience when confronted by unresponsive adults was clearly shown in Harvard paediatric professor Edward Tronick's classic 1978 "still faces" experiment where mothers were asked to mimic the unresponsive faces often show by depressed mothers who emotionally withdraw from their children.

The profound distress shown by these babies highlights the fact that not all parents are able to provide adequate care for infants. But parents put children into child care in the belief that their emotional and developmental needs will be catered for - yet many infants end up spending day after day with similarly unresponsive carers too overloaded to provide stimulation.

This is not a criticism of the underpaid, often poorly trained child-care workers, who, in many Australian centres, are required to cope with an infant-carer ratio of one to five - which, astonishingly, is the "recommended" ratio adopted in most states. Many carers have little time to do more than offer minimum care when trying to feed half-a-dozen babies at a time.

But as Nyland's stark descriptions show, there's something very wrong when mute babies in highchairs are left staring at meals, with their attempts at connection often ignored.

The researchers are united in lamenting that child care in Australia often fails dismally to provide the stimulation infants need in order to thrive.

Eventually Australia, like countries such as Sweden, may be forced to conclude it is simply too expensive to provide the carer ratios and highly trained staff needed to provide adequate care of infants in institutional settings and that extended parental leave and paying parents to care for their own children may be a far better solution.

It is interesting to speculate whether the lack of stimulation received by these infants could be connected to later problems emerging in children, which have shown up in the major US research study in the area, the National Institute of Child Health and Development Study of Early Child Care.

This research has shown that children who spent long hours in child care are more likely to show aggression and lack of compliance as primary school children. Negative effects on intellectual development have emerged for infants in full-time care. Similar results have emerged in work by Kay Margetts at Melbourne University.

The federal Minister for Children, Larry Anthony, is putting together an expert group to discuss recent developments in child care and child development. It is hoped these critical issues regarding infant care will be firmly on its agenda.

Staff writer Bettina Arndt is a member of Larry Anthony's expert group.