Does daycare damage children?



Another day, another negative story about working mothers. Yesterday, the media was ablaze with a study by Dr Aric Sigman about how day care at an early age can do long-term damage to children.

His article, Mother Superior? The Biological Effects of Day Care, to be published in The Biologist says that up to 80% of children show increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol during a regular day daycare settings. He suggest this could have effects on their long-term brain function and ability to form attachments in later life.

He admits that his study is biased towards the negative impact of daycare, but says this is because these are often overlooked.

Other researchers have questioned his thinking, including Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, who says cortisol levels fluctuate in children in daycare during a day and that it is not proven that such fluctuations have a negative long-term effect. They could, she says, prepare children for dealing with new experiences.

The National Day Nurseries Association said the research failed to address the positives of nursery care, such as increased educational and social attainment and said biased reporting was “unhelpful” for parents who have to work. The real issue was improving the quality of available childcare.

Gillian Nissim, founder of, said: “Working mums are bombarded with different research. Much of it is contradictory, but the negative research tends to pick up more coverage. Many women do not have a choice over whether they work or not. Many get a great deal out of their work which in turn impacts positively on their children’s health and wellbeing. It would be good to see more focus on the positives of being a working mum and about work life balance and parenting in general, which is after all usually a joint venture.”

Dr Ellie Lee, Reader in Social Policy at the University of Kent, and Director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS), said the research was typical of how neuroscience is being manipulated for a political agenda which aims to put all the onus for raising children on their parents and individualises childcare. She says: “It shows the extent to which we view young children as very vulnerable and profoundly affected by their parents. There is now a constant emphasis on the parent as the child’s most important influence, but the more you emphasise the phenomenal significance of parents the more you put out the signal to other adults that it is not their responsibility to play any role in the future generation.”

She adds that this results in the idea that parenting is ‘a lifestyle choice’ and creates a barrier between parents and non-parents. “We view children as either feral or as a cotton wool generation, as either devils or angels,” she says. “It is not new in our culture to view children as angels or devils, but by emphasising parental determinism we encourage parents to cotton wool their children more. It creates more anxiety, including the worry that no-one will look out for them if they get into a scrape. Parents are probably right in this because we encourage other adults to stand back. The effect on children is that they do not relate to other adults in a productive way.”

She says all the focus on parenting is “packaged as being about community building, but it is entirely the opposite”. “It’s about constant fragmentation. The numerous scare stories about nurseries and so forth make parents think they can’t trust anyone to look after their children,” she states.

She adds that the impact of parents on children is complex and says it is hard to measure the relationship between parents and their children as well as the many other influences on children. She says: “The idea that you can distil parenting into simple ‘skills’ that can be studied individually does not add up.”

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