The more capacity of early group day-care is established, the more parents ask for it. This correlation resembles "modern times"and it totally ignores the need of small children. Hardly anyone seems to take note of their misery.
Scientific results on the effects of early group day-care show how much small children in group day-care are put under toxic stress. The following article explains this phenomenon. It is connected with the details of brain development in the first two to three years of life. And it explains why early group day-care is connected with many risks.
Psychic, social and cognitive development of babies and toddlers - separation- and forlornness-anxieties
In the first 6 months of life a baby subjectively forms a unitiy with her or his mother. In the following months the baby begins to be mobile and realizes that mum is a separate entity. And that´s when forced separation begins to induce fear. Ideally, at the beginning of this phase, child-mother (or any other primary caregiver)-attachment is fully established. The so-called primary attachment-figure cannot be exchanged and only she or he is secure base for exploring the surrounding world, and safe haven for comfort and rest whenever needed.
If mum is available for the child, than the attachment, e.g. The relationship, is stable and secure. If mum cannot be reached because she is nowhere near, than the baby experiences massive fear and dispair, much more stress than his delevoping brain can endure without damage. Why forced separation between mother and baby inflicts such a catastrophic emotional state in the baby can be explained by the fact that a baby cannot "mentalize"an image of his mother and lacks the ability to foresee the re-union. Mum has never been there and will never be back. No other person can soothe this massively negative feeling.
The ability to mentally imagine another person develops slowly. It starts with recognition of faces. At age 12 months children recognise persons they have regular contact with when they see them, but cannot keep a memorized image. Between 18 and 24 months memorized images come up, the baby then realizes that she or he is a person distinct from other persons. At this stage separation anxieties are intensified when children are submittes to forced separations from their primary caregiver. If this is a regular this, prolonged crying and sleeping disorders can be proof of their anguish. Shy and introvert children suffer the most miserable state of all.
Exploring the world under parental protection
The absence of self-awareness in the first (total lack) and second (partial lack) year of life leads to the need to be emotionally regulated from an outside person, and this again can only be done by the primary caregiver. A small child endures the exploration of the surrounding world only supported, often literally hold, by her or his primary caregivers. The child learns from their feelings and reactions, and imitates their actions. Thus development is optimal, and no formal program whatsoever in any sort of institution can even come anywhere close to the effectiveness of this finely attuned attachment-based learning process.
While reaching out and exploring toddlers very often exspectantly look at their parents faces. Parents while readily smiling back encourage their children to learn more about the world, an inborn talent all children have, no formal education-program whatsoever is needed. Toddlers point at objects, and at the age of two and three often ask: "What´s this?", attentively awaiting a direct (that´s vital !) answer from mum or dad. This elementary form of learning is irreplacable, and if it not interrupted by forced and prolonged separations, the child develops a feeling of self-efficacy and relaxed mood, best basis for more curiousness and exploration.
At roughly two years, at the point when a child realizes that it is a person among others, she or he starts to differentiate between foreign objects and own belongings. It proclaims items as
"mine"and cling to them. Parents´ emotional support is irreplacable for emotionaly enduring this new awarness of self and others, `familiar and strange´. To learn to voluntarily give a toy to another child is a hard task and high aim. And here again is a developmental step which demands the child-parent-attachment-relationship. Under good conditions It tends to last for another 4 to 6 months. Forced separations hinder and prolong this phase.
To balance the challenge of the above described development, children at the age of two to three years seem to be very self-centered and strong-willed. The child is his own centre of the world and feels omnipotent, that is a very normal stage of development. The need of others cannot (or only rudimentary so) be imagined and fulfilled. The more expressive children can be quite angry when they are asked to do something which they didn´t plan to do. If they obey their parents, they don´t do it out of rational understanding but on the base of attachment and relation. In forced separation-situations children obey out of the fearful feeling of being lost and insecureness.
The temper tantrums of small children almost always happen in company of the mother, because the child needs to debond of her. Hence other caregivers are less prone to the childs outbursts of frustration. If the mother treats the child consitently, calmly and friendly without just being defeated and inadequately giving in, the childs personality-development ist strengthend.
After about 2 1/2 years some major steps of development are taken, and the child needs another year of active exploring the near surroundings and his own reactions to it in the comforting closeness to his mother who still has this vital function of secure base and safe haven. It is after 3 years, and for many children probably even after a full 4 years, that they are strong and fit for hours long periods of social contact in a group of children and adults who are not primary caregivers to this child.
How do these development facts relate to the concept of half – or even full-day early group day-care?
If children have to go into group day-care between their first and second birthday, they are right in between the phase of mastering their first and subtle autonomy. They are very dependent on the support by their primary attachment-figure. This will fail, if suddenly the mother is not available to the child for long hours a day because this is nothing that will happen theoretically, rather is her factual assistance vitally needed. The one year old child in day-care is not only subjected to despair but hindered in his development.
The massive separation-anxiety bouts of these children, esp. during the phase of age 8 to 16 months and then again 20 to 24 months, are a toxic stress burden, which can be measured in scientific studies. Several long-term studies laid open long-term risks of chronic stress burden for mental and physical health throughout life.
Shy “well-behaved” children suffer most
Especially the most sensitive and shy children, who desperately cling to their mother, are traumatized when put into day-care before their 3rdbirthday. Once mother is out of the door they stop crying and desperately try to find anyone offering comfort and individual loving care. Usually they find none, because the carers have to many children to look after and hence to little time for any single child. The shy children retreat or react submissive so not to get under even worse stress than they already are. Their energy is consumed with trying to keep any sort of inner balance, their behavior show very little signs of distress, but their cortisole levels (stress hormone) are pathologically altered. Under these conditions virtually no developmentally positive education is taking place!
This stress-effect is directly connected with violating the attachment-needs of the children. One or two year old children cannot postpone their needs for many hours until their are picked up and brought home. The unnatural over-activation of the stress-management-system leads to a heightened vulnerability against viral and bacterial infections, to lasting neurological alterations in the transmitter systems and to a risen susceptibility to stressfull situations, most probably with lifelong effect.
Toxic stress by sensoric overload in group day-care
Another factor with a massive stress potential is the sensoric overload. In the first two years of life children simply cannot integrate an hours long hoard of children and subsequent multiple play situations. The sensomotoric systems at this age require more quietness and self-regulated action for regular development. Many similar aged children put together resemble an excessive demand and put development at risk. The sensory systems have not yet developed potent filters and get constantly overloaded. The risk of attentional and concentration-related problems is heightened.
The above described features of the "That´s-Mine"-Phase produce additional stress because the children get not enough opportunities to act according to the developmental needs. Again, the shyer kids tend to be subdued because of because of feelings of insecurity. These children retreat, they try not to show off and survive emotionally – somehow.
In early day-care many the two-year-old children act in a social and obedient way which is a survival strategy: They readily give toys away if another child cries. They strongly react to the feeling of other children because the emotion contagion effect is very strong in small children. They try to stop tears of others but this is not to be confused with the empathic competence children later should develop.
Almost all two-year-old children have problems with the setting of a day-care group. This is identifyable in their behaviour: They hardly ever play with each other. Either they play solo and for themselves or they try to get the attention of one of the carers. Experts call this "island-behaviour". These children are obedient and behave well at meal-times, for they try to maintain emotional stability and dare not risk the carers to get angry with them. Adult misinterpret this as "well educated in day-care"but the children stretch their adaptation way beyond their normal capacity and are constantly overstrained, which can induce restlessness.
This behaviour points to a general problem with early group day-care: If children development-wise are not able to stand alone, register, interpret, filter and reject, have little memory and no awareness of self, than they are very dependent on adults, if they don´t want to get lost in an ocean of feelings and sensory stimuli.
High risk of attachment disorder in full-day care settings
Whole-day group day-care and day-care in the first year of life inflict the risk of leading to attachment disorders which will damage life and well-being. Attachment development is fully dependent on the emotionally attuned availability of the primary attachment figure, most often – for obvious reasons - the mother. Children clinging to their mum show attachment-need behaviour. If this is rejected rather than adequately reacted to, children develop attachments disorders.
Education without attachment has little effect
The supporters of the concept of early group day-care are sadly mistaken in hoping for educational value in this setting. Education in the first two to three years of life is a family task, it requires security, predictability and trust. These children ask many questions during a day and hope for a person with emotional commitment, someone who loves them, to answer them promptly, friendly and enthusiastically.
Some children may profit from very wellequipped day-care if their parents are neglectful or abusive. However, those children are much better of with loving foster parents and without group day-care. For the great majority of children under three group day-care is potentially harmful because it leads to many developmental risks.
The growing economic, social and political pressure on young parents has led to a fatal situation, in which children in day-care tend to be younger and stay longer hours. That is an immense risk for their mental and physical health. This pressure ignores all results of developmental and psychoneurological studies. Economy blocks a social and rational discussion about what children need to be healthy and happy, and their parents need to live a fulfilling family life.
Dr. Erika Butzmann
Dr. Erika Butzmann, married, 2 children, 4 grandchildren, she studied educational sciences and psychology, her doctoral thesis (2000) dealt with the social-cognitive development of children. In the last 25 years Dr. Butzmann offered advice, trainings and coachings for parents and daycare-workers. From 2002 to 2008 she taught at the university of Bremen, Germany.
She was the author of "Strengthening parental competence in group trainings", publisher: Reinhardt-Verlag, Munich, 2011.