Behind the Headlines: Does nursery care make children moreantisocial?

One-to-one care has important developmental benefits for the under-threes.

What is the story?

Children placed in a nursery before the age of three are more likely to become aggressive and withdrawn than their stay-at-home peers, according to newspaper reports.

They quote parenting guru Steve Biddulph, saying that nothing can provide an equal substitute for one-to-one care for young children.

He argues that infants' brains need to be stimulated by 'loving interaction' to develop properly and has called for the government to introduce policies to enable mothers to stay at home with their babies.

Currently, nearly 250,000 UK children under the age of three attend nurseries full- or part-time and, since Labour came to power in 1997, more than 1.2 million new childcare places for the youngest children have been introduced.

What do researchers say?

The media attention follows the launch of Mr Biddulph's new book, Raising Babies; should under-threes go to nursery?

In his book, he notes that the number of babies and toddlers under three years old who are spending all day in nurseries (from 8am-6pm) has quadrupled in the past 10 years.

He criticises what he calls the 'slammers', people who 'slam' their children into nursery for most of the day from the age of six months. He says these are mostly urban professionals and account for 100,000 of the two million under-threes.

Mr Biddulph had previously spoken in favour of nursery care but has changed his mind after seeing increasing evidence of antisocial behaviour among children who spent their earliest years being cared for away from their home. 'The best nurseries struggled to meet the needs of very young children in a group setting. The worst were negligent, frightening and bleak. A nightmare of bewildering loneliness that was heartbreaking to watch,' he said.

Mr Biddulph cited a number of studies to back up his claim. These included the Families, Children and Child Care study, carried out by childcare expert Dr Penelope Leach of the Tavistock Clinic in London, with the Department of Educational Studies, Oxford University.

This research concluded that young children cared for in nurseries exhibited higher levels of aggression in later childhood and that children looked after by their mothers did better in developmental tests.

Mr Biddulph also cited the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Study, which was carried out by Professor Edward Melhuish of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, Birkbeck, University of London.

This found that the younger the child and the longer the hours in daycare, the greater the risk of antisocial behaviour.

The types of antisocial behaviour described included kicking, fighting, snatching, destroying things and being unco-operative. The behaviour was said to persist even after the children reached school reception age.

What do other experts say?

Professor Jay Belsky, director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, said he broadly backed the findings, but the subject was complex.

'Lots of time in non-maternal care early in life, especially group care, is associated with increased levels of aggression. But it would be a mistake to think in terms of severe misconduct or psychopathology being promoted by such early experience,' he said, adding that when the quality of nursery care was high, it could produce a positive impact on cognitive and language development.

Professor Patricia Buffler, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, said there were benefits to early attendance at nursery.

'Benefits relate to the development of the immune system and modulation of the immune response associated with early exposure to routine childhood infections,' she said.

Her research showed that children spending more time in daycare had a significantly reduced risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Starting nursery younger, attending for longer and having contact with lots of children all contributed to the reduced risk.

Br J Cancer 2002; 86: 1,419-24


- A psychologist claims that children under the age of three thrive best if cared for by their mothers.

- Studies have suggested that children put in nursery for long hours are more likely to become aggressive.

- Where nursery care is of high quality, it can help cognitive and language development.

- Exposure to group daycare helps develop the immune system and may protect children against acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

"Nurseries 'damage' children under three" - Daily Mail
"Child guru says nursery harms children" - The Sunday Times
"Nurseries can damage your toddlers, says parenting guru" - The

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