Daycare Bad?

The article below appeared in The Guardian on the 2nd October 2010.

“In 1986, a young American academic published a paper where he warned, tentatively, that babies who were looked after in daycare were showing signs of increased levels of aggression and disobedience in later life.

The study unleashed what he describes as a global “firestorm of controversy”. The suggestion that babies suffered by being taken from their parents and handed to carers, usually in nurseries, made uncomfortable reading both for mothers considering returning to work and for policymakers, eager to encourage them back into the workforce.

Jay Belsky, the author of the above 1986 study, Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern? left the US, partly because of the outcry, and is now director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck in London. He remains palpably wounded by the response to his original, hesitant suggestion of a link between daycare and behavioural problems in later life”.

The article below appeared in a Vancouver newspaper in 2014


“The number of atypical antipsychotic prescriptions dispensed from retail pharmacies for Canadians under age 18 rose from about 772,000 in 2007 to more than 1.3 million in 2011, according to IMS Brogan, a company that tracks the pharmaceutical industry. The drugs are being used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, developmental disabilities, autism, conduct disorder, anxiety and even insomnia, all conditions for which they have not been approved by health regulators”.

Similarly, in 2013 the number of children in the USA between the age of 1 and 18 on medication for mental health reasons (depression, ADD, ADHD, psychosis etc) numbered 17,922,134 (1) – nearly 21% of the children attending school in the USA. In the UK, children prescribed ADHD medication has risen from 92,100 in 1997 to 786,400 last year according to NHS figures.

Can we link childcare to these disorders and this epidemic of medication?

We need to look at the research that has continued since 1986 and what we now know today.

Firstly this study by two leading psychiatrists explains the effects on children when the quality of parenting isn’t of the required empathic (empathy isn’t sympathy) nature for the child to thrive. As a reader don’t be thinking – “it’s the parents fault”. Our brains are shaped by the environment around us and until we become aware of our issues will just continue to unconsciously follow the parenting patterns our parents used with us. And, naturally, their parents learned it from their parents, and so on back.

The positives (e.g. empathy), and negatives (e.g. impatience), beliefs (e.g. children should be seen and not heard) and feelings (e.g. contempt) which we unconsciously ‘swallowed’ from the moment we were born, are now acted out on our children unless we are aware of them. Add to this the unconscious cultural attitudes and behaviours that parents take on, learned from their family (e.g. boys are more important than girls). The frequency of these negatives projected onto the child are likely to play a big part in the mental health issues mentioned above and naturally affect their self esteem.

The NCBI article (click on ‘this study’ in above paragraph), points out the importance of Attachment of an infant / child to their parents or caregivers, and that when this attachment isn’t available to the child, he becomes insecure. This, along with the lack of safety in the environment, plays a major role in a child’s mental health, (such as anxiety and stress). Daycare, depending on its quality, may have either a positive or negative effect on the child.


Unfortunately, due to financial restrains some mothers/parents in either the attached/unattached camps have no choice and have to send their child to daycare. High quality care (2) where the child is more likely to attach to a caregiver is limited and the vast majority of mums find themselves resorting to lower quality care. For children under three who are subjected to lower quality care for more than 20hrs or more a week, 43% will be insecure. Accompanying this will be raised levels of cortisol for the infant or toddler (3). This is bad news for caring mothers who cannot afford high quality care. A UNICEF 2008 report concluded that the vast majority of care provided in the UK and the USA falls short of its standards of daycare.

With a child who already has an ingrained sense of lack of attachment the impact of the lower quality care environment is likely to exacerbate this condition. He/she is unlikely to feel attached to the caregivers in the low quality care establishments (e.g. insufficient carers) and he won’t feel attached to his own parents. So the child will turn to the only people left. His peers. And the problem with this is that children don’t love each other unconditionally. A child who may be top of the pile of popularity one day in his peers view, can be bottom of it the next. In the peer world it’s an immature dog eat dog of fitting in or not, along with a risk of bullying. And as a human being who seeks connection as a natural part of their nature this can be devastating, especially as he doesn’t have the necessary attachment to his parent or caregiver to pull him through the rough time. Many parents believe that the socializing aspect of daycare is good for the child and this is true but the child needs to know that they can turn to their parents for emotional support when needed.

In the final analysis if a child is securely attached to her mum or primary caregiver/s and the daycare is one of high quality the child will likely thrive.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969).

Please note – we are not blaming the parent!!! Our brains are shaped by the environment  and until we become aware of our issues created by this environment will just continue to unconsciously follow the parenting patterns our parents used with us..

For an infant or child, attachment is created when they know that the parents or caregivers can provide for their needs emotionally – i.e. that these people are safe, that she/he feels understood by them. From this secure place the child is able to reach out and gain experience in the world. This positive emotional responsiveness by parents towards their infant embeds itself in the cell memory to create true self esteem which is carried forward into adult life. (4) When this is the case we see adult relationships finding a balance between intimacy and independence.

Attachment theory was theorised from a western world perspective. Fifty or so years on from its beginnings, researchers studying tribes have concluded that the more possibilities for attachment for a child, the better. (5) Through custom the tribal villagers become the extended family of the child, providing additional safe emotional responsiveness needed for secure attachment. The child grows up with many ‘parents’, along with a deep seated sense of connectedness. And, should the birth mother die, the impact of this is greatly reduced. Both a secure family unit or an extended family have the same effect on a child. The child is likely to:

  •  Form better relationships with others
  • React less dramatically to stress
  • Be more effective in solving problems
  • Be more willing to explore the world independently
  • Be more willing to try different things


Also they grow up with true self esteem. (6)

Parents or caregivers who have attachment issues themselves  are unlikely to be able to provide a secure emotional bond because of their own lack of empathy, persistent anxieties, fears, and depression. Education can go a long way to changing this, but if the parent is unaware of their own issues and are impatient, harsh, and unable to ‘tune in’ to their child’s needs, narcissistic or cruel (7) the parent will likely pass on their attachment problems to their children who might:


  • Be bullies or be bullied
  • Show fear and anxiety
  • Manifest conditions such as ADHD, ADD, depression, conduct disorder etc.
  • Not interact with others

Amazingly there was a study – called ‘the strange situation’ – which predicts with 75% accuracy the child’s attachment and behaviour issues BEFORE THEY ARE BORN by interviewing the mother to be. The reason they can predict this is because most mothers will, by default, behave in ways they were treated by THEIR mothers.

The Solution

For centuries the extended family provided the opportunities for secure Attachment. But with the disintegration of the family unit and extended family unit, the available caregivers are gone.

The simple solution is to understand empathy and then the wise education in the realm of Attachment to parents, caregivers, doctors, social workers, psychiatrists and pediatricians. And  counselling, if the emotional reactions towards infants and children are too ingrained.

Medication is NOT THE ANSWER. Consider France, where only 0.5% of the child school population receives medication (8) for ADHD and in America its 6%. Why? Because the French address the problematic attachment issues through counselling, rather than dish out pills.





For the facts, figures and insightfulness you need about this, read
‘How not to F*** them up’ by Oliver James. Vermillion 2010, is an excellent and easy read.

Recommended reading:
Happiness – Who wants it. Mills, C. What Makes You Tick Publishing 2014.
Hold onto your Kids. Neufeld and Mate. Ballantine Books 2014.
Why Love Matters. Gerhardt, S. Routledge 2004
The Whole Brain Child. Siegel, D & Payne, T. Delacorte Press 2011
Parenting from the Inside Out. Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. Tarcher 2003
The Science Of Parenting. Sunderland, M. DK Publishing 2006


(2) High quality care is defined as:
For under twos the ratio of children to staff should be 3:1
For under threes the size of the core groups in which children are cared for should be eight
For children aged 2 years and over, half of staff should be graduates and the remainder should be up to Level 3 qualification.
For children under two, one third of staff should be graduates, the rest up to Level 3. (Daycare Trust 2009)
The vast majority of care provided in the UK and USA fall short of this (UNICEF 2008)

(3) See video on Home page

(4) Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. “Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relationship.” Psychological Inquiry. 5 1-22, 1994.

(5) ‘Hold on to your Kids’. Neufeld and Mate’

(6)The true test of self esteem is to imagine stripping away all one’s successes in life and what you are left with would be the sensed value of oneself – good or not so good.

(7)There is overwhelming evidence to support that ongoing cruelty to infants and toddlers will leave them with mental illness Schore, ( Siegel, Sunderland et al.