Are creches bad for our children?

Fiona Dillon

Creche or childminder? It's the great childcare conundrum facing working parents everywhere. A recent study showed that more than one-third of the country's nine-month-old infants are being minded outside their home for an average of 25 hours a week.

New parents having to make decisions about childcare can find it stressful. The decision on what to opt for is not made any easier by the wealth of often contradictory evidence in the public domain.

A storm of controversy erupted following the publication of a paper in 1986 by American Jay Belsky called Infant Daycare: A Cause for Concern? It warned, tentatively, that babies who were looked after in daycare were showing signs of increased levels of aggression and disobedience in later life.

However, a 2009 study carried out in the UK, which followed 1,000 babies from three months, found no relationship between the amount of childcare and behaviour problems at 36 months.

Proponents of creche and nursery care can point to the trained childcare staff and their reliability as a form of childcare. Programmes are geared to every child's level and children get the chance to socialise. They provide a good routine to the child's day.

TV presenter and clinical psychologist David Coleman, below, says: "The more the child can be at home with their parents, the better.

"The evidence suggests that for a small infant and young baby it is better to be minded at home, either by the parent themselves or the next best thing is by a childminder in the child's own home."

Up to the age of three, "the primary thing that you really want children to gain is a sense of security in their attachments".

The best way to achieve that is to have consistent care. "Usually it's easier for that to happen when it's just one carer looking after one child at that age."

If you have three babies to one carer, which you might find in a creche, it means that that person's attention is potentially split three ways, he points out.

In creches, the age-groups tend to move from infants, to bigger babies, to wobblers to toddlers. "That means they move room. And generally they move carers as well. So over those first three years, even though the child might be going to the same creche, they may end up having about four different key carers in that time, as well as obviously their own parents and maybe their grandparents.

But a creche is a good option for some parents, says David. "Some parents . . . like the professionalism [of a creche], they like the sense that everything is recorded through the day.

"There are minimum standards set down for creches. Most will not just meet the minimum standard, they go way above."

David says there is a lot of evidence that after the age of two, a creche is better for children's development than a single carer in terms of the level of stimulation that's available to the child, and for social reasons.

Children of that age "are better able to have that level of social interaction". He said that younger children, don't understand sharing. "It can be really good for them to be in that social mix."

There can be difficulties with every scenario, he concedes. "If you have a clash of personality with your childminder who might have been recommended to you, that might be difficult."

Other people can find that they get a childminder and then, after a number of months, the childminder takes in additional children. So the parent's sense of the individual care that they were hoping for can fall apart, says David, who has been filming a new series of Families in the Wild for RTE, which will be aired in the spring.

The key consideration, says David, is that parents trust the person or persons who are going to be looking after their child.