Received wisdom has it that babies and toddlers up to about 30 months/3 years thrive best if they enjoy a warm and stable relationship with at least one adult, responsive to their needs. This notion is well-supported by scientific evidence. Sound attachment, established first with the mother, is forged through consistent and committed care.

OBSERVATIONS: Two children in a Hospital Waiting room:

  1. A small boy – around 18 months old- is strapped into a forward-facing buggy alternately sobbing and shrieking. A woman, most likely his mother, pushes him at ever-increasing speed up and down a corridor in the Accident and Emergency Department of a large city hospital. Her face is grimly set she does not speak nor touch the child, nor try to distract, nor reassure, or even move around to the front so the child can see her. The child is desperate in that cold, clinical place with only strangers in his vision. By the end of the experience, when at last called in to see the doctor, the child is howling like an animal. Why was this? Did the mother not dare to touch nor speak to her child in case his behaviour became even worse? Was she afraid because he was ill, and she didn’t know how to cope? Or was her response part of recent childcare thinking that parents should only attend to their children’s ‘good behaviour’ and ignore the ‘bad’. Difficult to tell.
  2. A baby girl is sitting up, strapped in her pram. I presumed it was her parents sitting on nearby seats, but not within her eye line. Throughout a two-hour waiting time, neither adult looks at, nor speaks to the child. Every so often when she whimpers, the pram is pushed back and forth a little. She whimpers more and more continuously, but nothing happens, so the child gives up and continues to stare ahead. Perhaps her parents are waiting for her to fall asleep? A woman, sitting close by, tries to strike up a conversation about how long they had been waiting etc. She asks the child’s age – ‘Just over a year’ comes the reply – though the baby seems much younger (perhaps 8-9 months? ). The woman then tries to interact with the baby who does not respond in any way. She neither smiles nor cries, neither does she lean out of her pram to check with her mum if this stranger is ‘OK’. She does none of these: but just gives the woman a puzzled stare, as if being spoken to is the last thing she expects.

On the one hand, distress; on the other, passivity. In neither case did these parents interact in any way with their little ones. There was a grim joylessness in both cases. I wondered why? Perhaps these mothers lacked the confidence to interact with their child in a public place, or didn’t know how, or didn’t know that they should? Perhaps their life circumstances were so difficult that they could not, nor wish to, engage with their little ones?  It’s probably unlikely these mothers wanted to cause actual harm to their children although it seemed that they didn’t know how not to.

On the other hand did these parents not have the knowledge or understanding to respond appropriately?  Maybe these parents were tired, anxious or depressed and  without support. In such cases it could be argued that that these very young children would be better off spending time away from their parents in a more stimulating and responsive environment with a child-minder or in a nursery, hopefully with staff trained to understand their needs and respond with some focused loving one-to-one care? Perhaps such an arrangement would give these mothers the space, time and energy to focus on their own needs. At the very least, they would not have to face the daily fall-out of a joyless parenting experience.

This got me thinking that the results of the Survey commissioned in 2018 by What About The Children? are not so surprising after all. (Opinion Survey 2018, www.whatabouttehchildren.org.uk). The survey was conducted among a representative UK sample of over one thousand. When the results arrived, I was surprised that the majority thought that the emotional development of the under-threes is better achieved in a group setting, such as a day nursery, rather than at home with one to one care. A further 20% had responded with ‘Don’t Know’! Maybe a good proportion of the respondents had, like me, witnessed and/or experienced, less-than-ideal parenting?

In the first three years of life, every child should have loving and responsive care from someone focused on meeting their needs. This carer would understand the reasons why this is important and, indeed, why loving care is every child’s right.

If, in infancy, children’s rights and needs are neither understood, nor satisfied, they can face a painful future. As a society, we will be the poorer.

Dr Carole Ulanowsky (28.2.19)