The positive effects of free early years education from the age of three are many; however, to apply the same rule of thumb to babies of nine months is misguided and not based on the evidence on early brain development. In the first years of life, from conception to age three, the brain is growing at its most rapid. The quality of human interaction during this time has a direct and lasting impact on the developing neural pathways in the brain. Close, consistent, loving, communicative physical response, eye contact and talk are critical for certain aspects of early brain development particularly associated with brain wave connection and language-learning. In the early months, for example, only the mother’s voice stimulates the language-learning centre of the brain (Beauchemin et al 2010; Abrams 2016; Leong 2017).
Research strongly points to the need for babies and toddlers to have attuned consistent care for the majority of their waking hours from adults lovingly and closely involved with them to form secure attachment. Thirty five hours of childcare a week translates to babies being in childcare for 7 hours a day over a 5 day week. Recent neuroscientific research confirms Bowlby’s work about the importance of secure attachment for future emotional health. Infants who spend long hours in group daycare with multiple and changing carers have been shown to have elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. (Ahnert & Lamb 2004, Drugli et al 2017)
Insecurely attached infants grow up with a huge range of emotional and mental health issues, resulting in extremely costly demands on public services in the future. A significantly high proportion of people in prisons, youth offenders and those with severe mental health problems have insecure attachment. Young infants in group daycare often experience many changes of carer, because group daycare providers have an insufficient budget to provide babies under two with an appropriately skilled and consistent ‘main carer’ who can give the essential attuned and responsive care to support the development of secure attachment and optimum brain development. There is already a crisis in the childcare sector; staff turnover is very high and more and more nursery providers are going out of business because the current level of funding is insufficient. The number of childminders, who arguably provide a more appropriate ‘home based’ care setting for babies, has dropped dramatically in recent years
Parents are understandably concerned about the increasingly high cost of out-of-home childcare and which is only available to parents who are in paid work, not those who are endeavouring to be their children’s main carer. The cost of daycare is crippling family finances, but this is not a reason for political leaders to seek to bribe voters by announcing more and more ‘free’ hours for younger and younger children.
In surveys, parents say that they would like more time with their babies, not less. Based on the evidence that secure attachment and stable family life are the main predictors of future physical and mental health, financial support for families with young children is a key election issue for voters. A ‘care allowance’ paid directly to all parents would provide families with real choice. It would be better for the emotional needs of children under three, to acknowledge the importance of parent/infant attachment, enable families to care for their own children, help to prevent harm and begin to address the shocking numbers of young people with mental health problems. We may then achieve a more equitable start in life for all children with the ultimate goal to improve the economy.