by Cynthia Whitfield of The Register-Guard

Amid nationwide concerns about the availability and quality of child care, a growing number of parents and experts say the present system of full-time care for infants and young children has problems this country is only beginning to discover and address.

An increasing number of children at progressively younger ages are spending most of their waking hours away from parents.

Although most studies suggest no major difference between children raised at home and children attending high-quality day care, many child development experts say the last word isn’t in. It’s not clear how many hours children should spend in day care, what age they should begin this care or whether researchers conducting child care studies compare children receiving high-quality day care with children receiving high-quality at-home parenting.

Full-time infant day care sparks the most controversy. Some child care experts say bonding is compromised when group care begins too early.

“Group infant care is hard to do well,” acknowledges Dennis Reynolds, director of the University of Oregon’s Child Care & Development Centers.

Pennsylvania State University psychologist Jay Belsky says evidence increasingly points to attachment problems between mothers and babies who spend more than 20 hours a week in day care. He says these babies form insecure rather than secure attachments to their mothers. Mothers employed full time just don’t have the time to get to know their babies as well as at-home mothers and may not be as sensitive to the nuances and early communication attempts signaled by their children, Belsky says. He says children with weak emotional ties to their mothers are at an increased risk of emotional and behavioral problems later in childhood.

There has been some support for Belsky’s theories, Deborah Lowe Vandell, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, did a study of 236 third-graders’ day care histories and found children who’d had more than 30 hours a week of child care during infancy had poorer peer relationships, were harder to discipline and had poorer work habits. The children at greatest risk were from the lower and higher socioeconomic groups probably because those from the lower groups had the worst child care and those from the higher groups had parents in high-stress professional careers demanding long hours, Vandell says. She concluded that there is a “serious problem” with infant care.

Other experts disagree, usually citing “independence” as the distinguishing quality characterizing babies in day care.

An often-quoted study showed day care children interacted less with their mothers than children reared mostly at home. This decreased interaction was described by the authors of the study as a positive sign of early independence. However, other experts dispute this interpretation of the data and say less need for interaction with parents is not necessarily desirable.

“This culture has always had a heavy emphasis on independence and autonomy, but I don’t think young children are meant to be so independent. I think it’s better for them to first experience a close, heavily involved relationship with one person,” says Maureen Nally, a local kindergarten teacher from Australia who has worked in day care in several countries. Nally works at College Hill Day School. The owner of this preschool purposely does not offer full-time hours because she feels children are overstressed by having to deal with lots of other small children all day long.

“I think the whole child care problem would be solved if we valued and respected children,” Nally says. “If we believe the care, education and nurturing of children is important, we should lobby for better child care and well-paid, well-trained staff. At the same time, we’d respect and help parents who choose to stay home with their children. We’d see both at-home parents and other caregivers as contributing to society in an important, productive way.”

Beverly Fagot, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says some of the drawbacks of day care include the potential for stress and tiredness in a long day spent with many small children. In addition, “these kids get sick a lot,” Fagot says. The various illnesses may have an indirect psychological affect on children because sick children are not at their best and may be “sick, tired and stressed out” in a busy day care center setting.

Illness is increasingly recognized as a serious day care problem. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control found that young children cared for primarily outside their homes are at increased risk for both minor and major illnesses because they’re exposed to so many other children at such an early age. They’re more likely to get a high number of colds and flu, strep throat, infectious hepatitis and spinal meningitis, as well as other diseases.

Until recently it was thought that this was OK because babies were merely building up immunities they’d have to build up later anyway, when beginning preschool or kindergarten. But studies have found that delaying group care makes sense. Even when first placed in a group setting, older children have lower rates of illness and disease because children are more resistant as they get older.

In addition, the way babies and toddlers interact makes transmission of illness more likely. Babies drool, suck fingers and then touch teachers, toys and each other. Diaper changing also carries risk of transmitting infection. Babies are also simply more vulnerable to disease. These illnesses spread out into the community, creating more sick adults as well.

“My kids were constantly sick with colds, flu, fevers, stomach pains and diarrhea when they were in a center,” says Lisa Crawford, formerly employed full-time outside the home and now a small, at-home day care provider herself. “Then, the adults would get sick, too, and had to try not to infect co-workers. The episode with pink eye was awful. Yet the center gave me no credit for the days she missed. Meanwhile, I missed days from work. So, I felt the center was benefiting at my expense for the disease she got there in the first place.”

Parents need to be informed about the complexities of day care before they can make intelligent decisions, says Alison Clarke-Stewart, a professor of social ecology at the University of California. She says that because there is enough evidence to acknowledge there are some definite drawbacks to day care, a compromise position might call for parents to work part time while their children are preschoolers, for instance.

Increasingly, parents say they’re not spending as much time with their children as they’d like. In a recent survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times, nearly 40 percent of all fathers and 80 percent of all mothers said they would quit their jobs to be home with their children if they could. The Times surveyed 1,000 families in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In response to the growing dissatisfaction with the amount of time traditional full-time employment leaves parents for being with their children, a growing number of experts and parents support the idea of government subsidies or child care tax credits allowing families to chose to care for their own children or buy quality day care. Many industrialized countries already offer such programs, and Sweden’s approach is often cited as a model.

Sweden does not allow children younger than 6 months in day care. The government provides financial help for families so a parent may remain home for at least a year with a new baby. In addition, all Swedes are entitled to work only six hours a day until their children are 8 years old.

Some parents split these hours so that one parent is always home with the children. Others prefer to work approximately the same hours. In addition, parents are allowed a generous 60 days sick leave for themselves, children and other sick family members.

U.S. lawmakers are finally beginning to turn their attention to child care matters. Limited help in the form of tax credits for U.S. parents interested in staying home to care for children will be available through recently passed legislation. The new law allows eligible families without children in child care to receive child care tax credits. However, the maximum tax credit available for such families is only $900 a year.

Legislation intended to improve the quality and supply of child care was also passed during the most recent congressional session. The Child Care Development Block Grant will send slightly more than $7 million to Oregon in its first year. That amount will be increased in each of the succeeding two years. Some of these funds will go directly to families in the form of child care subsidies while other funds will be earmarked for various day care improvements such as better salaries and training for child care workers.

But government cannot solve all the problems of child care, says Janice Elliot, assistant child care coordinator for the state of Oregon.

“We need to put our concern on the table to employers just as we once did with medical benefits, for instance. We need to start asking and pressing for such things as job share and longer maternity leaves for mothers wanting to resume the same job,” Elliot says.

In an afterward in a special Newsweek issue on the family, Dr. Benjamin Spock says parents should use their growing sense of disenchantment with current societal trends as a lobbying tool. He says the U.S. government should join other industrialized countries with a policy of subsidizing mothers or fathers who would prefer to stay home for the first three to five year of their children’s lives. In addition, government should subsidize high-quality day care for the children of parents who want uninterrupted careers.

Meanwhile, says Spock, a shift in attitudes about what is important in life is needed. “Parents should raise children not primarily to get ahead but to serve, cooperate and be kind to others.”

He says the most disturbing force in America is excessive competitiveness, sometimes accompanied with excessive materialism. “It keeps people obsessed with their jobs and with personal advancement. It encourages parents to downgrade the family. Instead we should raise our children to feel that family ties are the most rewarding values; that social, cultural and community activities can be deeply satisfying, and that the gratification from income and prestige in a majority of the jobs these days is shallow by comparison.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1990, The Register Guard,