Day Care Information: Effects On Infants Emotional Development

Infants' emotional development may be disrupted when the attachment process is undermined by the repeated extended separation involved in placing an infant in full-time daycare.

"Attachment" is the strong affectional bond that under normal conditions develops between an infant and his primary caretaker""usually his mother. The most critical period for the attachment process is the first few months of life, but attachment is not securely formed until about two years of age. A child's social, psychological, and emotional development is built upon the foundation of his earliest attachment. If the process of establishing that attachment is disrupted during its crucial stages, the child is at risk of becoming "detached," or emotionally ungrounded and incapable of building relationships based on trust. Even after age two, prolonged separation from the primary caretaker can have negative long-term effects on a child's emotional well-being and his ability to establish trust in personal relationships.

The attachment process can be disrupted in a number of ways. For example, if the primary caretaker is unresponsive, neglectful, or abusive, then a strong attachment may never form. Separation can also affect attachment, especially if prolonged, repeated separation from the primary caretaker occurs before attachment is securely formed.

A child who has not experienced strong attachment to a primary caretaker during his first two years of life""with the first year being of primary importance""is not likely to be able to establish and maintain stable intimate relationships, such as close friendships or even marriage. The earlier the disruption of the attachment process occurs, the more serious and long-lasting the damage will be.

Many studies have shown the high quality daycare does not damage a child's intellectual development (though it is evident that most daycare in the United States is substandard and therefore potentially damaging even in the area of intellectual development). But studies that have been done on children's emotional development are far from comforting. Children who attend full-time daycare, especially if they began in daycare before the age of two, are more aggressive, less socialized, and less mature emotionally than children who spend their early years with a primary caretaker with whom they have formed a strong attachment. Most experts strongly recommend against placing an infant under the age of one in full-time daycare at all. The recommendations are less sweepingly uniform in the case of infants between the ages of one and two, but even for that age group expert sentiment generally runs against full-time daycare.

The problem, of course, is that perfectly loving and well-meaning parents are driven by economic pressure to place infants as young as two weeks into full-time daycare. More commonly, of course, an infant starts daycare at the age of two or three months, when the mother's maternity leave from her job is used up.

What this means is that during a critical period in the attachment process, very young infants are being separated from their primary caretakers for the entire day, at least five days a week. During most of the child's waking hours, he will have no contact at all with the person or persons with whom he must develop a strong and stable emotional bond (usually, of course, his parents). This fact cannot help but interfere with the attachment process.

Disruption or disturbance of attachment can occur at any time during the first ten or eleven years of a child's life, but it takes more drastic and traumatic separation events to disrupt an otherwise stable attachment for an older child. Because attachment is not firmly established before age two, however, it takes less to disrupt it, and the consequences of such disruption are likely to be more severe and more long-lasting than in an older child.

Research has uncovered another, somewhat unexpected, effect of leaving infants under age two in daycare throughout most of the day""maternal detachment. In response to the emotional distress caused by separation, many new mothers unconsciously withdraw from engagement with their infants, which reinforces the disruption of attachment that occurs as a result of the prolonged daily separation while the mother works and the infant is left in the care of others. If the mother is fully aware of the dangers of non-attachment""and of the possibility that she herself might begin to feel detached from her child""she can aggressively seek to counteract such emotional distancing.

While it is unlikely that women will leave the labor force in large numbers, an awareness of the importance of the early years of life for the attachment process, and for the emotional development that depends on that process, might encourage businesses to offer more generous maternity leaves, as well as part-time schedules for new mothers as they re-enter the workforce. Mothers themselves can also benefit from such information. By actively working to maintain and develop the mother-child bond that full-time daycare for infants is likely to threaten, they can to some degree mitigate the consequences of returning too soon to full-time work, a course of action which is, after all, often not a matter of choice, but of economic necessity.

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